Canada: Time To Take Off The Blinders and Face Our History

In late May, after the remains of 215 children were found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, I wrote in a Facebook post that nothing could truly compensate for these lost lives, but acknowledgement would be a good place to start. I continued: “Memorials and a national day of mourning would ensure people stay aware of and angry about residential schools. They might even motivate people to demand that government fulfill its promises to Indigenous communities who are still dealing with the devastating legacy of these schools and other government policies that sought to erase their culture.”

What I neglected to acknowledge was how quickly and easily I had looked away. I had learned a little about residential schools in a university anthropology course. I had read headlines about the findings of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But I hadn’t bothered to dig deeper. It was too hard, I thought. It would turn up details I would rather not know. 

A longtime Tragically Hip fan, I watched as frontman Gord Downie worked tirelessly in the final years of his life to draw attention to residential schools. Through music, film, and writing, he told the story of Chanie Wenjack, a boy who escaped a residential school and died while trying to find his way home. I applauded Downie but didn’t actually watch the film or read the book The Secret Path. Too painful, I thought. 

What unbelievable, appalling privilege it is to look away. Indigenous peoples have had to face the ugly reality of residential schools their whole lives. Looking away has never been an option. Nor should it have been for me or anyone else in this country. And this is where current generations of non-Indigenous people have to acknowledge their own failings.

Past generations of “settlers” and government leaders were products of their times. They were taught to be racist, educated to believe that Indigenous peoples were inferior “savages” in need of civilization. (How cruelly ironic that their mode of civilizing was so violent and the exact opposite of “civil.”) This does not excuse their actions, but it provides some explanation for their brutality.

But what about subsequent generations? The ones currently claiming we had no idea because we weren’t taught this history? Our excuses fall short. The story of residential schools may not have been part of standard school curricula, but it was hardly unknown. 

Residential school survivors began their fight for compensation in the 1980s. Following the Oka crisis in 1990–which drew international headlines–the federal government established a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Hearings were held across Canada and widely publicized. The1996 final report said, regarding government policies of assimilation:

“Residential schools did the greatest damage. Children as young as 6 years old were removed from their families for 10 months of the year or longer. They were forbidden to speak the only languages they knew and taught to reject their homes, their heritage and, by extension, themselves. Most were subjected to physical deprivation, and some experienced abuse. We heard from a few people who are grateful for what they learned at these schools, but we heard from more who described deep scars – not least in their inability to give and receive love.”

Ten years later, in 2006, the federal government approved the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, which began the process of financial compensation and included a requirement to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The TRC began its work in 2008 and issued its final report in 2015. A CBC article on that report talked about the physical and sexual abuse of children in residential schools and noted that “the commission found records showing that 3,200 indigenous children died from tuberculosis, malnutrition and other diseases resulting from poor living conditions…” It also stated that the Commission’s chair, Justice Murray Sinclair, believed the number of deaths was likely wrong, given poor record keeping. He was, in fact, “convinced the number is much higher, perhaps as much as five to 10 times as high as that.” 

I remember those reports and the accompanying news stories, as I said earlier. Yet I looked away, as did far too many of us. Some spoke out strongly, but many of us expressed sadness or grief, then turned the channel. 

There was no critical mass of anger about the suffering of Indigenous peoples. There were occasional waves of outrage, but no sustained force that would push governments to act with urgency in addressing the terrible legacy of residential schools and the ongoing struggles of Indigenous communities. 

The absence from schools of honest lessons about Canada’s past is an historic wrong that is being redressed, but the facts about residential schools were reported in mainstream media and widely accessible. So too were stories about the realities facing Indigenous peoples–substandard living conditions, addiction, high incarceration rates, high rates of violence–all of which originated in the trauma of residential schools and other government policies of assimilation. Some of these stories gained international attention; the tragedies of addiction and suicide in Davis Inlet and missing or murdered Indigenous women are just two examples. It was all there, clearly visible to those who were paying attention, but not enough of us were.   

The discoveries in Kamloops and, more recently, the Marieval Residential School in Saskatchewan, have forced us to take off the blinders and look at our country’s dark history head on. There can be no more excuses. We all need to all step up and do whatever we can to support Indigenous peoples, educate ourselves about the realities they face, and ensure the work of healing continues or even quickens. There is so much to learn and do that it can seem an overwhelming task. Here are a  few places to start:

  • Learn about the findings of the TRC, including their findings and reports on the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website. 
  • Ask more of governments. Write your MPP and MP to tell them you want to see the recommendations of the TRC expedited, including the uncovering of mass graves at residential schools. A list of MPs can be found here. Ontario MPPs are listed here. Similar lists exist for all provinces; use Google to find yours. 
  • Write the Prime Minister and the Minister of Indigenous Services and ask for a detailed outline of what’s been done to fulfill the TRC recommendations and what’s to come. Let them know you’re holding them to account. 
  • If you are able, donate to organizations helping residential school survivors. Through a friend, I heard about the Indian Residential School Survivors Society and made a donation. CTV News has listed others here. And don’t just donate; read about the organizations, the work they do, and the impact they have and amplify their work so others can also learn about them. 
  • Follow Indigenous voices on social media to hear and share their perspective. I have found the Twitter account of Dr. Cindy Blackstock very informative, and media outlets too, like APTN News, CBC Indigenous, or CBC Unreserved. I’ve also started following the Native Women’s Association of Canada. These accounts will lead you to others. If you have other ideas, please share them in the comments.

“The message for all Canadians is it’s important for us to understand that it’s now time for us to live up to the reputation that we think we had, that we thought we had — and we don’t have.” Justice Murray Sinclair

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