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  • Unmarked graves in Canada raise questions about Australia’s stolen children

Unmarked graves in Canada raise questions about Australia’s stolen children



Across the Pacific Ocean, in Canada or ‘Turtle Island’ as it is also known by many of its Indigenous inhabitants, a horror has been unfolding. It started at a the former residential school in Kamloops, British Colombia where, via the use of ground penetrating radar technology, the remains of at least 215 Native Canadian children were found buried in mass unmarked gravesites. This school ran for 85 years, was part of compulsory government programs to forcibly assimilate these children, and was administered by the Catholic Church.

Not long after this first discovery, the bodies of another 751 children were found using the same technology at the former Marieval Indian Residential School, this time in Saskatchewan. There was an outpouring of grief from all the families and communities whose children, over a century, had never made it home and who were never granted the dignity of recognition in death and a proper burial. These children were simply disposed of like rubbish.

Yet as well as grief, there was also anger and calls for action. If nearly 1000 Indigenous children could be found disposed of in the grounds of just two of these residential schools, just how many other children would be found in the grounds of the other 130 or so residential schools that operated across the country for such a long time? How did these children die?

Institutional abuse within these schools which were run by a variety of Christian denominations has, to an extent, been acknowledged politically, with President Trudeau making an official apology to the survivors of these systems in 2017. However, mass gravesites suggest that regardless of any apologies, the full extent of the horrors endured by First Nations children at the hands of the state are still being uncovered. Given the sheer number of the schools and the length of the forcible removals, it will be a while before all is known and proper reparations are made.

Sound familiar? That’s because unfortunately for Indigenous populations, acts of genocide like this (and Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous First Nations is calling it genocide) by colonial powers tend to be replicated globally. In Australia, we’re still reckoning with our own past policies which forcibly removed, at its height, about a third of Aboriginal children from their families and communities to assimilate them. The idea being that their ‘full blood’ family members were dying out so for those who had a non-Indigenous parent, ensuring that their whiteness was developed so people could then be positive inclusions in mainstream Australian society was key.

Recently, acknowledgement here has taken the form of a promise of compensation by the federal government for the victims of these policies in the ACT, NT and Jervis Bay Territory. Approximately 3600 survivors in these three regions may be eligible for compensation payments of $75000. This move has been hailed as a welcome and overdue measure, whilst Indigenous community members also note that many Stolen Generations kids have long passed away and the scheme does not allow for descendants to claim despite its alleged commitment to healing intergenerational trauma.


'It’s not unreasonable to suggest that if similar imaging was to be undertaken here in Australia as to what has been used in the residential schools in Canada, there is a possibility similar horrors would be uncovered.' 


My own grandmother was a victim of these practices. She spoke about her experiences of being taken away to Aboriginal children’s missions and then educated in domestic skills so she could be an (unpaid) servant in the 1994 exhibition Between Two Worlds. Many times, as I have listened to the audio recording of my nanna’s experiences at those children’s missions, I’ve wondered if there is even more to her story, and therefore the stories of other Aboriginal children who ended up in these missions and homes across this country.

It’s not unreasonable to suggest that if similar imaging was to be undertaken here in Australia as to what has been used in the residential schools in Canada, there is a possibility similar horrors would be uncovered. Australia has form when it comes to the hiding of the bodies of Aboriginal people who have died in institutions.

One prominent example is at the former prison island Wadjemup (Rottnest Island) in WA. Ground Penetrating Radar has been used to map the location of the remains of the up to 370 Aboriginal men who perished in the prison there after bones were found in the 1970s, and again in the 1990s, under the old camping ground. The camping ground itself stayed open until 2007 despite traditional owner calls over decades for proper acknowledgement of the area and for the resting place of these men to be respected.

Another example is the ‘lock hospitals’ many Aboriginal men, women and children were taken to. Dorre and Bernier Islands, again in WA, provide some recently discussed examples. Aboriginal people were rounded up by police who diagnosed them as having suspected ‘venereal diseases’, sent to these islands then medically experimented on. Many never returned and the location of their graves are unknown.

Given this history, it’s really not too much of a stretch to believe that like in Canada, the old institutions so many Stolen Aboriginal children were taken to could also be home to unacknowledged remains. We know from the stories of these institutions, along with the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, that many of these places were uncaring and brutal. We also know that not all stolen children made their way home. So where have they gone? Is there capacity, via a commitment to truth-telling and acknowledgement, to investigate these potential horrors more fully?

The official Apology may have happened in 2008 but as a descendant of a Stolen Generations woman, I believe the full story here is yet to be told. As horrific as the unfolding situation in Canada has been, I hope that it leads to acknowledgement and healing for First Nations communities there. And I hope that Australia will also eventually be brave enough to face likely similar atrocities here.




Celeste LiddleCeleste Liddle is a trade unionist, a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. She is the current Greens candidate for the seat of Cooper in the upcoming Federal elections.

Main image: Kamloops Indian Residential School Complex Buildings and Memorial AreaPrison cell image (Propics Canada Media/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Celeste Liddle, First Nations, residential schools, unmarked graves, Aboriginal, racism, Stolen Generation



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Existing comments

There are similar stories coming out about an orphanage in Ireland run by nuns. It was an orphanage which took in the children of 'unmarried mothers'. Both mothers and offspring were scorned in Catholic Ireland in the 1950s. Like Aboriginal Canadians and ATSI people in Australia at the time, they were considered the lowest of the low. The mothers were forced to surrender their babies, being considered 'unfit' to raise them and then often involuntarily confined to those ghastly Magdalen laundries for the rest of their lives. We had Magdalen laundries in Australia too, the last closed in Brisbane in the 1960s. Many of the residential schools in Canada existed under the aegis of the Anglican Church in that country. I had a friend who went to one. She was very lucky, hers was not a horror one. She is now an Elder in her tribe and a custodian of traditional law. She is bloody but unbowed. Her marriages and relationships have all failed but she is an academic and author. By now she must have finished her PhD on the spiritual cosmology of a Javanese sage. The Anglican Church has apologised, but, as the saying goes 'regrets come too late' and are seen by some as hypocritical in the extreme.

Edward Fido | 12 August 2021  

On Rottnest Island there were about some 4000 young aboriginal men incarcerated from 1838 to 1904. During this period some 370 died and were buried in unmarked graves. Many died from sheer neglect. Many at the end were coming from the hot northern climate to the cold southern climate and were not given warm blankets. It is the highest death rate in custody in Australia.

Richard Smith | 12 August 2021  

As a dual Australian/Canadian citizen, I have a particular interest in the matters you raise, Celeste.
I wonder if there is going to be a national Canadian Commission of Inquiry into the buried children. The questions I would want answered include:
• How many children’ graves have been found at all institutions across Canada?
• How does the number of deaths at each site compare to the number that occurred in a cross-section of other Canadian children across the same age ranges and same decades?
• Were the cemeteries registered with civil authorities?
• Were the cemeteries managed in accordance with the protocols which I suspect are mandated for public cemeteries? (e.g. plot locations, size, spacing, depth, record keeping, etc)? [By comparison, over recent years I have been able to easily locate some of my ancestors’ graves at both the Melbourne General Cemetery and at two little Victorian country cemeteries, despite the plots being unmarked and the burials occurring up to 150 years ago. In each case the records were precise.]
• Were the burials conducted with the dignity and decorum which one expects in a civilised Christian society?
• Were the parents / tribal elders notified of the deaths and burials?
• Were all the deaths reported to civil authorities for the preparation of death certificates, listing all details of the death, e.g. full name, date, parentage, cause of death, length of illness, most recent medical consultation, etc? Such details have been standard on Australian death certificates since way back into the 19th century, and I imagine that they are in Canada also.
• Did the institutions keep their own records of each and every one of these deaths, and if not, why not?

The Catholic Church should be keen to assist rather than obstruct such an Inquiry, but the defensive responses to date of some Provincial bishops does not make me very hopeful.

Thanks for your article, Celeste.

Richard Olive | 12 August 2021  

It is far more likely that many of these children, if not the vast majority, living in large enclosed communities died from communicable diseases such as diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, measles, chicken pox, scarlet fever and rheumatic fever rather than as a result of "atrocities" perpetrated by non-indigenous administrators, religious institutions etc who believed, erroneously perhaps, yet genuinely, that they were acting in the children's best interests. There is no denying that vast numbers of indigenous peoples in North America and Australia died from disease such as the above mentioned, imported by colonists who were relatively protected by herd immunity in their own European countries after centuries of massive death tolls from such disease. It should be acknowledged that in an era when there were no antibiotics and no vaccines against these killer diseases, thousands of children died, including non indigenous children. When I was a child almost every family we knew had a deceased child and we were terrified of communicable disease. In 1943, I had the first shot of penicillin our GP had ever given when I was allegedly dying from pneumonia and survived. My first playmate, Carmel, died from meningitis when she started school. At age 4 or 5, I was given triple antigen against whooping cough, diphtheria and tetanus and well remember the women my mother spoke after school saying that it was dangerous and they weren't going to let their kids have it. It has to be recognised that this catastrophic scene was not contrived by the colonists with a view to diminishing the indigenous populations - they were largely unable to do anything about it for their own or the indigenous populations (as attested to by the many similar discoveries in the grounds of institutions in Europe over recent times).

john frawley | 13 August 2021  
Show Responses

John, the atrocity I refer to is them being forcibly removed in the first place under genocidal programs. Thanks.

Celeste Liddle | 13 August 2021  

Celeste whilst I dont disagree with your conclusions, Canada has done its forensic homework, whereas Australia to date has not.
Historians estimate there were about two million Aborigines at the time of white settlement in 1788.
Worse still were the massacres.
I wonder if the police would snatch 600 children from Xavier and Genezano and hand them over to the care of the Aboriginal elders never to be heard from again?
I guess in a police state like Victoria, anything is possible.

Francis Armstrong | 16 August 2021  

Celeste. Thank you for your comment on my post above. I would like you to know that I fully understand and support your stance and effort to achieve justice for your people. Like you, I come from a family deprived of its lands taken by expansionist English colonists by force of arms. My great grandfather was imprisoned with his two eldest sons for refusing to pay a biblical tithe to the English "Christian" parson who, backed by the occupying constabulary, took over their scared places of worship. He died while an inmate from tuberculosis. My grandfather, unarmed, had his thumb shot off during the foray when they were arrested for such a heinous crime! Their lands and stock were seized and given to an English Lord resident in Liverpool. My grandmother came to Australia to a new life - she had no alternative. Why do I tell you this?? Simply because I do not live in the world that treated my immediate ancestors so appallingly and while I see the great injustice there is nothing that can change or undo the past. It can only be left behind where it belongs and we, you and I, can only strive for a better place in today's world. That doesn't mean we should forget - it means we should embrace the new world and eliminate the aggro of the past . Otherwise our people for whom we want better things will not progress.

john frawley | 16 August 2021  
Show Responses

Celeste: ‘the atrocity I refer to is them being forcibly removed in the first place under genocidal programs.’ John Frawley: ‘there is nothing that can change or undo the past….we should embrace the new world and eliminate the aggro of the past.’ The past is still with us: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/03/john-chau-christian-missionary-death-sentinelese. The Great Commission means that no corner of humanity can be declared off-limits to acculturation, inculturation and some necessary deculturation by infusion of an ancient Semitic belief system in both its unfulfilled and fulfilled forms. How the infusion should occur is a prudential matter but that it should occur is a moral absolute.

roy chen yee | 24 August 2021  

Phantom Island was a leprosy colony in Northern Queensland cape and it was there, institutions/orphanages sent their recalcitrant children that they considered Out Of Control. On this island, an inmate disclosed in the Courier Mail back in the 80s/early 90s (I still have this article) which was front-page news, disclosing how they were medically experimented on and how it affected and killed some of these boys who he said were buried there near a football field. This should have been investigated by this Government but nothing became of this disclosure. Maybe some interested person should follow this up for the truth of this claim by that indigenous old man at the time.

Mary Adams | 18 August 2021  

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