Why many Canadians don’t seem to care about the lasting effects of residential schools

·6 min read

Shock swept across the country as many Canadians learned that the remains of an estimated 215 children were found at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

For Indigenous people, the tragic discovery didn’t come as a surprise — thousands of Indigenous children never came home from residential schools and their whereabouts remain unknown.

As a settler researcher who studies how we acknowledge the past and build ties between communities, what I find surprising is that many of us continue to be shocked.

Tip of the iceberg

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) concluded that more than 4,100 children died while attending a residential school, but that figure is a conservative estimate.

We may never know the true figures.

The violence of residential schools is like a slice across the spectrum of the Indigenous–settler relationship,” writes transitional justice scholar Rosemary Nagy. By taking children from their families, and in the physical and psychological abuses carried out there, residential schools were an integral aspect of broader policies that enacted violences and harms — many of which meet the legal definition of genocide — that were carried out and continue to be carried out against Indigenous people every day.

Read more: Canada's hypocrisy: Recognizing genocide except its own against Indigenous peoples

But the residential school system was also one among many systems of violences and harms. Residential schools represent the tip of the iceberg. Seeing the iceberg has been made deliberately difficult because our society has been planned, designed and legislated to make those abuses and their effects invisible, and render Indigenous lives inconsequential to settlers’ lives.

In this context, the broad picture of how residential schools relate to larger colonial violence has never been adequately explained to us. Only very recently, since the TRC, have provinces and territories begun to include the history of residential schools in curriculum. But CBC reports that “not all of it is mandatory, nor is it extensive.”

Also, in part, it’s that many of us (settlers) choose not to see it. Because it makes us uncomfortable.

Connect the dots

Many people living across what we now call Canada know a little bit about residential schools, or problems like persistent unclean drinking water in Indigenous communities.

But Canadians remain unable or unwilling to connect the dots — the unifying factor being the Indian Act, a piece of federal legislation designed to control every aspect of the lives of Indigenous people living in Canada.

The Indian Act determines whether and if funding is allocated to Indigenous communities for water systems, housing, health care, and so on, and has the power to deny those communities even the basics.

Read more: Dear white people, wake up: Canada is racist

But many people remain unaware that the physical, sexual and psychological abuse that many Indigenous children suffered at the state-mandated and church-run Indian Residential Schools left deep scars that still have not been healed.

Unless and until people connect those realities, so that the links between harms are joined, it is hard to see the wide and dangerous scope of those harms as a whole.

Recognize harms

My recent book, Thin Sympathy: A Strategy to Thicken Transitional Justice examines the failure of deeply divided societies to acknowledge the past. Based on my research that looks at how Uganda has failed to come to terms with its own horrific past, it is clear that the path to reconciliation must be paved with a recognition of harm and abuse. That work demonstrates Canadians too need help to build an understanding of the basic facts about specific harms in Canada.

Settler people across Canada need to change the broader social ethos to allow the work of coming to terms with the past, and our role in all of it, to start.

As a country, we need to embark on a process to understand what has happened. And despite the best efforts of the TRC and the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, across the country, people en masse have largely failed to take up these efforts.

Because we fail to admit to what has taken place, and consequently feel no urgency to address these harms, the calls made by both the TRC and MMIWG Inquiry have overwhelmingly not yet been implemented.

Legal obligation, moral imperative

Here’s the thing: My research suggests people across the country only need to understand the basics of what happened and the consequences of those harms.

That knowledge should be enough to allow non-Indigenous people in Canada to take stock of their own particular circumstances and realities, support the hard work that needs to be done and encourage them to take part in building new relationships.

Indigenous communities have put a lot of time and thought into re-thinking the Indian Act, and proposing solutions for the way forward. The rest of the country needs to catch up.

In consultation with Indigenous communities, Canada needs to listen to what communities say and make needed changes.

Real equality and respect for Indigenous people and their rights are legal obligations and moral imperatives.

Making them a reality is what will lead to reconciliation, and that can only come once our country takes the time to understand the harms that continue to affect Indigenous communities.

Read more: The road to reconciliation starts with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The benefit of an increased awareness of what has taken place will make Canadians more open to participate in the change-making that is needed.

People stand outside at a memorial wearing face masks with a range of sad, stunned and exhausted emotion on their faces.
People gather in Edmonton in recognition of the discovery of children’s remains at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Start now

Campaigns to do this need to start now.

These efforts can be undertaken by government and community groups, non-governmental organizations and individuals.

At the government level, it could involve changing the curriculum in schools, establishing a commission of inquiry and openly implementing the TRC’s Calls to Action.

At the “informal” or non-government level, it could involve expert panels established by scholarly organizations like the Royal Society of Canada. It could mean dramas or films, TV and radio programs, and newspaper and digital media campaigns that spell out the total scope and effects of these damaging systems plainly.

Individuals could make a difference in many ways.

The Globe and Mail recently ran the headline, “Indigenous leaders say discovery of children’s remains at Kamloops residential school is beginning of national reckoning.”

And while I would like to hope so, it’s going to take a lot of conversations to make that happen. Non-Indigenous people here in Canada need to roll up our sleeves and get down to work to consciously understand the harms and violences that continue to hurt Indigenous people across the country — and do something to rectify it.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Joanna R. Quinn, Western University.

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Joanna R. Quinn receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. In the past, she has received funding from the United States Institute of Peace.