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The remains of 215 children, some as young as 3 years old, have been found buried on a site that was once Canada’s largest indigenous residential school, in what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described as a reminder of a “shameful chapter” in the country’s history.
More than 150,000 First Nations children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s, as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society.
The children were forced to convert to Christianity, not allowed to speak their native languages, and many were beaten and verbally abused. Up to 6,000 are thought to have died.
Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc First Nation said in a press release on Friday that the remains were confirmed last weekend with the help of ground-penetrating radar.
Ms Casimir added that more bodies could still be found as the search of the Kamloops Indian Residential School grounds in British Columbia continues.
In a statement on Twitter, Mr Trudeau said: “The news that remains were found at the former Kamloops residential school breaks my heart - it is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history.”
In 2008, the Canadian government formally apologised in parliament and admitted that physical and sexual abuse in the schools was rampant.
Indigenous leaders have cited the legacy of abuse and isolation from the schools as the root cause of epidemic rates of alcoholism and drug addiction in their communities.
A report by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 said at least 3,200 children had died after abuse and neglect, with reports of at least 51 deaths at the Kamloops school alone between 1915 and 1963.
Commenting on the discovery, British Columbia premier John Horgan said he was “horrified and heartbroken” by the news, calling it a tragedy of “unimaginable proportions” that highlighted the violence and consequences of the residential school system.
The Kamloops school operated between 1890 and 1969, when the federal government took over operations from the Catholic Church and operated it as a day school until it closed in 1978.
Ms Casimir said it was thought that the deaths were undocumented, but a local museum archivist is now working with the Royal British Columbia Museum to see if any records of the deaths can be found.
“Given the size of the school, with up to 500 students registered and attending at any one time, we understand that this confirmed loss affects First Nations communities across British Columbia and beyond,” she said in an earlier press release shared late on Thursday.
She added that officials were working to inform community members and surrounding communities that had children who attended the school.
Additional reporting by AP