The remains of 215 children, including some as young as three, have been found in a mass grave on the grounds of a former residential school that was once part of a nationwide effort in Canada to separate Indigenous children from their families in an attempt to assimilate them.
The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the discovery in a news release on Thursday, saying the remains were found after working with a "ground penetrating radar specialist" to confirm the mass grave at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Chief Rosanne Casimir called it an "unthinkable loss," and said that while the deaths had been long spoken about, the residential school never documented them.
"We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths," Casimir said. "We sought out a way to confirm that knowing out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families, understanding that Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc is the final resting place of these children."
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the discovery was heartbreaking, calling it "a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country's history."
The residential school system in Canada served as mandatory boarding schools for indigenous youth and were run by churches and the federal government for more than 150 years during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Conditions at the schools were poor. Children were often not allowed to speak their own language and received harsh punishment if they did. Many suffered physical and sexual abuse, with staff not being held accountable.
In 2015, a National Center for Truth and Reconciliation report estimated that more than 150,000 children attended these schools and more than 6,000 died, never returning home.
What happened at the schools amounted to "cultural genocide" according to the report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The report said the residential schools were "a systematic, government- sponsored attempt to destroy Aboriginal cultures and languages and to assimilate Aboriginal peoples so that they no longer existed as distinct peoples."
In 2008, the Canadian government formally apologized to the First Nations and the Indigenous communities for the schools and the treatment of children.
The school system began to shut down in the 1970s, and the Kamloops Indian Residential School closed in 1978. But the effects are still being felt in the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc community today, Casimir said.
Thursday's announcement is only the first of the preliminary findings. The radar survey of the rest of the school grounds is set to continue and "will hopefully bring some peace and closure to those lives lost and their home communities," according to the statement from the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.
When and how the children died is still to be determined, but the rest of the preliminary findings from the grounds survey are expected to be released in mid-June.