The residential schools tragedy

| October 16, 2021 | 0 Comments
Shown here is study period at Roman Catholic Indian Residential School, Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories. The latest residential school scandal made headlines across the globe, and China weaponized it in its dealings with Canada. (Photo: Library and archives Canada)

Shown here is study period at Roman Catholic Indian Residential School, Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories. The latest residential school scandal made headlines across the globe, and China weaponized it in its dealings with Canada. (Photo: Library and archives Canada)

In May, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc leaders announced that the loss of children from B.C.’s Kamloops Indian Residential School had been confirmed by ground-penetrating radar. In the press release, Chief Rosanne Casimir said the presence of the graves was known, but the deaths appear to be undocumented and they “sought out a way to confirm that [knowing knowledge] out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families.”
As other school sites revealed their findings, the media reported in sensationalist detail, sometimes with some historical context.
Comments on social media revealed that many Canadians, surprisingly, knew nothing of the residential schools. The subject has been in provincial curricula for decades. Canada formally apologized for the residential school system in 1998 and 2008. The 1998 Statement of Reconciliation included $1.9 billion to pay 80,000 survivors.
A more profound apology in 2008 paid $3.23 billion to 26,700 claimants in a class-action settlement. A cornerstone of the agreement was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (established in 2007). Its widely publicized final report in 2015 noted missions near reserves had conducted burials of local and non-local children and adults. The report also identified known and suspected burial sites across Canada.
It has never been a secret that residential schools had cemeteries. Sol Mamakwa, an Indigenous member of Ontario’s legislature, said, “It is a great open secret that our children lie on the properties of the former schools.” There is no reason Canadians should not have known about the residential schools. We’re shocked because we’ve refused to look at the dark side of our history; it’s time we did, especially if the world is looking at us.

History of residential schools
Roman Catholic missionaries established the first Indigenous residential schools in 17th-Century New France, which was ceded to Great Britain in 1763. With Confederation in 1867, the federal government assumed responsibility for Indigenous people with the mistaken belief that they needed to be managed. The Indian Act of 1876 incorporated colonial laws to assimilate Indigenous people into Euro-Canadian society.
In the 1950s and 60s, the government began integrating Indigenous children into provincial school systems. Closing them took decades; the last closed in 1996. (Grollier Hall closed in 1997, but was not a state-run residential school in that year.)
It was a horrific social experiment based on ideas of colonial superiority and that assimilating Indigenous people into Euro-Canadian society would solve the “Indian problem.” The schools separated children aged seven to 15 from their families, communities and traditions, ostensibly to educate them. Education was not restricted to religion and the three Rs; children also learned skills to allow them theoretically to earn a living — sewing, laundry, carpentry and construction. With schools underfunded, students were put to work to maintain them.
There was often too little food. Dormitories were crowded; tuberculosis flourished. Many teachers were unqualified and teaching materials reflected an alien culture. Many children could not speak English or French, the languages of instruction. Corporal punishment was applied excessively. And while not every teacher was a child abuser and not every child was abused, the environment was hostile.

The graves
In July, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced the Kamloops Indian Residential School Le Estcwéý (The Missing) Report. They had hired Sarah Beaulieu, a University of the Fraser Valley instructor and a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) specialist experienced at surveying Indigenous and municipal cemeteries. She explained that GPR is not an X-ray; it reveals soil disturbances, not necessarily organic matter such as human remains or coffins. While disturbed soil is not exclusive to burials, it “can give indications of burials if they are in an area where burials are suspected to exist.”
The results are used in conjunction with oral histories, a known cemetery or other evidence to determine if further searches are warranted. By Beaulieu’s estimate, the Kamloops location revealed 200 suspected graves in a two-acre (.8-hectare) portion of a 60-acre (24-hectare) site where excavations and assessments had been done two decades ago.
GPR surveys at other sites revealed more suspected graves, including 182 at the Kootenay Residential School in B.C., which former chief Sophie Pierre said they had always known about.
Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan located 751 graves. Chief Cadmus Delorme emphasized unmarked graves, not a mass grave, and suggested the Catholic Church had removed grave markers in the 1960s. Jon Z. Lerat, a Cowessess band councillor, said the site was used by the municipality and not all of the graves contain children’s remains. In Shubenacadie, N.S., Sipekne’katik First Nation announced evidence of unmarked graves that predate the residential school by 100 years, connected to former landowners.

Global repercussions
Canadian media reported mass graves and bodies found. The story took on a life of its own; it wasn’t about Indigenous efforts to seek “out a way to confirm that knowing.” Reaction was immediate; shrines of little shoes and teddy bears appeared at legislatures. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau apologized. Churches were burned down. Some politicians made wary public statements about the national tragedy while some, along with other notables, cheered the arsonists. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh fanned the flames, declaring “215 Indigenous kids were found in an unmarked mass grave.”
Global reaction has largely been restricted to the media. The BBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Al Jazeera hung the story under headlines crafted to get eyeballs on pages, such as “Horrible History: Mass Grave of Indigenous Children Reported in Canada” (NYT, May 28.) Reader comments suggested many read only the headlines. The Washington Post noted “one of the darkest chapters of Canada’s history”; France 24 focused on national shock; UK dailies criticized the Catholic church’s role. German media avoided referring to mass graves or genocide.
There were few official statements; countries with dark histories shouldn’t point fingers. France and Britain share the residential school history. In the U.S., Native Americans leveraged the situation to demand an investigation. Prompted by Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary, the Biden administration announced it will review America’s residential schools.
China weaponized the graves. At the same time Canada helped launch an effort to have the UN demand China allow free access to Xinjiang to investigate human rights violations, China and its allies demanded the UN investigate Canada’s crimes, citing its deep concern for Indigenous people, “especially the children.”
China’s supporters — Belarus, North Korea, Iran, Russia, Sri Lanka, Syria and Venezuela — do not have rights-respecting governments. According to Aaron Ettinger, an assistant professor specializing in international relations at Carleton University, “They regard international human rights instruments as tools of Western dominance and would be happy to undercut the global effectiveness of human rights.”

Will there be fallout?
On Sept. 12, in Saskatchewan, the Pasqua First Nation donated orange markers to identify graves at the cemetery of the Regina Indian Residential School. The story fell out of the news cycle by mid-September, but was referred to ahead of the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
According to Ettinger, “For the most part, most other countries will regard the discovery of Indigenous graves as a matter of domestic Canadian affairs.”
Perhaps Canadians are now aware of the residential schools and are uncomfortable. Roger Epp, professor of political science at the University of Alberta, says it should “set limits around the classic Canadian temptation to imagine that, in foreign policy, we are rightly positioned on the side of the angels, that we stand for the kind of higher principles on which a better world will get built.”
What others think they know about Canada is less important than what we understand about ourselves. As Epp notes, there aren’t countries with settler-colonial histories that have shown a better way to address their history or re-building their relations with Indigenous peoples. As to whether international reaction could create barriers to healing and reconciliation, Epp says “some days, the [barriers] we’ve built for ourselves seem imposing enough.”

Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is an Alberta writer who learned about Canada’s residential schools in middle school.

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Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is an Alberta writer.

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