The Indigenous children who died at Canada’s residential schools – podcast

In recent months, headlines about the discovery of bodies in unmarked graves on the sites of residential schools have horrified the public in Canada, and around the world – but they capture only part of a multigenerational injustice that has been described as a “cultural genocide”.

About 150,000 Indigenous children are believed to have attended the government-funded boarding schools, which were mostly run by the Catholic church. The schools existed for more than a century and were specifically designed to separate children from their families and their culture; the last closed in 1996. Thousands of survivors have described appalling physical and sexual abuse. Those who died are largely believed to have suffered malnutrition, disease or neglect. Their families were often not told that they had died.

While more than 1,100 bodies have been found so far, many more are expected, after years of work by Indigenous communities to force the searches to take place. Some estimates suggest 15,000 children may have died in the schools. Others say the true figure could be much higher.

Rachel Humphreys speaks to Barry Kennedy, a survivor of the Marieval school where 751 bodies were found, who tells her: “Those are my alumni, and I have to speak to ensure that this will never, ever happen again.” He describes his experiences at the school and how they shaped the rest of his life. And as he contemplates those memories in the context of the new discoveries, he describes the importance of holding on to cultural traditions that the Canadian state once sought to eradicate.

Humphreys also speaks to Leyland Cecco, who has reported on the story for the Guardian. He sets out the wider context of attempts to erase Indigenous identities – and continued criticism of the Canadian government for failing to follow through on its promises to right this historical wrong, the impact of which is still felt profoundly today.

  • If you are in the UK and have been affected by any of the issues raised in this episode, or are worried that a child you know may be at risk of abuse, you can contact the National Association for People Abused in Childhood at or on 0808 801 0331. The NSPCC also offers support for children at or on 0808 800 5000.
  • In Canada, Crisis Services Canada can be contacted at any time on 1.833.456.4566, or via text on 45645 from 4pm-12am ET.

Children at Cross Lake Indian residential school in in Manitoba, Canada, in 1940


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