TORONTO — When the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation said in May that ground-penetrating radar had detected the remains of 215 children buried at the site of a residential school in Kamloops, B.C., many Canadians were shocked.
When, a few weeks after that, the Cowessess First Nation reported finding an estimated 751 unmarked graves outside a school on its territory, many Canadians were again astonished.
But they didn’t have to be.
While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has identified 4,100 children who died while attending residential schools, it estimates that the overall death toll from the schools could be as high as 15,000.
The commission’s final report, issued in 2015, details many of the horrors that are only now catching the attention of many Canadians.
But those stories weren’t new.
Among Indigenous Peoples, these tragedies have been well known since they occurred, passed down through the generations via oral histories.
“Most Canadians don’t actually know the true history of Canada,” Gabrielle Fayant, co-founder of the Indigenous youth organization Assembly of Seven Generations, said Tuesday on CTV News Channel.
That view was echoed on Wednesday by Matthew Hayday, a history professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario.
“This has been long known by the Indigenous community … but to the mainstream society, this is coming as a shock – and I think it is possibly causing them to question what other received ideas or commonly held beliefs they have that might also need updating,” Hayday told CTVNews.ca on Wednesday via telephone.
Several communities across Canada have cancelled local Canada Day celebrations this year, citing concerns about the appropriateness of praising Canada at a time when some of the country’s worst actions are so prominent. Some cities have asked their residents to wear orange on Thursday and reflect on Canada’s colonial history, rather than partying and celebrating.
“Take this day and really think about what Canada means, how Indigenous people have been treated by the state of Canada,” Fayant said.
“If you really look at the true history of Canada … and you come out of that introspection and reflection and say ‘Yeah, this is a good place to celebrate for Indigenous Peoples,’ then there’s not really much I can say to those people.”
Grand Chief Reg Niganobe of the Anishinabek Nation, which represents 39 First Nations in Ontario, recommended on Tuesday that all Canadians spend Canada Day learning more about the past than they already know.
“Take the time to learn about Indian Residential Schools and Indigenous history in this Canadian Nation,” he said in a press release.
“As treaty partners, learning about the history of the Canadian Nation is a shared responsibility that takes initiative and accountability from every individual occupying these lands.”
WHAT ARE WE LEARNING?
Most Canadians have never heard the oral histories that reverberate in Indigenous communities.
For most Canadians, knowledge of residential schools or any other aspect of our history is first framed by what we learned in school.
Charity group Historica Canada released a report this week assessing the state of history and social studies curricula in Canadian schools, awarding them marks that would be good enough to pass a class but not much more – an average of 67 per cent. Ontario was the only province to earn an A mark, while Quebec and Alberta brought up the rear with marks of D+ and D- respectively.
Overall, the charity said, provinces and territories “are falling particularly short in teaching Indigenous history.”
Teachers and First Nations leaders in Quebec are pushing the province to revamp its history curriculum to include more Indigenous perspectives and to be more critical of past actions of the provincial government.
The province introduced new history textbooks in 2016 that were pulled two years later due to use of the term “Amerindian” and stereotypical depictions of Indigenous Peoples.
Despite their seeming shortcomings in the classroom, there are signs that educational institutions are themselves learning more about residential schools and rethinking whether they should celebrate the architects of that system.
Catholic school boards in both Edmonton and Calgary voted this week to rename schools that had been named after Vital Grandin, a Catholic bishop who played a prominent role in the development of residential schools in Alberta.
A HISTORY OF OPPRESSION
Residential schools were termed a cultural genocide in the final report from the TRC, which was not authorized to determine whether the system amounted to a physical genocide.
The word genocide returned without the “cultural” qualifier in 2019, when a national inquiry released its report on the disproportionately high rates of violence faced by Indigenous women, girls and LGBTQ2S+ people.
Indigenous populations also face higher rates of incarceration, poverty, child welfare involvement, food insecurity and poor health outcomes than settler Canadians do – all, experts say, as a result of Canada’s long-standing policies and attitudes toward Indigenous Peoples.
Some of those injustices date back to before Canada’s creation. Others, such as the court battle over compensation for First Nations children who were unnecessarily taken into foster care, are still playing out today.
Buried within those larger aspects of Canada’s discrimination against Indigenous Peoples are countless examples of colonialism and assimilationism. For decades, Indigenous people were not allowed to leave their reserve without government permission. Many traditional Indigenous ceremonies and festivities were banned until 1951.
On an even smaller scale, Hayday points to the example of the July 1 celebration on Parliament Hill in 1965.
For the most part, the festivities would look familiar to anyone watching them through 21st-century eyes. The Dominion Day event – it wasn’t called Canada Day yet – was broadcast on national TV, Hayday said, with a young Alex Trebek as host. The Liberal government of the day wanted to show off the country’s multiculturalism, and therefore there were plenty of French-language performances, European folk dances, and so forth.
To represent First Nations, though, the festival’s organizers opted for something that had nothing to do with traditional First Nations culture: a group of girls from B.C., wearing Scottish tartans and performing bagpipe music. They were known as the Cariboo Indian Girls Pipe Band, and were recommended for the occasion by the principal of their residential school, who said they represented “the better side of our Indian people.”
“It’s just this starkly assimilationist image, when you see a group of First Nations teenage girls wearing Scottish tartan and playing the bagpipes,” Hayday told CTVNews.ca via telephone on Wednesday.
The concept of young Indigenous girls playing traditional Scottish music was thought at the time to represent Canada so well that the band was asked to perform again at Expo 67. Decades later, Hayday said, it emerged that some of the girls had been sexually assaulted by school staff members while they were there. Two staff members were convicted.
WHERE TO LEARN MORE
Stories like that of the Cariboo Indian Girls Pipe Band may be new to most Canadians, but the horrors of residential schools and other aspects of Canada’s genocide against Indigenous Peoples are well-documented. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look.
Hayday recommends these resources as a starting point for anyone interesting in learning more about Indigenous and Canadian history:
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