At the end of this past May, the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, the largest residential school in Canada. Barely one month later, on June 24, 751 unmarked graves were found at another former residential school in Saskatchewan. The news of these tragedies was met with shock and outrage from the public, though it should come as no surprise as Canada has a long-standing history of mistreating Indigenous people. The Canadian government reacted to these deeply troubling findings with mournful apologies and sorrow, but survivors of residential schools have been trying to talk about this issue for years.
Now, as National Aboriginal History Month comes to an end, it is long past time to unpack Canada’s continuing failure to truly reconcile with our Indigenous peoples.
Highlighting Canada’s Past Transgressions
From the 1880s to 1996, government-sponsored residential schools operated across the nation under the supervision of the Catholic church. Their goal was to “educate” and convert Indigenous youth in order to assimilate them into Canadian society. Approximately 150,000 children attended these schools, and around 6,000 of them died on site.
Some of the horrors experienced at these residential schools include punishment for Indigenous children who spoke in their native language or had contact with their families. As well, boys’ hair was cut short, a particularly cruel action as hair carries a spiritual meaning in many Indigenous cultures. In many cases, students were also given new Christian names, effectively taking the place of their Indigenous names that held sentimental and cultural value. Abuse was also commonplace within residential schools, with many students being chained, excessively beaten, or sexually abused as punishment.
Starting in the early 60s, the Canadian government began to slowly dismantle the residential schooling system, as more information was revealed about its damage to Indigenous families. In place of this, the federal government initiated a new policy plan known as the Sixties Scoop which spanned until the 80s and had similarly devastating impacts on Indigenous families. Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and subsequently placed in the child welfare system, often without the permission or consent of their parents and communities. The government’s decision to uproot Indigenous youth from their families was caused in part by a lack of awareness of Indigenous culture. This resulted in many children being removed from their homes, with 70% being placed in non-Indigenous homes. As well, the food found in Indigenous homes—often consisting of foods like berries and fish—was used as evidence by social workers of Indigenous children being starved, as the Indigenous diet differed heavily from the “traditional” Euro-Canadian diet. This type of thought process was due to the white supremacist values held by many of the social workers that were part of the child welfare program.
During this time, social workers noted many problems such as poverty, addiction, and unemployment within Indigenous communities—all consequences of colonialism and the under-funded reservation system. The extent of damage caused by the Sixties Scoop runs deep, as it greatly impacted the lives of many Indigenous youths who suffered from the trauma of being denied their identities, and enduring abuse in many of the households they were moved into.
This is not an exhaustive list of Canada’s transgressions towards the Indigenous communities, but rather a brief account of significant events in Canadian history that is meant to shine a light on a part of the past that the federal government has tried so hard to ignore.
Attempts at Reconciliation and Reparations
With the knowledge of its shortcomings, the Canadian government has claimed to make it a priority to reconcile and provide reparations to Indigenous communities. One initiative that has come out of this endeavour is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established as a result of the Indian Residential Schools settlement agreement. The class-action settlement was created to hold the federal government and church bodies accountable for reconciliation to former students, families, and communities affected by residential schooling and to educate the Canadian public about the history of residential schools.
Some of the calls to action include the demand that the Pope and the Catholic Church issue a formal apology, protection of Indigenous language rights at the federal level, and the need to address and implement proper health services for Indigenous communities.
Additionally, in 2008 former Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology towards Indigenous people for the mistreatment and trauma they endured at the hands of the Canadian government. However, as much as the Canadian government has attempted to acknowledge and make amends for its transgressions towards Indigenous people, one question remains: is it enough?
Is This Enough?
The short answer is no.
On June 15th during her farewell speech, Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq criticized the federal government for refusing to take action on issues Indigenous peoples face. She spoke about the barriers Indigenous peoples, including herself, face when working for the federal government. One example she described was racial profiling in the workplace. She stated that she “always expects to be stopped by security.”
Qaqqaq spoke of the many ongoing problems amongst the Indigenous population such as increasing rates of suicide, violence against women, and the overwhelming number of children and youth being put into foster care. She also pointed out that attempts to enact change to improve the lives of Indigenous people were generally ignored by the federal government.
In her speech, she also called out the TRC for taking too long to implement any of the recommendations meant to help Indigenous communities. Qaqqaq notes that the federal government only implements about two recommendations from the TRC per year, with 94 recommendations meant to be implemented in total. At this rate, it would take until 2062 for all of the recommendations to be implemented.
Another long-standing problem that has yet to be fully prioritized by the Canadian government is the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). In 2015, the federal government launched a public inquiry, but only after years of advocacy from Indigenous communities and previous government dismissal about this human rights crisis. The National Inquiry on MMIWG was created to investigate the rising rate of violence and unsolved murders against Indigenous women and girls. On June 3rd, 2019, the Final Report from the National Inquiry concluded that the violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada constitutes genocide.
However, the crisis does not stop here. As of 2021, Indigenous women are twice as likely to experience sexual abuse by an intimate partner and are more likely to be a victim of a violent attack than non-Indigenous women. Indigenous communities are also more likely to experience food insecurity due to the high cost of fruits and vegetables in Northern Canada. Furthermore, climate change and pollution have harmed natural food industries such as hunting and fishing.
The mental health crisis is another devastating outcome of colonialism and the government’s continued negligence. The rate of suicide for Indigenous people is higher due to the lasting effects of colonialism and intergenerational trauma. The suicide rate for Inuit youth alone remains one of the highest in the world, at 11 times the national average. Suicide and self-inflicted injuries also remain the leading causes of death among Indigenous people under 44 years of age.
What Does This Mean for Canada’s Indigenous Communities?
Internationally, there is little attention afforded to Canada’s historic treatment of Indigenous people; the remains of the 215 children found at the Kamloops site is a gruesome reminder of this. As it stands, Canada has a ways to go before it can even begin to reach reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Not to mention, the atrocities committed by the Canadian government towards Indigenous people have yet to even end. While the federal government hands out apologies in an attempt to move past these events, it is ultimately Indigenous people who continue to pay the price for the trauma that was inflicted upon them.
It is not enough to want to do better. We must do better, and that comes with no longer trying to erase the struggles of Indigenous people in Canada. We must recognize their experiences, including at the international level. It is becoming increasingly clear that in order for anything to change, there must be pressure put on Canada by other countries, world leaders, and the Canadian public to not only raise awareness of this human rights crisis but to take action by voting out politicians who do not prioritize Indigenous issues. There are so many untold stories that have yet to be heard, and it is becoming the responsibility of countries around the world to make sure they are.