I have always been extremely proud to be a Canadian.
And I am afraid the discovery of 751 unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan and another 215 at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C. hasn’t changed that.
Don’t get me wrong. I feel tremendous shame for the government policy that was in place for years, tearing indigenous children as young as five from their homes in an effort at assimilating the entire indigenous population.
This led to what can only be described as atrocities in the residential schools that were put in place. It has left many in indigenous communities not knowing what happened to their children in these schools because they seemed to simply disappear.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission said in a 2015 report that many of the students were subjected to physical and sexual abuse at the schools, which barred them from practicing their traditions and speaking their languages. It said the schools carried out “cultural genocide” and effectively institutionalized child neglect.
“This was an incredibly harmful government policy that was Canada’s reality for many, many decades,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday about the history of residential schools. “And Canadians today are horrified and ashamed of how our country behaved, about a policy that ripped kids from their homes, from their communities, from their culture and their language, and forced assimilation upon them.”
This all happened. It was horrible.
But where do we go from here.
Tom Mills did a masterful job addressing this subject in a column in The Sault Star last week.
“It’s important to be honest about where we’ve been, but surely our main attention should be focussed on where we’re going,” he said.
He’s right, of course.
But I can’t help looking back and wondering how the policy of assimilation and the use of residential schools went on for so long, why it took close to a hundred years for members of the white population in power in this country to realize how inhumane it was.
I also ask myself. Where was I?
I was a journalist. How did I not know? Was I not listening or was I not told?
I find I am beating myself up over my shortcomings in this regard, believing that during my time as city editor of The Edmonton Journal is the 1970s, with reporters assigned to native affairs, I should have done something, anything.
I was editor of The Sault Star for 18 years and I did not speak out there either.
And I am not alone in this. I find fault with the entire media in this country. If they had come down on this many, many years ago it probably could have brought it to an end.
But I suppose I have to give them the benefit of the doubt, as I am trying to do for myself. Maybe they didn’t know.
I keep telling myself this has to be the case because the stories of the abuse the children in these schools underwent would ordinarily be undertaken with a vengeance by the news organization that came upon it.
But I am cautioned by the following comment from Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa: “For a long time, this is what survivors, family members have always said… but nobody believed them,”
I apologize for any part I played in that.
In regard to apologies, leaders of the Anglican and United Churches have made them but although residential school survivors and Trudeau have pushed the Vatican to make an official apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the system, nothing has been forthcoming from Pope Francis.
I suppose this can be expected, considering how little this church has done to control the pedophilia within the priesthood.
But it is time, considering the major role the Catholic Church played in running so many of the residential schools across the country, Francis apologized on behalf of the church.
Essentially this apology will only be symbolic since the schools are no more, but it would at least let it be known that the church realizes and accepts the role it played in a flawed and inhumane government policy.
I used to balk when countries like China brought forth this country’s treatment of its natives when it had been criticized for its human rights violations and I still will.
Because, although our operation of residential schools for the indigenous certainly gives Canada a black mark, I believe that the excesses of China’s authoritarian regime far exceeds our own.
That is not to say Canada does not have work to do.
“The findings in Marieval and Kamloops are part of a larger tragedy,” Trudeau said in a statement. “They are a shameful reminder of the systemic racism, discrimination, and injustice that Indigenous peoples have faced — and continue to face — in this country.”
So I would say that while we must do all we can to assist in identifying those resting in the unmarked graves, beyond that we must work to battle racism and do all we can to ensure that indigenous communities have access to all the services the general population enjoys, first and foremost being access to potable water.
That doesn’t seem too much to ask
As for the #cancelcanadaday calls that began trending on social media after the stories about the unmarked graves surfaced, I say ignore them.
The residential schools do not define Canada. It is still a country to be proud of. Celebrate it.