by Yameen Khurshid
Image: GoToVan / Flickr
Earlier this year (June 24th), 715 unmarked graves of Indigenous children were found at a former Canadian residential school (Marieval Residential School) on the Cowessess First Nation, east of Regina — just weeks following the discovery of the remains of 215 more children at a former B.C. residential school.
Over four-thousand children reportedly died in residential schools, however, estimates show that the number could be as high as +15,000 (according to Murray Sinclair, a former Canadian senator and one of the first Indigenous judges of Canada).
When I hear these statistics, I am at a loss for words. The children recovered from those graves make me think of my little brother, who is not much older. The thought that children his age were snatched from their parents, abused, and ultimately killed in Canada by an institution upheld by the Canadian government is something I can’t fathom.
But the reality is, there’s a much darker history to these findings. A history of over 100 years of violence, struggle, and hate. We will forever know this history as a dark scar on our nation’s past.
The Dark History of Canada’s Residential Schools.
Canada’s first residential schools were opened in 1831 (40 years before The Dominion of Canada was officially born). Fifty years later, in the 1880s, residential schools received direct funding and support from Canada’s federal government.
The support was passed alongside the Indian Act (enacted in 1876), which allowed the government to control a wide range of Indigenous life such as land, resources, education, and more. The Indian Act also made attendance at residential schools mandatory for all Indigenous children aged 4-16 years old.
Sir John A. Macdonald is widely known as Canada’s first Prime Minister. He was also the architect of Canadian residential schools. In a statement, he discussed the reasons why residential schools were created and were the right choice for Canada. This is what he had to say:
“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
Hatred for Indigenous peoples was rooted into early Canadian culture. Our country saw generations of Canadians growing up knowing nothing but hatred for the people who were different from them.
The harms of residential schools continue to bring trauma to Indigenous communities.
Elder Florence Sparvier, a survivor of a residential school, spoke up about her trauma,
“They made us believe we didn’t have souls…we learned not to like who we were.”
Almost 200,000 children attended those schools over the course of 150 years. Many never returned — their families were only given vague explanations of their fates, and in some cases none at all. Their odds of survival were as low as Canadian soldiers serving in WWII.
Following these events, government leaders such as Justin Trudeau, Erin O’Toole, and Jagmeet Singh have been stepping forward to advocate for awareness on this issue.
“The hurt and the trauma that you feel is Canada’s responsibility to bear, and the government will continue to provide Indigenous communities across the country with the funding and resources they need to bring these terrible wrongs to light. While we cannot bring back those who were lost, we can — and we will — tell the truth of these injustices, and we will forever honour their memory.” — Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada
Leaders, communities, and individuals have been stepping forward in order to bring awareness to our past and reconcile for our future. They have been helping to aid Indigenous communities and raise awareness about the hate of the past, in hopes to create a better future.
Change is coming. But it arrived too late for those children.
We Need to Create a Better World.
At this moment, I can only think about those 930 children and their families — whom we failed. As a country, Canada is known for its acceptance and love for others, but the events that took place throughout the era of residential schools will always represent a dark past for our country.
And with the fact known that our government spent over $3 million fighting survivors of residential schools, we need to make sure, as a community, that our actions and the actions of our government change in order to redeem our faults of the past.
But even with all the financial and social aid, support, etc., Indigenous communities are still in despair. For example, Indigenous children account for 7.7% of Canada’s population (under the age of 15), yet represent over 50% of all Canadian children in foster care.
So I will ask again, are we doing enough? The answer is clear, no.
We cannot change our past, but we can use those lessons to influence the future. To this day, Indigenous communities around the world are facing injustices and challenges like no other.
It isn’t about politics anymore, it’s about the future of our country and the future of Indigenous communities around the globe.
We need to acknowledge the truth of what happened.
We need to tell their stories so that they are never forgotten.
We need to learn from our past and aim to build a better future — a better world for those we neglected. Every single one of those children deserves justice.
We will remember them. We will remember their pain, we will remember their legacies, and we must spread their stories.
It is our duty as Canadians — as humans — to give them justice.