By Saleh Mamon
The discovery of unmarked graves of indigenous children in Canada reveals the cruelty and inhumanity of the colonial system. In May, members of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation found 215 bodies at the Kamloops school in British Columbia. On 24th June, Cowessess First Nation announced the discovery of as many as 751 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewanan. On 30th June, the Lower Kootenay Band community announced finding 182 unmarked graves of indigenous children between the ages of seven and 15 at St Eugene’s Mission School near Cranbrook, British Columbia.
The nearly 1,000 ‘virtual unearthings’ of the bodies were made by using a highly specialised ground penetrating radar which mapped the buried human remains. The initiatives were a persistent effort by the indigenous community groups, and not by the Canadian government or the perpetrators who had every reason to hide these remains forever. These revelations are a searing reminder of the sufferings of the indigenous communities.
Just imagine the trauma of a family whose child was abducted without notice, without consent. The accounts of survivors who lived through such abductions make harrowing reading. Being loaded onto buses, trucks and trains without the opportunity to say goodbye to their parents and family, many cried all the way and were taken many hundreds of miles from home. The arrival at a residential school was equally traumatic. They were stripped of their clothing, their hair cut and given a school uniform. Brothers were separated from sisters, older brothers from younger and older sisters from younger. They entered a world dominated by fear, loneliness and lack of affection. The trauma is still fresh in the minds of some who experienced the abduction of their siblings.
To operate such a heartless system, the settler society dehumanised the indigenous communities. Institutional racism based on the supremacy of ‘white Christian’ culture was the driving force behind the policy of ‘aggressive assimilation’ that Canada copied from the United States. It was made mandatory for native children between the ages of seven and 16 to attend residential schools.
A partnership between the Canadian government and Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches administered the system. The system opened around 1883 and grew to about 150 schools across Canada. The government’s partnership with the churches remained in place until 1969, and, although most of the schools had closed by the 1980s, the last federally supported residential schools remained in operation until the late 1990s.
An estimated 150,000 indigenous children were forced into the residential schools. A landmark class action by the survivors of the system against the federal government in 2008 resulted in a court settlement. The Canadian government apologised to the former students, and agreed to pay 1.9 billion Canadian dollars (about $1.85 billion) to surviving students and establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to document the experiences of children who attended the schools.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up immediately. It was led by Justice Murray Sinclair, an Ojibwa who was the first aboriginal judge in the province of Manitoba. Members of the Commission spent six years travelling to all parts of Canada to research and gather evidence. Seven national events were held across the country between 2010 and 2015, marking the culmination of a process which saw the TRC hold 238 days of local hearings in 77 communities across the country.
In all, the TRC collected 6,750 statements from survivors, their families, and others directly affected by the schools. In 2015 it published a six volume, 4,000-plus-page report detailing the testimonies of survivors and historical documents from the time. By all accounts, this is an immense achievement reproducing the erased history of the indigenous communities for the first time.
The Commission could establish that 3,201 students died of malnourishment, tuberculosis and other diseases caused by poor living conditions. Many students also died from accidents, fires and during attempts to escape. Justice Murray Sinclair argued that this number is likely higher, perhaps five to ten times higher.
The poor record-keeping by the schools of the children on their register and poor burial records made it impossible to establish a more accurate picture. The schools were left unregulated. The lack of a proper dietary standard meant students were undernourished, which increased their vulnerability to infectious diseases.
It was known that the comparative mortality rate for indigenous children in these schools ranged between twice as high and five times higher than non-indigenous schoolchildren. The rates of infectious disease grew due to lack of regulation barring ill students from being admitted to the schools or being in class or dormitories, as well as overcrowding.
Furthermore, students were expected to grow crops or raise animals to provide themselves with food, to make and repair much of their clothing and to maintain the school building and grounds. This meant that the schools operated a “half-day system” with half the day spent in classes and the other half on institutionalised repetitive child labour in the guise of vocational training.
The residential schools were woefully underfunded compared to the schools for non-indigenous communities. They were inadequately staffed with many staff being paid poorly on the grounds that they were carrying out missionary duties. During any economic recession the schools faced a financial crisis as well as health crisis because of cuts.
Many survivors recalled how their heavily regimented daily lives lacked privacy and dignity. At many of the schools, students were addressed by a number rather than a name, as if they were prisoners. Corporal punishment was administered if they were caught speaking their language. Children were forced to convert to Christianity. Such was the alienation of students that there were episodes when students tried to burn down their schools. At least 33 students died after running away, mostly from exposure to cold and drowning.
There were widespread bullying and beating involving both staff members and older students. Some former students testified before the Commission that priests at the schools had fathered infants with indigenous students, that the babies had been taken away from their young mothers and killed, and that in some cases their bodies were thrown into furnaces. The commission found that the government had in effect blocked criminal investigations of some sexual predators employed at the schools.
The objective of separating children from their families was to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to next. Thus aboriginal parents were completely alienated from their children on the grounds that they were unfit to look after them. Parental visits were strictly limited by placing schools hundreds of miles from home. Parents who travelled a long way and camped outside the schools were denied the opportunity to see their children. Many parents resisted by keeping their children out of these schools at risk to being punished because they saw those schools as dangerous and harsh institutions. Students were also subjected to forced enfranchisement as ‘assimilated’ citizens that removed their legal identity as Indians.
The legacy of the regimented residential schools has left a lasting impact on indigenous communities. Disconnected from their families and culture and forced to speak English or French, students who attended the residential school system were often unable to fit into their communities but remained subject to racism in mainstream Canadian society. It has been linked to an increased prevalence of post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, substance abuse and suicides which persist within indigenous communities today. A disproportionate number of indigenous people are imprisoned in Canada. Indigenous children account for a much larger part of the child welfare system’s caseload than their share of the population.
The TRC came to the conclusion that for over a century, the central goals of Canada’s aboriginal policy can best be described as “cultural genocide”. Aboriginal lands were simply occupied or seized. Often, negotiated treaties were seemingly legal but marked by fraud or coercion. Populations were forcibly transferred from agriculturally valuable or resource-rich lands to remote and economically marginal reserves. Their movement was restricted through ‘pass laws’. Aboriginal languages were banned. Spiritual leaders were persecuted, spiritual practices were forbidden and objects of spiritual value were confiscated and destroyed.
The TRC’s call for action included an apology from Pope Francis for the role the Catholic Church played in the residential schools system. But the pope has not apologised but only expressed “pain”. Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime minister said that Canadians were “horrified and ashamed” of the policy of forced assimilation but stopped short of launching a national investigation on the deaths in residential schools.
The TRC set out an agenda for true reconciliation between the indigenous and other communities. The establishment of the of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation as an archival repository for all the material it collected laid the basis for the compilation of the complete history and legacy of the residential school system for future generations.
However five years after it issued its recommendations, the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nation led research centre found that the Canadian Government and the Catholic Church have implemented only nine of 94 recommendations.
The government’s reconciliation agenda, which is still based on assimilation, is facing increasing opposition from native people due to Ottawa’s manifest failure to address the horrific social conditions faced by the majority of Canada’s indigenous people, both on and off reserve.
On 1st July when Canada was supposed to have a national celebration marking its 154 years of independence, the celebrations were muted because indigenous groups had called for the cancellation of the celebration after the discovery of the unmarked graves.
Apologies and reconciliation should not be allowed to deflect from thorough accountability. The most basic of questions about missing children — who died? why did they die? where are they buried? — have never been addressed or comprehensively documented by the Canadian government.
The Independent UN human rights experts called on the Canadian authorities and the Holy See of the Catholic Church to conduct prompt “full-fledged investigations”. They called on the authorities to probe “the circumstances and responsibilities surrounding these deaths, including forensic examinations of the remains found, and to proceed to the identification and registration of the missing children.”
Furthermore, “the judiciary should conduct criminal investigations into all suspicious death and allegations of torture and sexual violence against children, hosted in residential schools, and prosecute and sanction the perpetrators and concealers who may still be alive.”
For the last three centuries, vast swathes of the world fell under direct imperial rule accompanied by the most brutal violence against indigenous peoples by states which see themselves as democracies today. The barbarism of colonialism that has been buried needs to be exhumed and a comprehensive indictment against the colonial system fully assembled. There has to be justice and reparations for the survivors.
Saleh Mamon is a retired teacher who campaigns for peace and justice. His research interests focus on imperialism and underdevelopment, both their history and continuing presence. He is committed to democracy, socialism and secularism. He blogs at https://salehmamon.com/
Image: Canada. License: Creative Commons 3 – CC BY-SA 3.0. Attribution Link: Pix4free.org – link to – https://pix4free.org/ Original Author: Nick Youngson – link to – http://www.nyphotographic.com/ Original Image: https://www.thebluediamondgallery.com/highway-signs/c/canada.html
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