Canada must come clean about its part in indigenous assimilation to be regarded as a safe space
Updated: Aug 12
More than one thousand unmarked graves, discovered on the land of former residential schools, have caused a national outcry
by: Theodore Williamson
On the 27th of May 2021, the unmarked remains of 215 children were found at Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. Over two hundred families and tribes mourned as unearthed children could finally be taken back to their homes – if not physically, in any case, through the culture and traditions of their people. Since then, thousands of indigenous children have been discovered at residential schools across the country, many of whom went unrecorded by school staff at the time. The Roman Catholic Church and the Canadian Government deemed their practices so abhorrent as to shatter family and tribal ties and raise children under Christian values.
Upon the detection of the bodies, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote on Twitter:
“It is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history.”
Nonetheless, there is an ongoing argument that Canada is not trying to acknowledge its past and is presenting itself as a global peacekeeper. At the same time, it ignores the growing distress on its own shores.
Although the Government formally apologised for the residential school system in 2008, it was responsible for removing more than 150,000 indigenous children from their homes. Children placed in the care of the respective schools were physically, mentally, and sexually abused, resulting in the cultural genocide of indigenous people and their communities nationwide. However, the Roman Catholic Church, who also oversaw the schools, have never offered an apology nor reprimands to date.
Photo courtesy of Hermes Rivera via Unsplash
Following the rapid and unprecedented volume of discovered bodies, the pressure is mounting on Canadian leadership to carry out operations on the trail of the country’s unmarked school graves on former residential school lands. As reported by the Guardian, Mr Trudeau has stated multiple times – in speeches and via official social media accounts – his commitment to acknowledge the schools’ impact on indigenous communities. Still, he has made no specific pledge of support in searching the institutions’ grounds.
Closer to home, in 2018, the Scottish Government removed Sir John A McDonald, who was born in Glasgow, from its records. He was Canada’s first Prime Minister and implemented the residential school system in the late 19th Century. Even though McDonald has been an influence over the strong bond between Canada and the United Kingdom, the Scottish Government asserted in a statement, “while we want to celebrate the very positive contributions Scottish people have made across the world, we also want to present a balanced assessment of their role and are reviewing the wording of these articles in that light.”
However, both governments fall short to help affected communities heal.
Apart from official and social media statements, neither country went far enough to help them actively. Instead, there is the hope that statements and Tweets will be enough to make the community forget until the next tragedy is uncovered. This is a vicious cycle, and the next disaster is inevitable until the process is broken. If we cannot hold our governing institutions accountable, then who will help us?
Marc Miller – the Canadian Minister of Indigenous Services in the Federal Cabinet – echoed a message of support on Twitter after the discoveries in British Colombia. “Amidst these devastating findings, Canada will continue to support survivors, families and indigenous communities in their search for the truth, justice and closure.” – he said. No matter the sincerity of Miller’s words, until there is tangible support and aid offered to the communities, who are left digging through the grounds that have left such deep scars on their culture to find their kin who were forcibly removed and were not considered worthy enough for a headstone, no healing can begin.
The leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP), Jagmeet Singh, has called on Trudeau to offer more than symbolic gestures and instead focus on action. On Twitter, he has said that “the unmarked graves of 751 more Indigenous bodies have been uncovered. This is Genocide. And, it is not good enough for this Liberal govt to only offer condolences. There remains an unbroken legacy of injustice, as long as Justin Trudeau fights Indigenous kids in court.” The words of Singh are nothing new. For decades, the indigenous people in Canada have been fighting for the long-overdue recognition of their suffering and the proper help for their communities to heal and move forward.
Nevertheless, the requests for financial aid from the government have been ignored. The desire for the mandatory teachings of Canada’s history, albeit present in the school curriculum, does not go far enough for some. Today, many people see Justin Trudeau internationally as one of the most respected and likeable politicians. He is admired globally for being a strong leader. Canada is recognised as a global peacekeeper while his people scream out for aid into deaf ears and empty statements. The question remains, can Canada truly begin to heal and meaningfully claim it is a global peacekeeper until it provides those most brutally scarred by the country’s history the safety it seems to offer the rest of the world?
Special thanks to Dani Kent and Katherine Gatley for their knowledge of indigenous history and culture.