A Canadian Indigenous group says 182 sets of human remains have been found in unmarked graves at a site near a former residential school that housed children taken from their families.
The latest discovery of graves near Cranbrook, British Columbia, follows reports of similar findings at two other church-run schools, one of more than 600 unmarked graves and another of 215 bodies.
The Lower Kootenay Band said it began using ground-penetrating radar last year to search the site close to the former St Eugene’s Mission School, which was operated by the Roman Catholic Church from 1912 until the early 1970s. It said the search found the remains in unmarked graves, some about 3ft deep.
It is believed the remains are those of people from the bands of the Ktunaxa nation, which includes the Lower Kootenay Band, and other neighbouring First Nation communities.
Chief Jason Louie of the Lower Kootenay Band, which is also a member of the Ktunaxa Nation, called the discovery “deeply personal” since he had relatives who attended the school.
“Let’s call this for what it is,” he told CBC radio in an interview. “It’s a mass murder of Indigenous people.”
“The Nazis were held accountable for their war crimes. I see no difference in locating the priests and nuns and the brothers who are responsible for this mass murder to be held accountable for their part in this attempt of genocide of an Indigenous people.”
From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend state-funded Christian boarding schools in an effort to assimilate them into Canadian society. Thousands of children died of disease and other causes, with many never returned to their families.
Nearly three-quarters of the 130 residential schools were run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations, with others operated by the Presbyterian, Anglican and the United Church of Canada, which today is the largest Protestant denomination in the country.
Chief Perry Bellegarde from the Assembly of First Nations National says the findings are a "validation" of what survivors have long been claiming
The Canadian government has acknowledged that physical and sexual abuse was rampant in the schools, with students beaten for speaking their native languages.
Last week, the Cowessess First Nation, about 85 miles east of the Saskatchewan capital of Regina, said investigators found at least 600 unmarked graves at the site of a former Marieval Indian Residential School.
Last month, the remains of 215 children, some as young as three, were found buried on the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school near Kamloops, British Columbia.
Before the most recent finding, prime minister Justin Trudeau said he had asked that the national flag on the Peace Tower remain at half-mast for Canada Day on Thursday to honour the Indigenous children who died in residential schools.
On Tuesday, it was announced that a group of Indigenous leaders will visit the Vatican later this year to press for a papal apology for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in residential schools.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said Indigenous leaders will visit the Vatican between December 17 and 20 to meet Pope Francis and “foster meaningful encounters of dialogue and healing”.
After the graves were found in Kamloops, the Pope expressed his pain over the discovery and pressed religious and political authorities to shed light on “this sad affair”, but he did not offer the apology sought by First Nations and the Canadian government.
Mr Louie said he wants more concrete action than apologies.
“I’m really done with the government and churches saying they are sorry,” he said. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
The Canadian government formally apologised for the policy and abuses in 2008, and the Presbyterian, Anglican and United churches have apologised for their roles in the abuse.
A papal apology was one of 94 recommendations from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but the Canadian bishops conference said in 2018 that the Pope could not personally apologise for the residential schools.