Editorial: Canada’s darkest moments must be owned for a better future

Ottawa, Canada. June 1, 2021. Memorial in tribute to 215 aboriginal children whose remain found in Residential School in Kamloops. Every Child Matters sign by Toys and shoes dropped in memory. Shutterstock

There is much to be proud of in Canada as the nation it is today—the legacy of the residential school system and other policies towards Indigenous peoples do not feature on that list.

The ongoing discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children in the vicinity of former residential schools has escalated into thousands, with little end in sight, and cast a dark shadow over this year’s Canada Day celebrations—as well it should.

For most non-Indigenous Canadians the truth of the residential school system came as a shock, providing a serious blow to our national self-image. 

Most Canadians grew up learning how our nation was so much better than that of our neighbours to the south in how we interacted with the land’s Indigenous peoples. Instead of the 7th Cavalry storming out of the hills and into the villages of slumbering men, women and children, slaughtering each indiscriminately, we were taught that Canada provided haven to Sitting Bull and his people in the aftermath of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The image provided to young Canadian school children was that of a single brave Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer sitting in the lodge of the Sioux chieftain, sharing a pipe and negotiating a peaceful coexistence with the Sioux.

We did not learn about the genocidal policies of successive Canadian governments, aided and abetted not only by church and state, but supported broadly the zeitgeist of the general populations at large.

There has been a lot made of the complicity of the Catholic Church in the residential system, but there were many other churches involved in the system—all of whose congregations were deeply instilled in the belief that the British way of life exemplified the very pinnacle of civilization itself (well, maybe not the Irish, but that in itself is another shameful blot on old Blighty).

It was very conciliatory of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to refer to the government’s actions as “cultural” genocide. It fell well in line with the litany of excuses we have since told ourselves or amplified in the stories told by others. But the hard and brutal truth is that there is no such thing as “cultural genocide.” It was an attempted genocide, plain and simple, and that genocide very nearly succeeded, with the fallout still bedeviling our judicial and social systems—imbuing them with systemic racism.

The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article Two, defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Does that sound familiar? Killing members of the group? Enter the bounty on the Beothuk, which fits that bill directly, eventually leading to the cultural extinction of that group (apparently Beothuk DNA still survives in some individuals, but the culture itself is long gone).

Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group? Deliberate starvation of Indigenous communities to make them more pliable, providing too little subsidy to the church groups running the residential schools to provide adequate food or shelter to their charges fits that bill. 

Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part? See the previous answers on food supplies and residential schools. 

Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group? Forced sterilizations of Indigenous women have been widely documented in the not-so-historical record and then comes the 60s Scoop, forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

There is no room for prevaricating on this. Canada was involved in what unequivocally falls within the very definition of genocide. As for our population, most went blithely along with the premise that the nation was simply engaged in what was then known as the “white man’s burden,” bringing civilization to the benighted savages of this wild and untamed land. That ignorance was bolstered by the fact that we were the beneficiaries. After all, Natives weren’t using the land’s resources to their full potential—as egregious a sin through the lens of Victorian sentiments as could be found.

Much has been made of reconciliation in recent years, but how do you reconcile with someone who refuses to accept their actions or who makes constant excuses for themselves to evade censure? Until Canada stands before the world to own up that our nation is guilty as charged, we have no moral authority to condemn the Turks for its actions against the Armenians, the Chinese for their persecution of the Uighurs, the Hutu massacre of the Tutsis or any of the many other inhumanities that are going on across the globe.

Our prime minister has recently pointed out the vast differences between what is currently happening in China and Canada as a nation today, but that glosses over the blatant fact that the vestiges of our complicity in genocide remain deeply embedded in our nation’s systems and in the perceptual screens of our citizenry at large.

Canada is a far better nation than that which was founded by Sir John A. MacDonald and company in 1867, and it is a nation well worth celebrating, especially for its aspirations and many accomplishments, but Canada—that’s we, us—remains a nation haunted by the ghosts of the inhumanity dominant in society in general in those times. The very first step in any apology, in any restoration of justice, should be to admit what you have done. Honestly, truthfully and without prevarication or evasion.

The facts speak for themselves—Canada is guilty of genocide. That hurts—and it should—it goes against everything we see when as look at ourselves in the mirrors as a nation, it goes against everything we have been taught all our lives about ourselves. But it is time to stop making excuses, or foisting blame on the Catholic Church, or the Anglican Church, or the Methodists, or the United Church (all of whom operated residential schools) or even the government for that reality—l’etat c’est et moi, in a democracy the state it is us.

As tenants sharing this land, we all continue to benefit from the crimes of those who founded our nation—those individuals responsible for those crimes may be now be far beyond the reach of all but history’s judgment, so it is left to we, their heirs, to make amends. It starts with a very difficult admission.

This Canada Day, it is okay to be proud of what we have accomplished as a nation and the strides we have accomplished in our journey toward a just and civil society, but this Canada Day, at the very least, all Canadians should stand in solidarity with our Indigenous partners and reflect on the blood that mixes with the mortar that lies in the very base of our foundation.