The report of 215 unmarked graves discovered by ground penetrating radar at the Kamloops residential school sent shockwaves across the world late last month.
Flags across the country were lowered to half-mast in honour of the children lost. The City of Fort Saskatchewan lowered its flags until June 8, for a total of 215 hours–one hour for each child.
If Canada lowered its flags one day for each child who died in a residential school, our flags would be lowered for 11 years. While vigils and other similar symbolic measures were taken by many communities, what is left is an urgent need for action.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued 94 Calls to Action. Of those, only 8 were implemented in 2020—just 2 per year.
The TRC’s Call to Action #72 is the National Residential School Student Death Register. How we bury our dead is a measure of our humanity; without the naming and proper burial of the dead, families cannot grieve.
The Federal government has long been fighting residential school survivors and their families in court. The government withheld key information during legal disputes against St. Anne’s Residential School – one of the most notorious in Canada, where hundreds reported assault, sexual abuse, and suspicious deaths. Late last week, Parliament adopted a motion demanding Prime Minister Trudeau halt the “belligerent and litigious approach to justice” for Indigenous survivors and families of victims. Ottawa currently spends $33 million per year on Indigenous litigation.
MP for Nunavut, Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, said: “A huge majority of MPs just told the Liberal government to stop their legal war … 267 MPs voted to speed up implementing all of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, especially the ones that are about searching the sites for graves and uncovering the truth about how many of our children didn’t come home.”
“Whether they will implement this motion or not depends on whether we keep speaking up. Immense pressure will be needed from Nunavummiut and Canadians to make sure they don’t ignore what happened today.”
While this motion is a step in the right direction, there are still many other actions the government– and more broadly, we as citizens, must take in support of our Indigenous brothers and sisters.
5,315 alleged abusers of residential schools were located by the Canadian government, but fewer than 50 people have ever been convicted of crimes committed in the schools.
The UCP draft curriculum minimized the Indigenous genocide in Canada and only focused on residential schools in the United States. Paul Bunner, Kenney’s speechwriter, dismissed residential schools as a “bogus genocide story.” A genocide is defined as “the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group.” The Truth and Reconciliation Report, released in 2015, called residential schools “a systematic, government-sponsored attempt to destroy Aboriginal cultures and languages and to assimilate Aboriginal peoples so that they no longer exist as distinct peoples.”
The state has a long-standing history of treating Indigenous peoples as subhuman, without basic human rights. Indigenous communities in Canada today live without access to clean water; 33 First Nations in Canada currently have drinking water advisories.
Indigenous communities have also been advocating for calls to action for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, as the alarming rates of disappearance and death remain widely unresolved.
As individuals, Indigenous peoples face racism, stereotyping, disproportionate harm and violence, and limited social and economic opportunities. As a collective, they have endured the destruction of their governmental and legal systems, the outlawing of aspects of their culture and society, and attacks on their family systems.
The child welfare system is widely considered to carry the torch of residential schools, separating children from their communities and placing them in inadequate housing.
The continuation of this problematic legacy is at the centre of the myriad of issues facing Indigenous peoples in Canada. Indigenous folks are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and face poverty, inadequate housing, diminished educational and economic outcomes, and high rates of suicide. Indigenous activists are overwhelmingly persecuted on their own land and their traditional means of living are threatened.
We must uphold Indigenous rights, including those outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and change government legislation, policy, and practices so that these rights can be properly implemented.
The tendency of many to refer to the impact of residential schools as a “dark chapter” of our history is to minimize the trauma on which our nation was built. The residential-school system outlasted every major Canadian war and crisis of the 19th and 20th centuries and was brought to an end in 1996—just 25 years ago. Residential schools were one of the earliest real national policies we had, and they were just one part of the larger Canadian project of eliminating Indigenous people.
To continue to deny the truth of our history is to perpetuate trauma and abuse on an entire people. We must act to ensure our future is one rooted in genuine reconciliation, communication, and basic human rights.
Support is available to anyone affected by their experience at residential schools.A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional-support and crisis-referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-441.