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Demonstrators toppled a statue of Canadian public education official Egerton Ryerson in Toronto on Sunday in growing anger over the deaths of more than 200 children at one of his schools.
The remains of the 215 children were found in a mass, unmarked grave earlier this year at one of the so-called “residential schools” for native children he was instrumental in founding.
"The 215 children represent stories that our survivors have had for many decades, talking about children that never came home, children that were murdered, children that died through premature causes within the schools and who never received adequate burial,” Brianna Olson-Pitawanakwat, a residential school survivor, told the CBC on Sunday.
The statue, housed at Ryerson University, will not be restored or replaced, and the school is reportedly considering changing its name.
Ryerson was a 19th century Canadian education official who advocated for segregated schools for native, Black, and disabled people, which he called a necessary step in the “race of civilization,” part of the broader Canadian colonial project.
Meanwhile, more accurately, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called the residential schools for Indigenous youth, which ran until 1996, a form of “cultural genocide,” where at least 150,000 children were taken out of their homes and attended schools where they couldn’t speak their native languages and forced to convert to Christianity.
Children at these schools faced abuse, malnutrition, labour, rape, infectious disease, and serious mental health challenges including suicide.
At least 4,100 children died at these schools, which were run by the Roman Catholic Church, though that’s likely an undercount.
The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation made the discovery of the remains at the former site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School public on 27 May, and community leaders, survivors, and activists have been pushing for a full apology from Catholic Church leadership, including the Pope, as well as the full release of records about the Canadian residential schools, neither of which has come.
Some regional Canadian church leaders have apologised, but the Pope stopped short of offering one himself, instead, broadcasting this message from his studio in St Peter’s Square on Saturday.
"May the political and religious authorities of Canada continue to collaborate with determination to shed light on that sad story and humbly commit themselves to a path of reconciliation and healing”, he said.
This was not sufficient for the many victims and their families, for whom residential schools were part of the broader genocide of native peoples across North America.
“We’re all pained and saddened. Who isn’t? This is a worldwide travesty,” Chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan, Bobby Cameron, told Reuters. “How hard is it for the pope to say: ‘I’m very sorry for the way our organization treated the First Nations people, the First Nations students during those times, we are sorry, we pray.’"
The Canadian government, for its part, apologised for the abuses in 2008 and has paid out billions in settlements, and prime minster Justin Trudeau has called for records about the schools to be released.