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As history unravels, Canada makes amends with indigenous communities10 min read

June 14, 2021 7 min read


As history unravels, Canada makes amends with indigenous communities10 min read

Reading Time: 7 minutes
  • Content warning: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
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  • Recommended for: Ages 12+

In May 2021, Canada was reminded of the darkest chapter in its history when a scattered grave was found at the site of the now closed Kamloops Indian Residential School. 215 bodies of disappeared indigenous children have been found in this discovery. It is a tragedy that has jolted the world, that connects the past to the present, and questions the future. This special throws light on the context of this discovery, and its long history.

Image: Reuters

Colonialism occurs when one country acquires political control over another country. This is what Britain did to India after Major General Robert Clive won the Battle of Plassey in 1947 against the last Nawab of Bengal, and his French allies. We have read about it in our history books, and have celebrated the spirit of those who fought for India’s independence. But colonialism also has a pervasive history spread across many parts of the world, and Owliver brings to you a heartbreaking story of colonialism all the way from Canada.

The actual history

Before 1534, Canada was populated by indigenous people.

Indigenous people is a collective term for the earliest settlers in North America, and their descendants. As of today, the Canadian Constitution recognizes three groups of indigenous peoples: First Nations, Inuit and Métis.

Inuit people of Canada. Image: The Independent

The First Nations were the first to experience prolonged European contact via trade, and settlement. The Inuit are part of a culturally similar group of indigenous people found across Greenland, Alaska, and Canada. Métis are part indigenous and part non-indigenous (with part-European ancestry).

But in 1534, Jacques Cartier claimed this land for France. And in 1713, Britain joined this occupation by gaining control over Hudson Bay, Newfoundland & Acadia. Disputes begin to emerge between the two colonial powers over some territories, which Britain wins.

Economic and geographic control are just a part of the puzzle. The things hardest to erase are traditions, languages, art forms, and beliefs, all constituting culture.

The USA finally created a fine demarcation of the US and Canadian border in 1818. In 1857, Queen Victoria made Ottawa the capital of Canada after which construction of several Parliament buildings began. In 1867, Canada is officially instituted, and Sir John A. Macdonald becomes the first Prime Minister of the country.

Culture is a lasting marker of a pre-colonial era, and for Canada this culture rested in its indigenous population. A plan was devised to remove this visible difference and to assimilate the indigenous population with the new order in Canada. And this plan took form as the infamous residential schools.

Schools of Transformation

Kamloops Indian Residential School. Image: CNN

The residential schools were government sponsored religious schools that were meant to educate the indigenous children in the ways of the burgeoning Euro-Canadian culture. The first residential school was established in New France in 1831 but the term usually applies to the schools established after 1880. Close to 1,50,000 indigenous children studied in these schools. Over 130 residential schools operated in Canada between 1831 and 1996.

When the first schools were opened, the colonial government did not get any participation from the indigenous people. They were a largely independent group. Also, at that time the government depended on them for economic and military support. The schools became a part of the government and church policy in 1830s. The indigenous leaders thought that this would give their children the opportunity to understand the new world, and the government thought that this would create more self-reliant indigenous people who will not depend on public funds.

But the schools that came to be were far from the dreams of the indigenous leaders.

Inside the dark hallways

Inside the schools, the children were stripped of their indigenous identity. They were not allowed to speak in their languages. They were separated from their communities, parents, and even their siblings as schools were segregated based on gender. For boys, their hair was cut. In indigenous communities, cutting hair is a symbol of mourning. In the schools, it became a symbol of civilisation.

Their clothes were replaced by uniforms, and in some cases, even their names were changed to suit the tongue of the modern world. While a lot of focus was given to Christian practices, the ways of the indigenous were degraded. Some students could not go back to their families for several years at a stretch.

Watch the story of Lillian Elias, a survivor of the schools , who fought hard to keep her language alive:

The schools worked on a half-day system where the students studied through one-half, and worked in the second-half.

Chores were also gendered – tasks like cleaning, washing and cooking were assigned to girls, and boys took charge of carpentry, agriculture, and basic maintenance. Funding remained an issue and the unpaid labour by the students bridged the necessary gap. The half-day system was scrapped only in the 1950s when adequate funding was generated.

Survivors of the schools have reported several instances of abuse. In some cases, children were beaten, and isolated. The schools were also overcrowded and the students were subject to poor nutrition. Some students were also subjected to nutritional experiments where their nutrition was curtailed to judge the impact of nutritional improvements in other students.

As a result of overcrowding and poor nutrition, diseases like tuberculosis, influenza, smallpox, measles, typhoid, diphtheria, pneumonia, and whooping cough broke out in the schools. Close to 6,000 indigenous children died in these schools.

The schools became a marker of colonial tyranny for their ill-treatment of the indigenous children who stayed there.

R.C. Indian Residential School, (Credit: Library and Archives Canada /, Canadian Encyclopedia

Resistance, and closure

Several students protested against the regime of the schools. At least 25 fires were set by students as markers of protest. The government also started facing opposition from the indigenous community who either wanted the schools to be shut down or handed over to the locals. By 1940s, the government and the church could see that the schools remained ineffective. The students who were distanced from their heritage could neither belong to their own history or to the one colonisers were intending to introduce them to. In 1969, church involvement ended when the system was taken over by the Department of Indian Affairs.

In 1993, the last residential school was closed for good.

The road to recovery

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was organized by the parties of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement from 2008- 2015 to assess the impacts of the residential schools on its students. Their findings showed that the staff at the schools was inadequate, the curriculum was too basic, and that many students left before they could complete their education.  The TRC Chair, Justice Murray Sinclair, also said that the death toll from these schools may have been more than 6,000. However, poor documentation came in the way of an exact number.

Children’s shoes, toys, candy, tobacco and flowers are left at a residential school in Manitoba. Image: Reuters

In late 1990s, students and survivors of the schools demanded that the government and the church publicly acknowledge their role in this crisis and offer compensation to them. In 2005, 1.9 billion dollars were set aside as compensation packages to the survivors of abuse at the schools. In 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, issued a formal public apology for Canada’s treatment of its indigenous people.

Is there a way to make amends for the past? Head over to Owliver’s archives on the Tulsa massacre for more on the subject.

In a special ceremony organised by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Quebec, the names of 2,800 children who died in residential schools were released. The commission prepared the list after years of archival research from government and church records going all the way back to the 1890s.

The children’s names were displayed on a huge 47-metre long, blood-red cloth banner along with the schools they went to.

Image: BBC

The discovery of the remains have resurfaced old wounds. The flags at all federal buildings were at half-staff. The present Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, met with his ministers to talk about how they can continue supporting the indigenous population.

“As Prime Minister, I am appalled by the shameful policy that stole Indigenous children from their communities… Sadly, this is not an exception or an isolated incident. We’re not going to hide from that. We have to acknowledge the truth. Residential schools were a reality – a tragedy that existed here, in our country, and we have to own up to it. Kids were taken from their families, returned damaged or not returned at all.”

Trudeau, Kare 11

Indigenous leaders are now demanding for examination of every former residential school in Canada. The discovery has offered a possibility of returning lost identities to their own history.

Hear Rita Joe’s poem, I Lost My Talk, a recollection of her time at Schubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia, and how she hopes to bring a change with her words:

What does it mean to be truly civilised? Clearly, the residential schools were not places of civility.
How close are you to your native language? What does it mean to you?
Do you notice the impact of colonialism around you?
Feel free to share with Owliver in the comments section, below.

With excerpts from Kare 11, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Economic Times, CNN, BBC, and Reuters

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