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Canada's unmarked graves: How residential schools carried out "cultural genocide" against indigenous children

The dark legacy of Canada's residential schools
The dark legacy of Canada's residential schools, where thousands of children died | 60 Minutes 14:01

In May 2021, when archeologists detected what they believed to be 200 unmarked graves at an old school in Canada, it brought new attention to one of the most shameful chapters of that nation's history. Starting in the 1880's and for much of the 20th century, more than 150,000 children from hundreds of indigenous communities across Canada were forcibly taken from their parents by the government and sent to what were called residential schools. Funded by the state and run by churches, they were designed to assimilate and Christianize indigenous children by ripping them from their parents, their culture and their community. The children were often referred to as savages and forbidden from speaking their languages or practicing their traditions. As Anderson Cooper first reported last year, many were physically and sexually abused, and thousands of children never made it home.

The former Muskowekwan residential school in Saskatchewan  

The last of Canada's 139 residential schools for indigenous children closed in 1998. Most have been torn down, but the Muskowekwan residential school in Saskatchewan still stands. Its windows boarded up, Its rooms gutted. A reminder to a nation that would rather forget. A three-storey tombstone for generations of children who died here.

Leona Wolf: Sometimes, I wish it would be gone for all what happened here.

Anderson Cooper: You wish this had been torn down?

Leona Wolf: Yeah. I could hear everything in here, what was done. It lingers.

Leona Wolf, who comes from the Muskowekwan reserve, was five years old when she says she was taken from her home in 1960. School officials and police would often show up unannounced in indigenous communities and round up children, some as young as three. Parents could be jailed if they refused to hand their children over. When kids arrived at their schools, their traditional long hair was shaved off. If they tried to speak their language, they were often punished.

Leona Wolf: They put me in a little dark room like that. And they'd shut the door and then they'd take off the light. All I had to look through was this much light, like I was in jail.

  Leona Wolf

She says the abuse many kids at Muskowekwan suffered from the Catholic priests and nuns wasn't just physical.

Leona Wolf: Father Joyal was fondling the girls here.

Anderson Cooper: A priest, Father Joyal, was fondling girls in this room?

Leona Wolf: Yeah. This used to be sick bay. They used to have a bed here

Anderson Cooper: And he would take girls into the bed?

Leona Wolf: Yeah, my cousin.

Anderson Cooper: He took your cousin in here? How old was she?

Leona Wolf: She was only 8.

Leona Wolf: I grew up a very, very mean woman because of all what happened to me.

Anderson Cooper: You learned that here, you think?

Leona Wolf: Yeah

She is not the only one. More than 150,000 children were sent to residential schools, which Canada's first prime minister supported to, in his words, "sever children from the tribe" and "civilize" them. For much of the 20th century, the Canadian government supported that mission.

Wolf and correspondent Anderson Cooper

The idea for the schools came in part from the United States. In 1879 the Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened in Pennsylvania, where this photo was taken of Native American children when they first arrived. This is them four months later. The school's motto was "kill the Indian, save the man."

Chief Wilton Littlechild: Consequently, ours was, "kill the Indian in the child."

Anderson Cooper: "Kill the Indian in the child." 

Chief Wilton Littlechild: Mhhm.

Anderson Cooper: That was the guiding principle here in Canada.

Chief Wilton Littlechild: Yeah.

Chief Wilton Littlechild  

Chief Wilton Littlechild, who is Cree, was six years old when he was taken to this residential school in Alberta. Then, he says, he was given a new name. 

Chief Wilton Littlechild: My name was number 65 for all those years.

Anderson Cooper: Just a number.

Chief Wilton Littlechild: Just a number, yeah. "Sixty-five, pick that up stupid." Or, "65, why'd you do that, idiot?" 

Anderson Cooper: What does that feel like at six years old to be called a number?

Chief Wilton Littlechild: Well, I think that's where the trauma begins. Not just the physical abuse, psychological abuse, spiritual abuse. And worst of all, sexual abuse. 

Anderson Cooper: You were sexually abused.

Chief Wilton Littlechild: Yes. I think that's where my anger began as a young boy.

Chief Littlechild says he was able to take some of that anger out on the school's hockey rink. He won a scholarship to university and graduated, eventually going on to a distinguished career in law. But his story is the exception. 

Chief Wilton Littlechild: They didn't kill my spirit. So, I'm still Cree. I'm still who I am. I'm not 65. My name is Mahigan Pimoteyw. So, they didn't kill my spirit.

In 2008, after thousands of school survivors filed lawsuits, the Canadian government formally apologized for its policies. It also set up a $1.9 billion compensation fund and established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Chief Littlechild helped lead. For six years the commission heard testimony from survivors across the country.

Helen Quewezance: And she put me underwater, slapping me and hitting me, slapping me and hitting me, and punching me and punching me and holding me under water, pulling my hair, and I thought, "God she's going to kill me, I'm going to die first day of school."

Ted Quewezance: We as little boys and little girls, we lost our innocence.

In 2015 the Commission concluded what happened was "cultural genocide." It identified more than 3,000 children who died from disease due to overcrowding, malnutrition and poor sanitation, or died after being abused or trying to run away. A government study in 1909 found the death rate in some schools was as high as 20 times the national average. Most schools had their own cemeteries, and sometimes when children died, their parents were never informed.

Chief Wilton Littlechild: It's really traumatic for those families who don't know what happened to their child or relative in the schools.

Anderson Cooper: Why weren't kids who died at the schools, why weren't they sent home?

Chief Wilton Littlechild: To save money

Archeologists detected what they said could be 200 unmarked graves at this former school in Kamloops, British Columbia in May 2021. Weeks later, a further 751 unmarked graves were detected across from the former Marieval Residential School on the Cowessess reserve in Saskatchewan. There was once a Catholic cemetery here, but the headstones were bulldozed in the 1960s by a priest after a dispute with a former chief.

A small team of researchers has been trying to discover the names of those children buried here, but for decades the government and the church had been reluctant to share their records. Chief Cadmus Delorme is trying to get answers.

Anderson Cooper: Do you know that they're all children?

Chief Cadmus Delorme: We can't verify how much are children, but based on the research we're doing, a lot of them were children that were forced to go to the Marieval Residential School and died in the Marieval residential school.

Correspondent Anderson Cooper walks with Chief Cadmus Delorme at the former Marieval residential school

The discoveries of the graves opened deep wounds. More than a dozen churches have been vandalized or destroyed, and thousands have marched demanding the Pope apologize and the churches open archives to help identify any missing children. Indigenous communities across the country have begun conducting their own searches using ground-penetrating radar.

Kisha Supernant: We've laid out a number of grids throughout this landscape.

Archeologists Kisha Supernant and Terry Clark say 35 unmarked graves have been discovered at the Muskowekwan school.  

Terry Clark: There is something going on there that is not natural.

When we were there in October 2021, they found what appeared to be another. According to survivor accounts, children sometimes had to dig their classmates' graves. 

Anderson Cooper: The priests or the school officials would force the kids to dig other children's graves?

Kisha Supernant: Yep, yep. Can you imagine being, like, ten or 11 and digging a grave for your classmate, what that must have been like?

Kisha Supernant says the search for unmarked graves will continue for years. 

  Kisha Supernant

Kisha Supernant: This is very emotional work. It's very devastating work. It's heartbreaking for everyone who's involved.

Anderson Cooper: You feel that too?

Kisha Supernant: I do. Our communities still feel the impacts of these institutions in our everyday lives. We're way over-represented in child welfare and adoptions and foster care. We're way over-represented in the prisons. You can draw a direct line with that to these places and the pain of that, that has been passed on from generation to generation.

Ed Bitternose: I started school here in 1958.

Ed Bitternose, who is Cree, understands that pain. He was 8 years old when he was taken to the Muskowekwan school. His parents lived within sight of the school and when he tried to run away, he says the priests forced him to kneel on a broom handle for three days.

Ed Bitternose: That's where my house was. I would sit here and wonder why I couldn't be home.

Anderson Cooper: That must have been devastating.

Ed Bitternose: Yeah.

It wasn't only adults he feared. Some students, themselves victims of abuse, preyed on other children. 

Anderson Cooper: Were you abused here?

Ed Bitternose: Yeah. Mhhm. Actually, in this room here, by one of the, one of the, one of the boys.

Anderson Cooper: In this very room?

Ed Bitternose: This very area here.

Later, he says, he was also sexually molested by a nun. When he left school, he was rudderless and violent and turned to alcohol. When he got married, he says, he didn't know how to show affection.

 Anderson Cooper: You didn't know what love was?

Ed Bitternose: No. No. Because I never felt it here. I didn't start saying I loved her till we were married about 40 years, and then I was very careful how I said it.

Anderson Cooper: You didn't say to your wife for 40 years that you loved her?

Ed Bitternose: Mhhm. Yeah.

  Ed Bitternose

He says his life changed when he began re-discovering his Cree culture. Raising buffalo and sharing traditional knowledge with children brought healing, and finally, an understanding of the word love.

Anderson Cooper: You can say that now?

Ed Bitternose: I can say that now. And, and it feels good. And I still joke with my wife about that. "Don't say that too loud, you know."

Anderson Cooper: So, you can say it, you just don't want to say it too loud?

Ed Bitternose: Yes, uh-huh. Yeah.

Anderson Cooper: Okay. You know what, it's better than nothing.

Ed Bitternose: Yes, that's what she says.

As for Leona Wolf, her life and the lives of her children and grandchildren have been plagued by violence and substance abuse, intergenerational trauma, she says, that began the day her own mother was sent to school at Muskowekwan.

Anderson Cooper: Did you see the impact of this place on your mom?

Leona Wolf: Yeah. Yeah.

Anderson Cooper: How?

Leona Wolf: Yeah, by drinking a lot, being mean to me. And it impact us, me and my brother, and my siblings.

Anderson Cooper: What was done to her, she passed on to you. And what was done to you and others here…

Leona Wolf: Was passed on to my children. This is why sometimes I go into my rage of anger, and I cry, because it all, it was all done to us, all of us. But it's gonna stop now, you know? It is.

Anderson Cooper: You believe that?

Leona Wolf: I'm gonna, I'm breaking the cycle with my great-grandchildren.

Leona Wolf: Hail Mary, full of grace. 

Leona Wolf has returned to her traditions as well. Walking the halls of Muskowekwan, she began to sing Hail Mary, a prayer she was forced to learn here long ago. 

Now she sings it her own way.

Anderson Cooper: That's not how you sang it here when you were in school, though, was it?

Leona Wolf: Nope.

Anderson Cooper: You made peace with the Virgin Mary by singing that song?

Leona Wolf:  Yeah, and I made peace with myself.

Since our story first aired, Pope Francis travelled to Canada for what he called a "penitential pilgrimage." He apologized and begged for forgiveness for the "deplorable" abuses indigenous peoples suffered in residential schools.

Produced by Michael H. Gavshon and Nadim Roberts. Broadcast associate, Annabelle Hanflig. Edited by Stephanie Palewski Brumbach.

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