Like so many Canadians, I sincerely share the sadness of Aboriginal communities over the discovery of residential school cemeteries. The future of a people certainly passes through the memory and respect of its dead, a fortiori of its children who died far from their native lands.

During the commission on reconciliation with indigenous peoples, former students of these residential schools gave moving testimonies about life in these places and the suffering caused by the distance from their families. That said, despite the weekly discoveries in these cemeteries that some qualify as anonymous, several questions still remain unanswered and it is necessary to ask them if we want to get the truth about what really happened.

By associating with churches, the government does not free itself from all its responsibilities: it was the legal guardian of these children

The first question that needs to be asked relates to the true nature of residential school cemeteries: are they secret cemeteries that we wanted to erase from collective memory or are they forgotten or forgotten cemeteries? abandoned? The existence of these cemeteries was apparently known, which allows us to rule out the first option. As for the forgetting of cemeteries, although this is regrettable, it seems important to remember that it is unfortunately not an exception. The Eastern Townships, for example, have several cemeteries that belonged to various Christian communities and which are today abandoned, or even destroyed in some cases, without any particular attention being given to the graves. If the first option could be interpreted as the testimony of a guilty will of the religious communities responsible for these boarding schools, the second, for its part, more broadly accuses our collective infidelity in relation to the memory of those who preceded us and which were under our responsibility.

Pending responses

This question leads us to another concerning burials and funeral rites. Were these children buried with or without funeral rites? Then, were these graves anonymous? Since the beginning of the Canadian colony, there have been clear normative provisions on the part of government authorities regarding burials: regardless of religious denomination, everyone had the right to a proper burial. Of course, some will say that First Nations people did not receive the same recognition. This is undoubtedly partly true, but the question needs to receive documented answers. Have we respected the laws of the time on burials? If not why ? On the side of the Catholic authorities, there were also normative provisions in canon law concerning burials. If these children were baptized, and therefore Catholic, they must necessarily be buried with a religious ritual. However, this ritual is by nature nominal, because it symbolizes the entry into the community of Christians who died and rose again with Christ. In other words, it is legitimate to assume that the religious communities responsible for the schools had one or two legal constraints obliging them to offer a real burial to the deceased children. It is to be hoped that the archives of religious communities have kept traces of these funeral rituals. For example, do they contain a register of deaths, because this was a requirement that the state imposed on churches responsible for cemeteries already in the 19th century?e century? Have masses been celebrated for these deceased children and have a register of these liturgies been kept?

Did these children die while their loved ones remained in complete ignorance of the death? This is an extremely delicate question. It is not conceivable that a parent can be kept in the dark about the death of their child. However, we must consider that this may be possible. Several experts have noted in recent days how communications at the time could be rudimentary, and even more with remote communities and often speaking another language. Nevertheless, we can assume that the Oblates, who had several missions in the Canadian North, were able to receive specific information from the boarding schools under their responsibility. Do the Oblate archives or those of other religious communities allow us to provide answers? It is difficult to imagine that this subject was absent from the correspondence of the missionaries.

Whose fault is it ?

A final question and not the least is that of the responsibility of our governments with regard to these residential schools. I watch with amazement how our federal government has the easy excuse and how quick it is to point the finger at another official, whom it even suspects of a criminal act, namely the Catholic Church. What about the moral contract between the Canadian government and these residential schools? Between the XVIIe century and the first half of the XXe century, it was quite common for our governments to resort to the assistance of churches, catholic and others, to guarantee educational and social services, such as boarding schools or orphanages. One could qualify this partnership as contractual, in the sense that the Churches were solicited by the governments and received various forms of public subsidies for these functions. It should be remembered that the Indian Residential Schools Act is federal and it was the federal government that supported the creation of these schools. By associating with churches, the government does not free itself from all its responsibilities: it was the legal guardian of these children. It is legitimate to wonder about the way in which the governmental authority ensured the well-being of the boarders whom they entrusted to the religious communities. I would add that the government certainly had the ultimate duty to inform itself about dead children and the conditions of their graves. Has the Canadian government been informed? Has the Canadian government tried to find out about the living and health conditions of these residents? Was he only concerned about whether the assimilation process was successful or not?

However, before any formal accusations can be made, several questions must be answered. I am not trying to accuse or exonerate anyone, but the duty to remember requires factual objectivity and a full search for the truth.

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