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A different take on Canada Day this year

Canada Day is typically much more subdued than the celebrations that occur three days later in the U.S. This year, that certainly should be the case given the latest revelations related to the country’s shameful residential school era and subsequent calls for boosting reconciliation efforts.

This isn’t about cancelling Canada Day in the odious cancel-culture vein, but about taking an opportunity to note the historical record and offer some thought to the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples. There’s no going back in time to undo the wrongs, but we can recognize the harm done, help with the healing and, most importantly, make sure that systemic racism is tackled head-on.

Recent discoveries of bodies in unmarked graves at former residential schools in B.C. (215 children) and Saskatchewan (751 people) have brought the issue to the fore ahead of Canada Day – celebrations seem out of order, well beyond the inappropriateness this and last year due to the pandemic.

Though we know little about the bodies recently detected by scans – the people’s names, histories and how and why they died, for instance – we do know that the residential school system was and is a blight on the country. No matter the intentions of those who operated such schools, the system was inherently racist in assuming the children forced into such schools needed to be assimilated into the predominant culture.

Tearing children away from their parents, families and communities is rarely a good idea. Doing so systemically was always a horrible idea. That the system operated for more than a century – the last residential school closed its doors only 25 years ago – indicates the pervasive racism underlying the system.

Residential schools can trace their roots back to the Indian Act in 1876. Some two decades later, the government amended the Act to make compulsory the attendance of schools, which were often residential ones in more isolated parts of the country. Locating the schools away from Indigenous areas was an intentional policy to keep children separated from their families and communities, the better to assimilate them into mainstream life. In that it was successful, with the negative consequences still being felt today in a more fractured Indigenous culture hit disproportionately by mental health issues, substance abuse and suicide.

None of that is new information, though the discovery of hundreds of bodies does bring our usually disinterested gaze onto the issue.

As Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme noted in the case of the new revelations at the former Marieval Indian Residential School some 140 kilometres east of Regina, the bodies found there were not in a mass grave site, but rather in unmarked graves. There are in fact indications the markers may have been there and subsequently removed prior to the property being turning over by the church in the 1970s.

How many of those who died did so because of abuse, for instance, or neglect remains to be determined. Even without any direct nefarious behaviour, those operating the residential schools – predominantly church groups, Catholics in particular – were responsible for the care of the children entrusted to them.

Canada’s past mistreatment of First Nation peoples, ongoing racism and continuing issues such as boil-water advisories on reserves have not helped Canada’s standing in the world. Sensational findings such as those at former residential schools definitely bring the country’s reputation into disrepute. Recognition and even apologies are one thing, but systemic change is something else entirely.

That we’re being forced to reckon with our own past – some of it recent rather than being of a “different time” – and present may be uncomfortable, but is necessary, given the latest reminders. We can’t simply bury inconvenient truths the way residential schools did to those who died on their watch.

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