News stories exploded across Canada after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced on May 27 that 215 unmarked burial sites had been found near the old Kamloops Indian Residential School.
In the next few weeks, there were scores of stories about similar discoveries around other former residential schools, and about more planned investigations. The findings included an additional 751 unmarked graves at a residential school site in Saskatchewan.
News media told how the Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated that between 4,000 and 6,000 children died in residential schools. Causes of death included physical abuse, malnutrition, disease and neglect. Others died by suicide, or by trying to escape the schools. We also saw unofficial estimates as high as 14,000.
Today, the stories are notably fewer. The children are no longer top of mind in the country’s newsrooms.
But they must remain top of mind for the people of Canada, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
The children’s tragic deaths, and what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) called the “cultural genocide” in the residential schools must be fully recognized — and acted upon — if we are to achieve true reconciliation.
Murray Sinclair, retired senator and Indigenous luminary, has a message for non-Indigenous people and leaders:
“My colleague Marie Wilson, one of the TRC commissioners, was always fond of saying that reconciliation is not a spectator sport. You have to do something. So, many people took that to heart and are doing something. Whatever it is, whether it’s wearing a shirt or talking to their kids or sending money to a good Indigenous cause. They’re doing something and those things are good.
“But those who have more power have more responsibility. So that means that everybody has to convince them to use their power wisely, to use their privilege wisely, to be more open to recognizing the impact that they can have.
“This is a situation where the perpetrator himself has to understand what they have done wrong, what they must do right and therefore take action in that way. I always tell people, imagine if the tables were turned in the sense that this had happened to you. If your children had been taken away. What would you want to do about that?”
A friend of the Alliance, Ken Coates, Munk senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, writes:
“Something strange has been happening on the road to true reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission produced clear recommendations on how the country could shed the bitter legacy of Indigenous residential schools. Yet, following revelations about gravesites near former residential schools, the process seems to have morphed into measures designed to serve non-Indigenous people more than Indigenous communities.
“Consider the federal government’s creation of a national holiday to commemorate residential schools. Simply put, the vast majority of non-Indigenous Canadians will likely take the holiday as nothing more than a day of rest. It is difficult to imagine this event becoming a turning point in reconciliation. Indeed, making non-Indigenous peoples the significant beneficiary of a national holiday appears an odd way to recognize the hardships and losses of Indigenous children and their families.
“Many of the educational efforts associated with reconciliation – elementary and high school curriculum reform, the hiring of Indigenous faculty members at universities and the imposition of mandatory courses in many programs – are likewise targeted significantly at non-Indigenous peoples. . . .
Coates adds: “Becoming educated about Indigenous issues is a vital outcome for reconciliation. But serving these needs places heavy demands on Indigenous educators, leaders, elders, and knowledge keepers. Often, this work is not remunerated or is poorly paid. Frequently, the primary beneficiaries of these efforts are non-Indigenous Canadians. . . .
“Indigenous peoples are not completely ignored of course. The federal government (and non-governmental institutions, to a lesser extent) had taken steps to address the symptoms and outcomes of Indigenous marginalization. In fact, the Trudeau government has been extraordinarily keen to provide financial resources and even greater autonomy to Indigenous governments. There has been progress in many areas, from education to water supplies, but gaps between Indigenous people and other Canadians remain distressingly high.”
Coates drives home that true progress is going to take time and education as well as commitment.
“Reconciliation is a difficult and often fraught process. Overcoming years of bitterness and animosity, and moving beyond decades of racism and prejudice, is exceptionally difficult. There are good examples of positive developments, such as the Yukon, where a series of modern treaties, self-government agreements and a whole-of-government commitment to reconciliation provide a constructive (albeit still imperfect) model.
“Compared to 40 years ago, Canadian attitudes toward Indigenous peoples are much more favourable. But the lived experience of Indigenous peoples often tells a different story, with numerous recent examples of prejudice and racial discrimination.”
Soon it will be Sept. 30, declared by Ottawa as a new federal statutory holiday: the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The government describes it as an opportunity to recognize the legacy of residential schools.
As a federal holiday, it’s not a holiday for all. BC has advised public employers across the province to honour the new day, and are planning to have most schools, post-secondary institutions and some health-sector workplaces close down. The same is true for Nova Scotia and Manitoba. Yukon and NWT employees will not be required to be at work, and schools will be closed.
Let us not forget that Sept. 30 was named as Orange Shirt Day, starting in 2013, to honour residential school survivors and those who didn’t make it home.
The Orange Shirt belonged to Phyllis (Jack) Webstad, who at age six was sent to the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School at Williams Lake BC:
“My granny managed to buy me a new outfit to go to the Mission school. I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt. It had string laced up in front, and was so bright and exciting – just like I felt to be going to school!
“When I got to the Mission, they stripped me, and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt! I never wore it again. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine! The color orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”
Sept. 30, then, has special significance for First Nations, and should have for non-Indigenous people all over the country.
We at the First Nations LNG Alliance urge all to give special thought that day to the residential school system, and to residential school survivors and those who didn’t make it home.
And recognize the stunning gap between the economic status of Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous people in Canada. That needs to be addressed, along with addressing Indigenous rights as part of reconciliation.
We hope, too, that the support that residential-school survivors need is increased and that all the TRC recommendations are implemented fully.
We at the Alliance are optimistic about the level of public demand for Canada to ‘do better’ in all of this.
As we urge governments to play their part in reconciliation, we also urge people to take a determined step on the Road to Reconciliation themselves; perhaps acting on one or more of the 94 Calls to Action listed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015.
Ken Coates concludes: “To a degree that is difficult to comprehend, Indigenous peoples in Canada seek real partnership and a desire to share a common pathway.
“If and when non-Indigenous peoples recognize this openness and willingness to share, the mutual journey toward real reconciliation will be much easier and might actually start to produce the desired outcomes.”