Recently, the ground beneath Canadians’ feet yielded a glimpse of one of this country’s ugliest truths.
Earth-penetrating radar revealed the remains of 215 Indigenous children secretly buried on the site of a former Indian residential school in Kamloops, B.C., on the territory of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc.
No one was supposed to know. Not ever. The 215 were intentionally consigned to the worst kind of obscurity – namelessness in unregistered, unmarked graves.
That sinister scheme was thwarted by sophisticated imaging technology and the tortured determination of Indigenous families to learn what had happened to their long-missing children and grandchildren.
Of the 150,000 Native children forcibly taken from their families to the 130 Indian residential schools that operated across Canada between 1831 and 1996, many thousands are believed to have died. In 2016, the Indigenous-led Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) into residential schools reported that between 4,100 and 6,000 children succumbed to the hidden depredations of the schools.
But the precise number can’t be known. Conveniently, those who did the digging didn’t keep records.
But let’s not mince words. The children buried in unmarked graves didn’t just die. They were killed.
Killed by federal government policies of forced assimilation into Euro-Canadian culture – a scheme that sought to strip Native children of their language, culture and Indigenous dignity and spirit; policies designed to “kill the Indian in the child.”
Killed by traumatizing neglect, mental torment, brutal physical punishment and serial sexual abuse under the watch of churches contracted by the federal government to run the schools.
Killed by a dualistic Eurocentric mindset that arrogantly elevated humans above nature, resulting in the objectification and oppression of Indigenous people who understood and celebrated their relationship with nature as integral, sacred and holy.
The TRC heard heart-rending stories of the survivors and their families. In its final report it called the residential school policy cultural if not also physical “genocide.”
The federal government apologized for the horrors of the residential schools in 2008. Most churches that operated the schools have done the same.
The Catholic Church, however, which ran more than 60 per cent of the residential schools in Canada, including the one in Kamloops, has yet to do so. Faithful Catholics might be concerned about that.
But apologies are only a beginning. Taking full responsibility is also necessary if healing for both First Nations and non-Indigenous/settler people is to occur.
Both have been wounded by the sinister specter of the schools, Indigenous people most grievously as the direct victims, and non-Indigenous people by the dispiriting sense of guilt we’ve buried and lived with for so long.
Taking responsibility means making a serious effort to address the injustice of residential schools as well as the broader sweep of injustice that definesso much of Canada’s historical and contemporary relationship with First Nations people. Every Canadian has a role to play in that effort.
While mourning and praying is important, the best way to honour the lives of the 215 and others, as Indigenous leaders have said, is by taking steps to challenge the colonial structures and attitudes that linger today.
As compassionate and justice-minded people, we are called to take one or some of the following actions.
Learn in detail about the impacts of the Indian residential school system by reading the TRC’s “Final Report:” www.trc.ca.
Initiate conversations with your family and friends about Indian residential schools and their impacts.
Call out stereotypes, prejudice and systemic racism that demean Indigenous people when you encounter them. Look for and address those same attitudes and behaviours in yourself, too. If you’re like me, you grew up with and were influenced by them.
If you’re able to, financially support Indigenous organizations including Native Friendship Centres, which care for local Native communities and also serve to bring together Native and non-Native people. Visit www.nafc.ca to find the centre nearest you.
Write or call your MP and demand that the federal government fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) so Canada’s archaic Indian Act, and other oppressive legislative structures, can be replaced by a relationship with Indigenous people that truly respects their rights as sovereign peoples.
The TRC’s final report lists other actions Canadians can take in the service of building with Indigenous people in Canada that are right and just.
Canada Day will soon be upon us. This year let’s celebrate everything good this country has to offer by taking steps to build a relationship with Indigenous people that truly respects their rights as sovereign people.
Gary W. Kenny is retired from a career in international human rights and development and is a writer residing in rural Grey County.