Canada: history of violence can no longer be ignored
Content warning: this article contains references to child abuse.
The discovery of over 1,300 unmarked graves of Indigenous children, who died in Canada’s racist residential school system, forced a renewed acknowledgement of Indigenous exclusion. The scale of the problem had long been known about, but the latest evidence forced Canadians to reckon with the racist underpinnings of their current society and the multiple forms of inequality and exclusion Indigenous people experience today. Beyond ceremonies of reconciliation, Indigenous people are calling for real action to advance their rights.
This year’s 1 July Canada Day celebrations were less than celebratory. In Winnipeg, Manitoba, statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II were pulled down by protesters. In the capital, Ottawa, thousands took part in a Cancel Canada Day protest. In over 80 municipalities, according to Indigenous activist group Idle No More, Canada Day festivities were cancelled or replaced with ceremonies of commemoration. Indigenous people staged numerous acts of protest and mourning.
A multiple-generation legacy of abuse
The immediate cause was the discovery, just ahead of Canada Day, of almost 1,000 unmarked child graves. The graves were at the sites of former residential schools, many of them run by Catholic charities, which Indigenous children were forced to attend. Multiple generations were subjected to this violation of rights: more than 150,000 Indigenous children were pushed into the schools in a system established in the 19th century. The last school closed as late as 1997.
Indigenous children were taken from their families, given western names, banned from speaking their languages and forcibly converted to Christianity. The explicit aim was forced assimilation into white society and the eradication of Indigenous identities, a practice that in 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada recognised as ‘cultural genocide’.
Abuse had long been reported as being rife in these schools, which were largely unregulated, and where children were essentially locked away from sight. With children living in cramped and unsanitary conditions, poorly fed and with little medical care, diseases such as TB spread easily. Others died while fleeing physical and sexual abuse. Death rates were vastly higher than those of the white population, and when children died the families they had been stolen from were often never told. In many cases, their names were not even recorded by school administrators: their existence was almost completely erased.
Perhaps the most shocking thing is that this was not really a secret. Generations of Indigenous people knew what had happened but were never listened to. The evidence was there all along, but no one in power wanted to see it. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated that it would cost around CA$1.5 million (approx. US$1.2 million) to complete the work of investigating the deaths – but the money was not forthcoming. Many of the Commission’s recommendations were simply not taken forward; perhaps some people saw it as a closed chapter with no need for follow-up. Further testimonies of abuse and calls for action continued to be ignored. The government kept failing Indigenous people.
But in 2021, the newly discovered graves provided the kind of grim testimony that could no longer be overlooked. The more activist groups started looking, the more graves they uncovered. Between May and July, over 1,300 graves were located or estimated by Indigenous groups using ground-penetrating radar. Further investigations are underway as there are sadly many sites left to be surveyed. In August, for example, the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh Nations announced they were beginning an investigation at a residential school site in North Vancouver, which over 2,000 children were forced to attend.
The toll will only rise. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission recorded 3,201 unmarked graves and identified the names of at least 4,100 children who died in the schools, but the figure could be as high as 6,000: a death rate of one in 50 over the course of the schools’ existence.
An outpouring of anger
The toppling of the Winnipeg statues was hardly surprising given the circumstances. In recent years, movements for racial justice have increasingly drawn attention to the ways in which the continued public commemoration of architects of racism and colonialism perpetuates humiliation. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 saw a renewed attempt to remove monuments and change the names of streets and institutions related to colonial crimes, not only in Canada but also in Belgium, South Africa and the UK, among many other countries. In the USA in 2021, statues of Confederate leaders continued to be removed from key locations – see our story.
As well as the Winnipeg statues, in June a statue of Egerton Ryerson, one of the key intellectual forces behind the forced assimilation policy, was pulled down at the university named after him in Toronto and thrown into the harbour. The university said the statue would not be put back and that discussions were taking place about its use of the Ryerson name. The same month, the city of Owen Sound in Ontario removed the name sign of Ryerson Park prior the site being renamed. August saw more protests in Hamilton that led to the toppling of the statue of John A McDonald, Canada’s first prime minister and one of the architects of the school system; this came after the city council decided to keep the statue in place following earlier protests.
Indigenous groups have long criticised Canada Day celebrations, and in 2021 many people saw the need for commemorations and protests – with many wearing orange, the colour of the movement seeking justice – rather than festivities. However others, including the leader of the opposition Conservative party, Erin O’Toole, insisted that it was still important on Canada Day to celebrate pride in being Canadian.
Several churches were also set on fire or vandalised in the wake of the discoveries of graves. The anger was understandable, if not the way it was expressed, which enabled a defensive backlash from church groups, and led to a despicable claim by one priest that the abuse claims had been fabricated.
In contrast, many Canadians who consider themselves as liberal, and indeed see this political identity as a point of pride in comparison to their country’s southern neighbour, were finally forced to confront their privilege, connected to their country’s foundational genocide, and recognise the complicity of their silence. Activists also started to point to the UK’s role as the colonial power, as a larger part of the ongoing reckoning with colonial legacies. The USA should not rest easy either: it had a similar policy towards Indigenous people and investigations are likely to take place there too.
A long-delayed gesture of reparation for Australia’s Indigenous people
Recent months have also seen some progress and renewed demands for justice for crimes committed against Indigenous peoples in Australia, a country similarly settled by British colonial forces.
In August, the Australian government finally agreed to pay compensation to the victims of the ‘Stolen Generations’. From the early 20th century into the 1970s, at least 100,000 Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their parents and placed in state and church institutions or with foster families. As in Canada, under a forced assimilation policy they were cut off from contact with their families, banned from speaking Indigenous languages and forced to adopt the culture of the settler population. An apology from the federal government came in 2008, 11 years after the official national inquiry recommended it; as in Canada, many of the inquiry’s other recommendations have never been implemented.
It took a further 11 years after the apology for financial compensation to come, during which time many Stolen Generations victims had passed away. But finally, this August, the government agreed to pay survivors A$75,000 (approx. US$55,000) each, as part of a bigger scheme focusing on the ongoing scourges of inequality and discrimination against Indigenous people.
This has been a long time coming and only happened as a result of decades of advocacy by Indigenous groups, including legal action. Indigenous groups will continue to pressure the government to at last make good on its promises in a country where, as in Canada, Indigenous people perform worse than non-Indigenous Australians on every single socio-economic indicator.
A belated official response
The federal government’s response to the initial discovery of 215 unmarked graves in May was to order that flags on its buildings be flown at half-mast. In July, the police announced that a long-running investigation of abuse claims in Manitoba was in process and they had spoken to over 700 people. In July Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, appointed Canada’s first Indigenous governor general – Canada’s representative of head of state Queen Elizabeth II. Mary Simon is a leader of an Inuit Indigenous group in Nunavut territory, and an advocate for Inuit rights. This was at least a symbolic step forward.
These moves were followed by a belated commitment to provide funding to help Indigenous communities search for graves, with CA$83 million (approx. US$66.2 million) pledged by the federal government in August. Alongside this came a commitment of new funding to support physical and mental health and wellbeing and physical infrastructure in Indigenous communities, as well as to build a national monument in Ottawa to the victims and survivors of the abuses.
On every socio-economic indicator – income, employment, health, housing and criminal justice status – Canada’s Indigenous people are behind the non-Indigenous majority.
All of this was necessary and overdue. On every socio-economic indicator – including income, employment, health, housing and criminal justice status – Canada’s Indigenous people are behind the non-Indigenous majority. The scale of the gulf was emphasised in August, when the federal government reached a legal settlement worth CA$8 billion (approx. US$6.3 billion) over two long-running class-action lawsuits brought by Indigenous communities over their lack of access to clean drinking water. In one of the richest countries in the world, a G7 member, there are 32 Indigenous communities where the official advice is not to drink the polluted water. In September people in the Shoal Lake 40 community were finally able to start drinking tap water, something they had been demanding since 1997. Indigenous communities are the only segment of Canadian society that can’t simply trust what comes out of their taps.
Further action demanded
First Nations groups continue to call for more. They insist that the government undertake an independent investigation, headed by a special prosecutor and with international observers and adequate funding, to investigate these crimes and bring criminal charges against those responsible, recognising that what happened were criminal acts.
Campaigners also demand that the Catholic Church take responsibility by apologising, investigating deaths, holding perpetrators of abuses who are still alive to account and releasing all of its records. In September, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops officially apologised for its role. This was the first apology by any Catholic institution in relation to the schools, and came long after all other groups involved had apologised. Pressure will be building on Pope Francis to make this apology from the highest levels when he meets with Indigenous leaders in December.
United Nations human rights experts have also urged the Vatican and the Canadian government to conduct investigations into the deaths and prosecutions, and called for full implementation of the recommendations of the 2015 Commission.
The challenges are still vast. In the snap election called by Trudeau, held on 20 September, very little changed, with hardly any seats switching parties and Trudeau emerging, as before, as the leader of a minority government. And while all candidates paid lip service to Indigenous issues on the campaign trail and in televised debates, their ideas for challenging Indigenous exclusion were criticised as being vague, top-down and not informed by Indigenous people. Many of the real issues of exclusion Indigenous people face today were not discussed and an attempt to hold a debate specifically on Indigenous issues came to nothing.
Many Indigenous people continue to feel excluded from and unrepresented in politics, with significantly lower levels of voting, particularly among those who live in First Nations reservations. The suspicion among many Indigenous people is that ‘reconciliation’ will remain a buzzword and as the next political cycle starts real change will once again fall off the agenda.
Indigenous advocacy groups will keep up the pressure for Indigenous peoples’ rights to be realised. This is far more than an argument about a dreadful history. Past exclusion continues to be reproduced in ongoing trauma and discrimination.
Genocide is not confined to the distant past – the 2018 National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls concluded that there is an ongoing genocide against Indigenous people, and particularly against Indigenous women, girls and LGBTQI+ people. Meanwhile for all its talk of reconciliation, the government continues to push pipelines through First Nations lands and jail Indigenous protesters.
Against this backdrop and as unmarked graves continue to be uncovered, apologies and acts of mourning are necessary – but so is genuine action to reverse exclusion and restore rights.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Catholic Church should apologise for its role in the abuse of Indigenous children and fully cooperate with all investigations, including by releasing records.
Canada’s criminal justice system should pursue criminal proceedings against living alleged perpetrators of abuse and provide reparations to the victims and their families.
The Canadian government should make good on its promises to promote reconciliation and provide financial support to end Indigenous exclusion, including through expanded dialogue with Indigenous civil society.