Canada's genocide Kamloops Indian Residential School

Kamloops Indian Residential School 1937

Exposing Canada’s genocide

“Here in Quebec, we need to stop pretending that the mistreatment of Indigenous communities is solely a ROC (Rest of Canada) problem. This is our legacy, too.”

Last week’s grim discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of 215 Indigenous children at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia has, once again, forced a public conversation few Canadians are willing to have. The news was physical confirmation of what residential school survivors have always insisted was true and what many Indigenous elders shared during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission testimonials. 

Few people believed them, though. The Catholic Church publicly continued to deny the claims, and insisted it was nothing more than “anecdotal evidence and rumour.” In 2008, the newspaper Kamloops This Week ran a front page with the headline “Burial ground – or bogus?” 

Turns out, all we had to do was look where they told us to.

The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the discovery of these undocumented deaths of young children as young as three years old in a somber news release, calling it an “unthinkable loss.” We will probably never know the exact number who died as a direct result of government-sponsored, church-run residential schools — whether through neglect, suicide or murder, or while trying to escape, because too much evidence was deliberately destroyed or never recorded. The Truth and Reconciliation report records the deaths of more than 3,000 children, but Justice Murray Sinclair, who headed the commission, expects it was much closer to 6,000. 

In total, over 130 of these schools operated throughout Canada between 1831 and 1996, when the last one closed. These children were ripped from their families, torn from their communities and traditions, and immersed in the horror of what government documents at the time referred to as “aggressive civilization” — essentially, violent assimilation. Many were physically and sexually abused, mistreated, malnourished, housed in crowded and unsanitary conditions, forbidden from speaking their language and left vulnerable to outbreaks of infectious diseases. Some of these schools had a 50% survival rate. Medical experts at the time recommended clear measures meant to improve their treatment, but they were not implemented by the government because they cost too much. 

The past is still present 

Exposing genocide in Canada
Sixties Scoop rally, Ottawa, 2018. Photo by Aaron Hemens (Exposing genocide in Canada)

Canadians have justifiably reacted with horror at the news, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called the discovery “a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history.”

Only it’s not history. And we need to stop pretending that it is. 

There continues to be a direct and clear link to these past atrocities and the abysmal treatment of Indigenous communities today. The colonial mindset, white supremacy and systemic racism that allowed this kind of treatment of Indigenous people in the past continues to allow it today. Many who experienced the painful legacy of residential schools (some 80,000 living survivors) are still with us. And they are still fighting for government compensation in court. The Vatican still refuses to publicly apologize for the long-lasting intergenerational trauma these schools inflicted. 

Exposing genocide in Canada
Sixties Scoop (Exposing genocide in Canada)

Pretending that these horrors are all in the distant past absolves us from accountability today. But this country still very much operates within a system that continues to see Indigenous people as deserving of less. The ‘60s Scoop and forced adoptions of Indigenous children was not that long ago. The numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada remains staggering. The homicide rate for Indigenous women is seven times higher than the rate for non-Indigenous women. At least 33 First Nations communities in this country are still under 52 long-term drinking water advisories. The RCMP still force their way onto unceded territory, policing on behalf of private oil companies and the federal government.

Indigenous children continue to be overrepresented in foster care. The federal government has long been discriminating against First Nations by inadequately funding child welfare services. Indigenous children in foster care are still disproportionately dying. APTN News reported that 155 died between 2013–2019 in Ontario alone. Recent allegations that social workers in B.C. forced Indigenous children under the age of 10 to have IUDs inserted by doctors because they were at risk of rape at foster care are equally horrifying. 

It’s Quebec’s history, too

Canada genocide
Abitibi, Quebec, date unknown (Exposing genocide in Canada)

Here in Quebec, we need to stop pretending that the mistreatment of Indigenous communities is solely a ROC (Rest of Canada) problem. This is our legacy, too. Twelve of those 130 residential schools were right here in Quebec. Many Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to attend French-language schools against their will. On top of denying the existence of systemic racism, our provincial government does not treat Indigenous communities any better. 

When Bill C-92 finally came into effect in 2019, much-needed federal legislation that would allow for Indigenous groups to take over their own child welfare systems and prioritizes the placement of Indigenous children in care with members of their own extended families and Indigenous communities, what did the Quebec government do? It decided to challenge it because it sees the new legislation as a threat to its provincial jurisdiction. It’s a move that Quebec and Labrador Regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Ghislain Picard called “shameful”, “unacceptable” and straight-up “colonialism.” 

A recent Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission report found the youth protection system in the province is failing Inuit children in Montreal and has been compromised due to “racist attitudes.” There is a tendency in this province to often pretend that French colonizers and Indigenous people were natural allies and had a common enemy in the British. This is a comforting lie that paints us as innocent and not just another colonizing force. The horrific details of medical colonialism and systemic racism surrounding the current inquiry into Joyce Echaquan’s tragic death should absolve us of any such illusions. We are all complicit.

Moving past symbolism

kahnawake shoes church kamloops residential school
215 pairs of shoes placed in front of the St-François-Xavier Church in Kahnawake, Quebec May 29–30, 2021 (Exposing genocide in Canada)

As the entire country now reacts with disbelief and horror, it’s time to move past symbolic acts of contrition and solidarity. Flying our flags at half-mast is well-meaning, but deeply inadequate. Residential school survivors deserve to know they are believed and supported in their quest for justice. I no longer want to hear a single Canadian say they didn’t know about this shameful chapter in our history. I want it to no longer be possible for politicians to respond with platitudes instead of concrete action. 

We need to commit to every single one of the recommendations found in both the Truth and Reconciliation and Viens commissions, and to upgrade school curriculums to teach history properly. We need to apply pressure on our politicians to commit to and fund radar ground searches on every single residential school in Canada. We need to treat these mass graves as crime scenes, not memorials for crocodile tears. We need to apply pressure to the church to pay real reparations, not just “thoughts and prayers.” We need to hunt down government and church officials who were implicated and still alive today. And, finally, we need to acknowledge that what took place here was genocide — plain and simple and unequivocally so. 

Just children…

Canada’s genocide
Fort George, Quebec, 1939. Photo from Deschâtelets Archives (Exposing genocide in Canada)

Ever since the grim discovery of that mass grave last week, I have been haunted by one simple line. “Some were as young as three years old.” I don’t have children of my own, but I have been around enough of them to know how young three is, how tiny their bodies, how needy they still are for their mother, how in overdrive their little brains are, working furiously to process the world around them, tiny chatterboxes of constant awe, non-stop questions and unlimited promise.

I think “three” and I see my nephew’s tiny little-boy hands as he excitedly moves them around during our talks on Facetime to tell me that his favourite planet is now Mars, and that Saturn is the one with the rings. I can’t even begin to process what it would be like for someone to take him by force from his parents; for them to never know what happened to him, to never know where he’s buried, for the people who threw him in that grave not to care enough about him or his parents to even document his death. What kind of dehumanizing process would be required to believe that he wasn’t loved enough to be mourned and to be missed? 

Experts have warned that this burial site is just the tip of the iceberg, and that many more are expected to be found across the country. I don’t think that’s hyperbole. I think that’s the truth. It’s time we took a good, hard look at it. And then make sure it’s never buried again. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.