Editor’s note: The contents of the article below may be triggering. The The Indian Residential School Survivors Society 24-hour Crisis Line is available at 1 (866) 925-4419.
The past few weeks have seen a reckoning, culminating in a Canada Day of reflection for many.
It began when the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc found 215 unmarked graves at a ceremony on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential school in late May, with some children estimated to be as young as three. That facility was operated by the Roman Catholic Church from its opening day in 1890 until the federal government took it over in 1969; it was then run as a day school until its closure in 1976.
It’s considered to have been one of the biggest residential schools in Canada, with as many as 500 Indigenous children enrolled at one time.
In early June, the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation announced work to identify 104 graves found on the site of the former Brandon Residential school in Manitoba.
Less than a month later, the Cowessess First Nation found the bodies of 715 people buried on the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.
And just on Wednesday, the Lower Kootenay Band said that a burial ground with 182 unmarked graves has been found near the site of the former St. Eugene Mission School. Details and clarification surrounding this site are expected in the days ahead.
Residential school survivors have been telling the stories of what happened to them for many years. The schools, of which there more than 140, were funded by the Canadian government and operated by Christian churches, mostly the Catholic church.
The last of the facilities did not close until 1996. More than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools, where they died from a variety of causes including both physical and sexual abuse, malnutrition, diseases and neglect.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated in 2015 that at least 3,200 children died at those schools, although recent discoveries show that the number of deaths is likely to be much higher.
“The number of students who died at Canada’s residential schools is not likely ever to be known in full,” the report reads. The commission notes further that records were destroyed, went missing and that the deaths of many children simply went unrecorded. Residential schools did not typically return the bodies of children who died to their families.
According to the Assembly of First Nations, only about one-quarter of the 94 calls to action from the commission’s report have seen “significant progress,” and little progress has been seen on efforts to find children who remain unaccounted for.
That leaves this Canada Day. Multiple cities from Victoria to Port Hardy to Penticton have cancelled Canada Day celebration, citing the recent discoveries. Some cities like Surrey, which is opting to keep its Canada Day celebrations – virtual due to the pandemic – will include traditional Indigenous practices and cultural events. Others like White Rock are simply encouraging residents and visitors alike to wear orange shirts to show their support.
But Kamloops, where the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc are based, is not cancelling its Canada Day festivities. In a news release, the city said it’s working with the First Nation to “incorporate messaging into this year’s virtual Canada Day event that will encourage education on Indigenous culture and heritage.”
In the press release, Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said the Tk’emlúps “would like everyone to continue to acknowledge Canada Day.”
“The best way to honour our country, and the diversity of its citizens, and in particular this year, our future generations, is to understand our real collective history. We would like to encourage all to learn more about the colonial legacy of the residential school and the intergenerational impacts that it has had. We also want people to understand the racism and discrimination that Indigenous Peoples face daily.”
Casimir encouraged Canadians to learn about the history of Indigenous Peoples, watch Indigenous movies, listen to APTN “and most importantly, in your own way, honour all the lost children of the residential schools across Canada.”
However, Idle No More, a group of Indigenous activists, is pushing for people country-wide to cancel Canada Day.
“Instead we will gather to honour all of the lives lost to the Canadian State – Indigenous lives, Black Lives, Migrant lives, Women and Trans and 2Spirit lives – all of the relatives that we have lost,” the group said in a media release.
“The recent discovery at Kamloops residential school has reminded us that Canada remains a country that has built its foundation on the erasure and genocide of Indigenous nations, including children. We refuse to sit idle while Canada’s violent history is celebrated.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report lays out the grim truth of Canada’s history.
“States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next. In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.”
Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, an NDP MP representing Nunavut, spoke to Canada’s current reality. She excoriated Canada’s parliament over the racism she faced since being elected in 2019 and said she wouldn’t be celebrating a country built on the oppression of Indigenous People this July 1.
Canada’s history, Qaqqaq added, is “stained with blood.”
“People like me don’t belong here in the federal institution,” she told the House of Commons.
“The reality is that this institution and the country has been created off the backs, trauma and displacement of Indigenous People.”
Qaqqaq further pointed to the child welfare system, where Indigenous children are highly overrepresented, as just another face of colonialism.
“Colonization is not over. It has a new name. Children are still being separated from their communities. Foster care is the new residential school system. The suicide epidemic is the new form of Indigenous genocide,” Qaqqaq said in an emotional address in the House of Commons.
The MP announced she won’t be seeking reelection during the next election but instead would be “fighting for Nunavummiut to have basic human rights” while she remains in Ottawa.
Others in Canada have simply asked Canadians to wear orange shirts on Thursday, a movement started with Orange Shirt Day on Sept. 30 and which seeks to remind non-Indigenous peoples to learn and reflect on Canada’s true history and the impacts on First Nations people to this day.
And that needs to extend to the classroom, the president of B.C.’s teachers’ union said.
In schools, B.C. Teachers’ Federation President Teri Mooring said that teachers, already exhausted by teaching through a pandemic, were not prepared to speak with students about the discovery in Kamloops, nor were Indigenous teachers supported.
Anti-racism in training, with a particular focus on anti-Indigenous racism, is much needed.
“With the tragic discovery in Kamloops and the impact that we’ve seen it have on on Aboriginal communities, and Aboriginal teachers and students and families… that training is also essential for the entire system,” Mooring said.
“You know, we invest in what we think is important, and we absolutely think that that type of training, both of those types of training, are absolutely essential moving forward in September.”
That training is also necessary to fulfill the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 57th call to action.
Mooring said that while Indigenous content is included in the curriculum, the support for it has not been there and neither are newer resources, leading teachers to use problematic old materials.
“When you’re teaching students about residential schools, and you’re having these really difficult conversations that are absolutely essential – like we cannot, as a school system, not have those conversations – we need to do it in a thoughtful, sensitive way, which is why the training is so critical,” she said.
“The training is essential for teachers to be able to appropriately have these conversations with students and right now that training just hasn’t ever been provided to the entire sector.”
However, Mooring said that teachers are enthused by government plans to move towards a trauma-informed approach.
“But what we need to see is those values enacted in training and resources on the ground, because without that part of it, those are just words on a piece of paper, and are absolutely meaningless,” she said, adding that “it’s a long time coming, I have to say.”
What to read and how to help:
Iron Dog Books, an Indigenous-owned bookshop and truck dedicated to bringing low cost reading to Səl̓ilwətaɁɬ, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm territories, has a list of Indigenous books on their Instagram page.
A few examples:
Policing Indigenous Movements: Dissent and the Security State by Andrew Crosby, Jeffrey Monaghan
Price Paid: Aboriginal Rights in Canada by Bev Sellars
it was never going to be okay by jaye simpson
Call Me Indian: From the Trauma of Residential School to Becoming the NHL’s First Treaty Indigenous Player by Fred Sasakamoose
Final Report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (including or the 94 calls to action)
21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act by Bob Joseph
Consider donating to Indigenous-lead organizations, including your local friendship centres:
And visit native-land.ca to learn about the Indigenous Peoples on whose lands you now live on.
–with files from The Canadian Press