by BEN FIRTH
The debate around Canada’s dark history regarding its treatment of its Indigenous Peoples has been reignited after the discovery of the unmarked graves of as many as 215 Indigenous children behind the site of a former residential school in the city of Kamloops. The country has long been trying to get to grips with the cultural genocide that dominates its history, and which continues to cast a shadow over Canadian society today.
To provide some historical context, the residential schools were “geared towards the final solution of [the] Indian Problem”, which in practice entailed forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families and attempting to assimilate them in the schools. The system was set up by the government in the 1880s and administered in partnership with the Church, with the last residential school not closing until as recently as 1996. Stories of needles being pressed into the tongues of students for speaking their Indigenous languages and of students being shackled to their beds are surely just scraping the surface of the plethora of atrocities committed in schools where “physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse” were commonplace. The crimes committed at the schools are well known in the public domain as survivors have spoken out; and survivors is certainly the correct term given that the government medical inspector in 1907 reported that anywhere from 47% to 75% of students discharged from the schools died shortly after returning home. Officially, 3,213 died, but the number is thought to be much higher.
This is not the first time that Canada has been forced into a bout of self-reflection. In 2008 the then Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, apologised for the school system, followed by an apology from the Roman Catholic Church in 2009. The issue resurfaced in 2015 when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) published a report, completed after 5 years of interviews, which made 94 calls to action to help correct the past and its ongoing consequences which see Indigenous people consistently suffering from lower health, education, and economic outcomes.
However, this in itself is the biggest problem facing Canada and its battle to confront its past. Flashes of temporary public shock and outrage after particularly horrifying revelations or events have failed to produce the necessary change which could be brought about by sustained public outcry. Whilst the majority seem willing to join the initial demands for justice, all too many are happy to return to ignoring the ‘other side’ of Canada, where Indigenous Peoples have to live in a society which, despite formal recognition of the systemic oppression, continually fails to take tangible steps towards repairing the damage of this system. Of course, these events are never shocking for the minority for whom this is their reality, yet for everyone else it is simply a brief glimpse into this ‘other reality' before returning to their passive lives.
This constant return to the status quo can be seen in countless examples around the world. Comparisons can be drawn with the murder of George Floyd south of the border, and whilst its repercussions were on a more global scale, the initial uproar has similarly simmered down for the most part, returning to the norm that entails the masses passively watching on.
The discovery of these unmarked graves is still very recent, and it remains to be seen what change, if any, may emerge as a result, but history doesn’t provide much reason for optimism. Canada’s unwillingness to create any sustained force for positive change remains evident. Currently, the federal government is fighting the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s ruling which compels Ottawa to pay billions of dollars in compensation to First Nations children and their families who were separated by “a chronically underfunded child-welfare system”. What’s more, the Yellowhead Institute declared that just nine of the TRC’s initial 94 calls to action had been fully addressed as of late 2019, and similarly, the Assembly of First Nations revealed that only “moderate progress” has been made with regards to identifying all of the children who died in the residential schools.
Evidently, progress can be made in the courts, something which the Human Rights Tribunal’s ruling is evidence of. However, for the justice system to be able to award the Indigenous Peoples their deserved reparations, it requires a shift away from the systematic abuse suffered by Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. Clearly, there is too much public indifference towards the mistreatment of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples, but progress could be led from the top. Instead, the Canadian government has consistently disregarded the welfare of Indigenous communities and actively sought to eradicate their culture, from the government establishing the residential schools in the 1880s, to the Indian Act of 1920, which made it illegal for an Indigenous child to not attend a residential school, to the government's continued resistance to the Tribunal’s decision in 2019.
Resistance to confronting the mistreatment Indigenous Peoples have suffered at the hands of the Canadian government and taking steps towards repairing the centuries of damage is clearly still strong, such is the systemic nature of this oppression.
Image: Flickr (GoToVan)