By Jim Poling Sr.
The sorrowful story of Canadian residential schools, established to wipe away Indigenous languages and culture, is back in the headlines.
What returned it to the forefront is the discovery of unmarked graves at a former Kamloops residential school for Indigenous children. It is believed the graves contain the remains of 215 children, presumed to have been undocumented deaths at the school.
The Canadian government along with several Christian churches operated 139 residential schools between 1831 and 1996. The schools were designed to turn the children into “normal” Canadians by stripping them of their “Indianness.”
An estimated 6,000 children died at the schools from disease, accidents, neglect and abuse but there are no complete official records, so an accurate figure is unknown. Most of the dead children were buried on school grounds, often in unmarked graves.
There are few revelations in the latest residential school news, except that ground-penetrating radar found many more bodies than expected. That technology likely will find other remains at other residential schools with unmarked graves.
The Kamloops discovery has reopened wounds from the residential school system and debate about who was wrong, who has and hasn’t apologized and why there has not been enough action taken on promises of reconciliation.
That is unfortunate because much of the debate is focussed on the past and is draining time and energy from the most important action that needs to be taken now.
Almost everything there is to know about what happened in residential schools is known. It has been the subject of piles of studies, books, news stories and major commission reports such as the Truth and Reconciliation Report (2015) the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
It’s all history, and while history is critically important and should not be forgotten, it is time to focus on the present and what we do not know: How many unmarked graves are there, how many children are buried in those graves, who are they, and what is the plan for giving their remains proper burial in proper cemeteries with proper markers?
A variety of political figures, government agencies, churches and religious orders have been blamed for the residential schools’ nightmare. However, all Canadians, even those not born in the residential school era, must share the blame, shame and the responsibility for doing what needs to be done now.
We all must because residential schools were a shameful act of racism committed by our country. And, this racism still exists in Canada today with not enough effort to eliminate it.
It’s racism that dozens of Indigenous communities are without clean drinking water despite years of government promises to clean up polluted water.
It’s racism that we have done next to nothing to act on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action. The Commission called the residential school system “cultural genocide” but only 10 of its 94 calls to action have been completed in the last six years.
Four years ago, on National Aboriginal Day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said:
“No relationship is more important to Canada than the relationship with Indigenous Peoples.”
If he really believes that he should personally lead urgent actions to restore the dignity taken from our Indigenous brothers and sisters by the residential school system. Action now, not limping action dragging over the next five, 10, 15 years.
It is urgent that the bones of those children who died in residential schools be placed in well-maintained cemeteries where people can see who they were and understand the shame of what happened to them.
Those cemeteries and the children they hold will remind us that this kind of shameful abuse against our own people can never be tolerated again. They will remind all that Canada is a racist country but that we are working to change that.
They also will be a reminder that the world is populated now by only one species of human being, not the many different forms of humans that existed thousands of years ago. One species with different cultures, different languages, different religious beliefs and different skin colours.
But one species of human beings, basically the same and all deserving equality and each other’s respect.