I.It is not often that Canadians have to apologize for their country. I have traveled the world reporting on conflict and human rights and they always greet me positively when I say I am Canadian. “It is a beautiful country,” they tell me. “Your country cares about its citizens.” In Canada, people make sympathetic noises when I retell whatever tragic story I’ve been working on. “We are very lucky to live in Canada,” they say.
Canadians like the idea of a “good” country full of “good” people. It even has a name: “the angel complex.” Look at all the immigrants and refugees that we welcome here, the doctrine says, we are not like those American racists or those European xenophobes. Canada proudly considers itself multicultural, tolerant, peaceful and educated. A beacon of light for the world.
Except for the 5% of the population that was here first. For the indigenous people of this land, the existence of the country has caused centuries of suffering so severe that human rights courts have described it as genocide.
It is dangerous to believe in your own exaggeration, to be convinced that they are the “good guys.” Since 1980, between 2,000 and 4,000 indigenous women have disappeared in Canada; the police rarely take disappearances seriously. The final report of the National investigation on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls He came to the “inescapable conclusion” that Canada, from its pre-colonial past until today, had aimed to “destroy indigenous peoples.”
The 2019 report explained how Canada’s policies qualified as genocide. What followed its publication was not a nationwide recognition or remembrance day, but complaints among the chattering class about what Really constituted genocide: Rwanda, Auschwitz – those were genocides! There was also talk of how damaging the term genocide would be to Canada’s international reputation. We are mostly good, why let our actions over the last 200 years get in the way?
In 2015, four years before that report on missing women, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) completed its work. This had been a gigantic undertaking that included taking the testimony of more than 6,500 survivors of the residential school system: mandatory boarding schools that the Canadian government paid Christian churches to run. Indigenous children were forced to attend. They were malnourished, often physically and sexually abused, and used as guinea pigs for medical experiments. After years of thorough investigation, the commission submitted 94 calls to action for the Canadian government. Until a few weeks ago, the government had completed only 10 of them.
Last month, when the remains of 215 missing indigenous children were found in anonymous graves at the site of a residential school near Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada’s dirty secret was exposed to the world. Thousands of indigenous children had been missing for almost two centuries: why did it take so long to find them? Each was someone’s child, stolen from their parents, brutalized, abandoned, and buried in a nameless grave. The parents and relatives of those children had been saying for years that there were graves around the school. It took so long because no one who could do anything believed them or cared.
In the past week 751 more unidentified graves were found at the Marieval Indigenous Residential School site in Saskatchewan, which operated until 1997. That leaves 137 plus residential school grounds examine. It is fair to extrapolate that many more unidentified children’s graves will be found. However, the desire for obfuscation and denial remains strong. In a tweet after the discovery of Kamloops, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau referred to residential schools as “a dark chapter,” as if they were a thing of the past.
Seven generations of indigenous people went through these “schools.” They were created to “Take the Indian out of the child,” in the words of Canada’s first prime minister, John McDonald, to force assimilation through loss of language and culture.
The reality stories of children’s lives in these schools, as recounted in the four volumes of the CVR, which include 6,500 testimonies of surviving children, contain horrors on an incredible scale. One man speaks of being raped so many times by the priest in charge that he threw himself in front of a huge log that was rolling downhill, breaking several bones to make sure he was taken away.
Children often died trying to escape; some drowned, others found themselves frozen by the roadside. A girl who became pregnant by another rapist priest was told that her baby had been thrown into a furnace. Even the lucky child who escaped physical or sexual abuse would have been separated from his parents indefinitely, his culture would have been denigrated and his hair cut, prohibited from speaking his own language, given a number instead of a name, he would have been malnourished, badly dressed and racist nicknames.
In the last month there has been a flurry of activity from a government suddenly eager to act. The calls to action made by the CVR in 2015 are suddenly at the top of the agenda. Why was the discovery of the children’s remains necessary for Canada to finally believe that it committed genocide?
Violence and torture on this scale remind me of reports on life in Cambodia under Pol Pot. It has all the elements of the worst things I have seen anywhere: starvation, displacement, kidnapping, rape, disappearance, nameless graves, genocide.
It is time for Canada to remove its halo and look in the mirror. It can no longer be up to the survivors of the Canadian genocide to educate us, to show that they suffered. For there to be true reconciliation in Canada, we must all carry these stories. The anonymous tombs of Kamloops make it impossible to say we didn’t know.