Canada's betrayal and deceit worth remembering on National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

There can be no reconciliation without first acknowledging the truth of Canada’s shameful treatment of Indigenous peoples—and on that front there is still lots to learn

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      National Day for Truth and Reconciliation will be marked for the first time on Thursday (September 30) to honour the memory of survivors and the lives of children lost to Canada’s Indian Residential Schools system. Canadians are being encouraged to wear orange to commemorate the day.

      But Canadian retailer Hudson’s Bay Company, whose own history of contributing to the genocide of First Nations peoples has been well-documented, found itself fending off questions of profiting from the occasion earlier this week following social media posts announcing the sale of “Every Child Matters” T-shirts.

      A company spokesperson has since clarified that proceeds from the sale of the T-shirts will be turned over to the Orange Shirt Society, a B.C.–based nonprofit dedicated to supporting “Indian Residential Schools reconciliation” and “awareness of the individual, family, and community intergenerational impacts of Indian Residential Schools”. Major banks and other corporations have also pledged money in support of Indigenous causes as part of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation commemorations.

      But there can be no reconciliation with Indigenous peoples without first acknowledging the truth of Canada’s residential schools tragedy. And on that front there is still lots to learn for corporations and for most Canadians in general—not to mention the Catholic Church—about the repercussions of efforts to assimilate Canada’s Indigenous population by force. 

      After decades of denial over the church’s role in the tragedy, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a formal apology on September 24 to “acknowledge the suffering experienced in Canada’s Indian Residential Schools. 

      “We acknowledge the grave abuses that were committed by some members of our Catholic community; physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, cultural and sexual,” the statement says, “which led to the suppression of Indigenous languages, culture and spirituality, [and] failing to respect the rich history, traditions and wisdom of Indigenous Peoples”.

      Canada’s collective shock fades away

      There were between 140 and 150 federally run residential schools in Canada that operated between 1831 and 1998, most of those by the Catholic Church. At the program’s height, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were enrolled in residential schools in Canada. In May, the bodies of 215 children were discovered in unmarked graves at the Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia. Since then, some 1,500 more bodies have been discovered in unmarked graves at former residential schools sites in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and the Northwest Territories. There are thousands more. 

      The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) report into Canada’s residential school system estimates that up to 6,000 Indigenous children taken from their families as part of the government’s inculturation policies may have died in residential schools. But no official records of deaths were kept in the decades residential schools were operating before Confederation in 1867.

      Flags have been flying at half-mast outside federal buildings to recognize the dead since the discovery at Kamloops. But Canada’s collective shock has mostly receded from the public consciousness and media spotlight.

      The TRC’s report documented hundreds of accounts of former students who were taken from their families, often with only the clothes on their backs, and transported like cattle to far off schools. There they were “deloused” and their heads shaved. The discipline meted out by school instructors was harsh. Many children were beaten. Others were raped and molested. Some who tried to run away were never found again. Others committed suicide or died under unexplained circumstances. Those who did make it back to their families were never the same again. 

      The goal was to breed the Indian out of the child, to paraphrase Canada’s first Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s infamous words. The United Nations and Supreme Court of Canada have described what happened in residential schools as “cultural genocide”. To be sure, the legacy left from Canada’s shame continues to ravage Indigenous communities generations later.

      Indigenous peoples have been left behind on a whole range of indicators from health to education. It’s a familiar story but not one that’s yet completely appreciated by average Canadians, which has, in turn, led to not only a lack of understanding but to casual racism towards the plight of Indigenous peoples.

      study of abuse and neglect in the child welfare system released this week reveals First Nations children in foster care at 14 times the rate of other children in Canada. The report, a joint project of the Assembly of First Nations and the Public Health Agency of Canada, says the numbers are being fuelled by poverty, poor housing, substance abuse and mental health issues, which are only made worse by inadequate access to services for First Nations peoples. The list goes on. 

      The residential schools’ tragedy was not the only systematic assimilation of Indigenous children. The so-called “Sixties Scoop” of Indigenous children forced into foster care with white families by child welfare authorities lasted three decades. During that time, some 20,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were literally “scooped” up and placed into foster care by authorities. In 2017, the Ontario Superior Court issued a $800 million judgment in the case, but the settlement excludes Métis and non-status Indian survivors.

      More importantly, the Indian Act, the legal framework that allowed both the residential schools and Sixties Scoop to happen, remains in place.

      Acknowledgement and broken promises

      Many Canadian schools will commemorate National Day for Truth and Reconciliation with lessons in the classroom. 

      Indigenous peoples go back thousands of years here. That all changed with the arrival of settlers. So what are we acknowledging when we remember that these are not our lands, that they were taken from those who were here before us and that we tried to forcibly assimilate them into our way of life? Deceit? Betrayal? It’s something to think about amid the promises of reconciliation.