Tim Louis: The legacy of residential schools is not history

A former Vancouver city councillor says it's time to end what Cindy Blackstock calls "apartheid" public services

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      Content warning: This story has disturbing details about Indian residential schools. Survivors and their families can call the toll-free National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline at 1-866-925-4419. 

      On May 27, Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation announced that they had located the unmarked burial sites of 215 children on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. This confirmation was only made possible with the use of ground-penetrating radar technology.

      These little children had all been kidnapped by the state—removed from their families without court order and taken to the Kamloops Residential School. Without warning, a police officer and a priest entered the home of each and every one of these children and literally snatched him or her out of the arms of their parents.

      The mass kidnappings left entire villages without any children.

      While incarcerated in residential schools, children endured atrocious conditions and treatment. Not one to a room or two to a room but dozens in a cramped space where crowding was so extreme as to guarantee outbreaks of disease. These little children were not adequately fed and suffered malnutrition as a result; almost 1,000 malnourished Indigenous children were used for unethical nutritional experiments across Canada.

      Heartbreakingly, they grew up without any love, affection, or parental guidance. If they survived, without parental modelling, they went on to have great difficulty knowing how to parent children of their own.

      In the schools, they were strictly forbidden from speaking the language they had grown up with. If they forgot, even momentarily, to speak English, which was entirely a foreign language to them, they were subjected to extreme corporal punishment and even torture.

      Those who passed away during the school year were buried in unmarked sites. Their parents were not notified. At the end of the school year when their parents came to pick them up, they were simply told that the child was not there. They were not advised of the death.

      Former judge and former senator Murray Sinclair, himself Aboriginal, chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). His final report, Missing Children and Unmarked Burials Volume 4, made a number of recommendations, including that “the federal government work with churches, Aboriginal communities, and former residential school students to establish and maintain an online registry of residential school cemeteries, including, where possible, plot maps showing the location of deceased residential school children.”

      In 2009, the TRC requested about $1.5 million to help fund a series of projects that would identify the burial site locations of these children. This request, along with most of the TRC recommendations, was ignored by the federal government.

      Sinclair has gone on the record to say that the tragic discovery in Kamloops is the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands and possibly tens of thousands of Aboriginal children buried in the grounds of the various residential schools where they were imprisoned. In light of the finding at the Kamloops Residential School, Mr. Sinclair is again calling on the country to persevere and push ahead in locating unmarked burial sites on the grounds of residential schools in Canada.

      Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a UBC law professor and director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, refers to these sites as “crime scenes” under international law. The UN concurs.

      Since the announcement by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, the federal government has made several promises of action, including one on June 2 to distribute $27 million to help communities locate and identify unmarked burial sites of disappeared children. This makes it sound like new money. It’s not.

      The 2019 federal budget allocated $33.8 million over three years to develop and maintain a National Residential School Student Death Register and to help maintain an online registry of residential school cemeteries. Most of that money—precisely the $27 million I referred to above—has sat unspent and unavailable due to government apathy and red tape.

      Not only that, but the federal government continues to neglect, litigate, and discriminate against Indigenous families and children, maintaining what Cindy Blackstock calls “apartheid public services”, which cause indelible harm, family separation, and even death.

      Over half the children in foster care are Indigenous, yet they only make up 7.7percent of the child population. Racism, violence, and structural discrimination against Indigenous Peoples are not only historical realities; they are ongoing.

      Thinking about what we can each do individually, I had an opportunity on June 2, as chair of TransLink’s HandyDART Users’ Advisory Committee, to call for “one minute of silence for each of us to reflect on what we can do as individuals to contribute to the fundamental changes society needs to make to address the harm that has been done to First Nations people since first contact and address the ongoing injustices the society we all are part of continues to inflict on First Nations”.

      It is simply not good enough just to be enraged or moved by this tragic news.

      We must listen to intergenerational survivors, contact our elected representatives to demand change, and get out on the streets in a COVID-safe way. It’s time to work together to dismantle white supremacy and the legacy of residential schools.

      Other suggestions for actions you can take today (more are welcome):


      Daily atmospheric CO2 [Courtesy of CO2.Earth]

      Latest daily total (June 5, 2021): 419.64 ppm

      Tim Louis is a Vancouver lawyer and former city councillor and park commissioner. This article first appeared on his blog, which lists the daily carbon dioxide count in parts per million in the atmosphere at the end of every post. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.