June 4th, 2021
There can be no healing without justice
The discovery of 215 children buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School has affected Canadians who spent an emotional week struggling with the sad truth about our past. While this was not the first that we heard of children buried in unmarked graves at these schools, the discovery provided a concrete reminder of the need to repeat this work at the locations of other former residential schools across the country.
Although it is tempting to think this story represents the sensibilities of other times, Canada continues to frustrate and treat Indigenous children poorly. Even as we respond to this discovery, the government continues to fight Indigenous children in court to avoid the settlement awarded by the Human Rights Tribunal over the sub-standard quality of child welfare services offered to First Nation kids. At the same time, government lawyers are fighting the survivors of Ste. Anne’s Residential School, where students were tortured with horrific punishments including the use of an electric chair. In both cases the government is spending millions in legal costs to avoid restitution payments showing the limits of official compassion may not extend beyond thoughts and prayers.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time we have discovered the remains of children near residential schools. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), 40% to 60% of children who attended these schools died. This includes incidents in which children were purposely exposed to infections such as Tuberculosis, and then allowed to spread the disease through the school. Testimony like that led TRC commissioner, Justice Murray Sinclair, to state that he believes the death count could be much higher due to these schools’ poor burial records. One thing is certain, many families are still searching and deserve answers.
Now, we have arrived at a critical point in the reconciliation process. First Nations, survivors, elders, leaders, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and others are calling for action to confront this history and help bring about closure. Families and communities are discussing this important issue, and the House of Commons has as well. In addition to a special debate on June 1st, New Democrats used our final opposition day in parliament to expand on the subject further.
It is imperative that the Calls to Action from the TRC report be implemented. So far only 10 of 94 were completed since it was tabled in 2015. If it chose to, the government could immediately respond to six important Calls that relate to this issue.
Those are Calls 71 - 76 which relate to:
The collection of records on the deaths of Aboriginal children in the care of residential schools and would provide funding to develop and maintain the National Residential School Student Death Register; for churches, Indigenous communities and former students to develop and maintain an online registry of residential school cemeteries; work with churches and families of children who died at residential schools to inform of the child’s death and respond to wishes for appropriate commemoration ceremonies/markers or reburial in home communities as requested; work with all parties to implement strategies for identifying, documenting, maintaining, commemorating, and protecting cemeteries and other sites where children were buried; ensure the work being carried out is led by the Aboriginal community most affected, that Survivors and Knowledge Keepers shall be sought for information in developing strategies, and Aboriginal protocols shall be respected before any potentially invasive technical inspection of a site.
In the meantime, Canadians struggle to understand more purposefully the history of residential schools as survivor’s and families relive the horrors of those times. We are forced to consider that these were not really schools, they were institutions designed to eradicate and eliminate indigenous people both culturally and physically. By that very nature it makes them instruments of genocide.
Additionally, we are at a point where it is not good enough to say that we are sharing condolences. We must demand action to put right injustices and to fight for a future that is based on human rights, respect for treaty rights, respect for justice and respect for the inherent dignity of Indigenous people.