To say I am grateful that the remains of 215 children were found seems an unthinkable thing to say, but now they can come home, they can be honoured, and they are … found. They were missing, forgotten by many, but not forgotten by all.
More than grateful, I am feeling anguish over the May 27th announcement of the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, a school that existed for eighty years, operated by the Catholic Church from 1890 to 1969, and by the government as a day school until 1978, a school that reported only fifty deaths during the school’s operation. Fifty deaths. 50. Yet here were two hundred and fifteen little bodies, their burial unrecorded and unmarked. I wasn’t sure which emotion I was feeling was the stronger – rage, heartbreak, hopelessness. But then it all became painfully clear. Shame was the top of my list of emotions. Shame. Shame over the inaction of my government and shame for my own inaction, for my silence while the struggles of indigenous people continue, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, century after …
We act surprised by this news of the discovery of these remains of children, as if this was a one-off occurrence, a single piece of evidence of the unimaginable treatment of indigenous children and their families in this country since 1863 when the Indian Residential School system was established. The system saw 150,000 children, children as young as three, removed from their families and homes to attend these schools for no other purpose than, as Duncan Campbell Scott proclaimed in 1920 as the Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs to a parliamentary committee, for residential schools “to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic”. For more than 130 years indigenous children were subjected to this so-called education, that saw most of them suffer from malnutrition and abuse and loneliness and inexorable neglect. We called it cultural genocide, words to mask its abhorrence, but in truth it was more far-reaching than that, more calculated, more cruel, more devastating. It was genocide, pure and simple. The government had a plan to annihilate the “savage” from the Indian, as John A McDonald so loudly proclaimed in the House of Commons.
We throw up our hands and shout in our own defence. “We didn’t know. We didn’t know.” We knew. Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, the founding member of Canadian Public Health Association became the chief medical health officer of the then Department of Indian Affairs in 1904. In 1907, he reported to the government the shocking high death rates of indigenous children in the “care” of Residential Schools, deaths caused by negligence. Scott dismissed Bryce’s recommendations and Bryce was removed from his position. Instead of heeding Bryce’s warnings and implementing his recommendations, the government went after his credibility, his reputation, disparaging him, preventing him from speaking publicly. He wasn’t deterred. He wrote a book in 1922 – The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada where he exposed the high number of deaths and the government’s inaction. We knew. We knew.
The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was formed on August 26, 1991. The commission issued its final report in November of 1996 with a 4000-page document, setting down a 20-year agenda with 440 recommendations. Those twenty years have come and gone. Paul Chartrand, one of the original commissioners, said in 2016, “I don’t think it’s changed much.” One of the recommendations was for the creation of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was established thirteen years ago, on June 2, 2008. Thirteen years ago. The commission heard the testimony of 6000 witnesses and survivors, most of whom attended residential schools after the 1940s. The findings of the commission were reported in a summary published in 2015. In 2016, the new Liberal government VOWED to “act on every single one” of the 94 Calls to Action. In the final report, the commission stated, “Now that we know about residential schools and their legacy, what do we do about it?” We wear orange to honour the children, we fly flags at half-mast, we wince, we ache, we feel shame, we wear red to honour missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. But what do we really do about it? What action are we taking? How do we keep the energy in the movement for change? How do we stop saying things like get over it, it was in the past, when the racism continues, when indigenous peoples face challenges every day in the health care system, challenges in simply being. How do we stop our indignation when First Nations people express their despair and rage over the disparity in this country, over the denial of honouring treaties, over the rampant racism they are subjected to, living in communities where systemic racism in law enforcement has been clearly identified. How do we not react to the United Nations report of Canada to the world of indigenous people living in “abhorrent housing conditions in Canada” (CTV October 21, 2019). How do we not take action of the Human Rights Watch that reported in September 2020, that 56 indigenous communities are subject to long-term water advisories.
The promise of reconciliation made in 2008 has faded. We forget we are all Treaty People, we all have an obligation to honour what was signed and agreed upon. And we all have an obligation to demand the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission be enacted. As of 2020, 10 Calls to Action have been completed. 10. 10 of 94. I will no longer hide behind my shame. I will play a role in change. I will demand of my government to do what they vowed to do.
If you still want to claim we didn’t know, remember this. CBC reported in 2015 that the “odds of dying in residential school was 1 in 25. The odds of Canadians soldiers dying in the Second World War was 1 in 26.” We knew. We knew.