Canada: ‘This one unmarked grave is what genocide looks like’
Advocates demand real government action to honour 215 Indigenous children whose remains found at residential school.
Warning: The story below contains details of child abuse
Montreal, Canada – “They would just start beating you and lose control and hurl you against the wall, throw you on the floor, kick you, punch you.”
That is how Geraldine Bob, a survivor of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, described her experience at the facility in the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC), where the remains of 215 Indigenous children were recently found in an unmarked grave.
Bob’s testimony was shared by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), which in 2015 determined that Canada had committed “cultural genocide” by forcing more than 150,000 Indigenous children to attend residential schools across the country between the 1870s and 1990s.
The system intended to assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian society and eliminate what state officials at the time described as an “Indian problem”; children were forcibly separated from their parents and siblings, beaten for speaking their Indigenous languages, and suffered rampant malnutrition, physical violence, forced labour and sexual abuse.
The discovery of the children’s remains in Canada’s westernmost province on Thursday has reopened persistent wounds for First Nations, Métis and Inuit, especially residential school survivors and their families. But Indigenous advocates said it is only the tip of the iceberg – and across the country, longstanding calls for government action are growing louder.
Indigenous families “had said for years and years that they knew that there were unmarked graves, that they knew that there were all of these children missing”, said Pamela Palmater, a professor and chair of Indigenous governance at Ryerson University in Toronto.
“This one unmarked grave, of the many that are out there, is exactly what genocide looks like in this country,” Palmater told Al Jazeera. “And until we get to the truth, until we bring all of these children home, until we stop engaging in the actions that lead to the deaths of Indigenous peoples, the genocide continues.”
Canada formally apologised for its residential school system in 2008, and as part of a class-action settlement with survivors, more than $2.68bn ($3.23bn Canadian) in compensation has been paid to more than 26,700 claimants, according to a report issued earlier this year.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who campaigned on a promise to relaunch Ottawa’s relationship with Indigenous people, said on Friday that the mass grave found at Kamloops residential school was “a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history”.
Trudeau on Sunday ordered flags lowered to half-staff on federal buildings in honour of the 215 children found, as well as “all Indigenous children who never made it home, the survivors, and their families”. A day later, he also said excavating burial sites is an important step in the path to healing and pledged to support survivors and their communities going forward.
But Eva Jewell, an associate fellow at the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nations-led research centre, said Canada has implemented only eight of 94 Calls to Action issued by the TRC five years ago – including several related to the more than 4,000 Indigenous children believed to have died at residential schools. “Many, if not most, [of those children] are likely to be buried in unmarked and untended graves,” the commission reported.
The recommendations included calls for Canada to fund a national deaths register, to work with churches, Indigenous communities and residential school survivors to map cemeteries at the schools, to respond to families’ wishes for commemorations and markers, and to implement a strategy to identify, monitor and protect cemeteries.
“Last year, in 2020, no Calls to Action were completed. If the trend continues … we won’t actually complete these Calls to Action for another 50 years,” Jewell told Al Jazeera.
“The pace of truth and reconciliation is incredibly slow, which is insulting given that many survivors are now ageing and passing away, and that we have continued and ongoing issues in our communities that are a direct result of these schools – that ensure that new generations to come are continuing to suffer.”
She pointed to inequities in healthcare and education, child welfare issues, a lack of clean drinking water, and higher poverty rates, among other things. “This is all a lived reality for Indigenous peoples,” Jewell said. “Canada is not doing the work it needs to do, they are not putting in the effort they need to do, to actually realise the reconciliation that it purports to want to do.”
Indigenous child services
Since the bodies were discovered in BC last week, Indigenous leaders also have called on the federal government to provide resources to allow communities to conduct similar searches on other residential school sites across the country.
In a statement on May 28, Canada’s ministers of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Indigenous Services said the government has engaged with Indigenous communities on how best to implement the TRC’s calls to action related to deaths at residential schools. “We have listened and are ensuring that the approaches taken moving forward are Indigenous-led, community-based, survivor-centric and culturally sensitive,” the ministers said.
Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada told Al Jazeera in an email that the country’s 2019 budget provided $28m ($33.8m Canadian) over three years to support the Calls to Action on deaths at the schools. In 16 virtual engagement sessions, the government heard from survivors and other Indigenous stakeholders “on how to move forward on implementing this work”, the department said.
But observers continue to question the slow pace of implementing the Calls to Action. Others have also pointed to the fact that Canada has spent millions of dollars fighting an effort by survivors of St Anne’s Residential School – a notorious Ontario facility where Indigenous children were shocked in a makeshift electric chair and forced to eat their own vomit – to get the government to hand over documents detailing abuse at the school and receive compensation.
While residential schools may be closed, “the government pattern of behaviour towards First Nations, Métis and Inuit children has not come very far from the attitude that allowed for residential schools to go in the first place”, said Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.
Indigenous children continue to be removed from their families and communities in disproportionate numbers. According to 2016 census data, more than 52 percent of children in foster care that year were Indigenous, while Indigenous children made up only 7.7 percent of the country’s total population.
Blackstock also said she is going back to federal court in mid-June as part of a years-long effort to get Canada to adequately fund Indigenous child and family services.
In a landmark 2016 decision, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled the Canadian government was underfunding services for First Nations children on reserves. The tribunal said discrimination in the provision of services “perpetuate(s) the historical disadvantage and trauma suffered by Aboriginal people, in particular as a result of the Residential Schools system”.
But while the tribunal ordered Canada to compensate First Nations children – and later, to extend eligibility for government services to more Indigenous children – Blackstock told Al Jazeera that Ottawa is still not fully compliant with the decisions.
The government said earlier this year that it is “committed to advancing compensation for First Nations children in care and has undertaken significant reform to the First Nation Child and Family Services system”.
But with the court battle continuing, Blackstock said it is clear that recent government comments about the discovery at Kamloops residential school are not good enough.
“I think an elder once said that integrity is when words have meaning,” she said, “and what would be far more meaningful and what would be a far more respectful way to honour these children is to stop fighting them in court, to obey the orders and to end the discrimination.”
Canada’s Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.