The remains of 215 children have been found buried at the site of a former residential school in Canada established more than a century ago to assimilate indigenous people into mainstream society, according to a local Aboriginal community.
An expert spotted the human remains last weekend using geo-radar at the site of the former residential school near Kamloops, British Columbia, the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc Aboriginal community said in a statement.
"Some were as young as three years old," Chief Rosanne Casimir said.
She said the deaths of the children, which are not known, and when they occurred, were never documented by the school's management, even though their disappearance had been reported in the past by members of the community.
The preliminary findings of the investigation are expected to be published in a report in June, Casimir said.
In the meantime, the community is working with the provincial medical examiner and museums to try to shed light on this horrific discovery and find any documentation related to the deaths.
"I am heartbroken," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacted on Twitter. "This is a sad reminder of this dark chapter in our history. My thoughts are with all those affected by this heartbreaking news."
Trudeau has made reconciliation with Canada's First Peoples one of his priorities since taking office in 2015.
The former residential school, run by the Catholic Church on behalf of the Canadian government, was one of 139 such institutions set up in the country in the late 19th century and which existed until the 1990s.
The Kamloops residential school opened in 1890 and had up to 500 students by the 1950s. It was closed in 1969.
Some 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forcibly conscripted into these schools, where they were cut off from their families, language and culture.
Many were subjected to ill-treatment or sexual abuse, and at least 3,200 died there, most of them of tuberculosis, according to the findings in 2015 of a national commission of inquiry.
The commission had heard testimony from several Native Americans who said that the misery, alcoholism, domestic violence and high suicide rates still plaguing many of their communities were largely a legacy of the residential school system.
In 1910, the headmaster of the Kamloops institution complained that the Canadian government did not provide enough funding to "adequately feed the students," according to the community's press release.
Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, said the latest discovery "is once again a reminder of the harms families and survivors suffered and are still suffering."
"We remain resolved to supporting families, survivors and communities and to memorialising those lost innocent souls," she added.
Ottawa formally apologised to the survivors of the schools in 2008 as part of a C$1.9 billion (€1.3 billion) settlement.
They were victims of a "cultural genocide", the national commission of inquiry concluded.