This first Truth and Reconciliation Day is bound to be difficult for everyone.
As our country stops for a day (on Sept. 30) to hang its head for its past, residential school survivors and their families and communities impacted by the trauma of this legacy feel an old familiar pain. For non-Indigenous Canadians, there might be a new and unfamiliar sense of shame as we grapple with our beloved country’s history with its First Peoples.
This summer, when children’s unmarked graves were discovered adjacent to several former residential school sites, it was the first time many Canadians faced this truth. Indigenous people have always known about the unrecorded deaths, but it didn’t ease their burden as they watched others make this discovery.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in 2015 has a whole volume warning Canadians that thousands of these graves exist. So no one should have been surprised by this in 2021. That part is hard – realizing that many Canadians just thought the TRC was about compensating survivors, not understanding the breadth of the very heavy work that was done in that exercise.
There’s no sense lamenting that Canadians should have paid more attention to the contents of that final report and better understood the truth of residential schools. From 1831 until the last one was shuttered in 1996, 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were put in 140 schools designed to “kill the Indian in the child.” The goal was to erase a culture, to destroy the family structure and community bonds. And on top of that, many of those children were physically and sexually abused while in these “schools.”
If you read the United Nations’ definition of genocide, our country checked all the boxes. That’s pretty awful to come to grips with.
But with that truth more widely understood, we can look ahead to reconciliation and the role we all have in that. And that’s something to feel good about.
It’s more than wearing an orange shirt today. It is understanding that the legacy of residential schools is not historic – it is still alive.
It lives in the patriarchal Indian Act system Canada has inflicted on First Nations. It’s alive in dishonouring treaties. It’s alive in the over-representation of Indigenous people in jails and the disproportionate number of Indigenous women and girls who go missing or are murdered. It’s alive in systemic racism and it’s alive in the child welfare system.
A lot of my time as a journalist in recent years has been spent on this multi-million-dollar industry that I always believed existed only to protect children from neglect and abuse. The truth is there are now more kids in government custody than at the height of residential schools and many of them aren’t abused or neglected. Child welfare is just the newest way of destroying Indigenous families while employing a lot of people. There’s an entire economy in stealing Indigenous kids.
Part of reconciliation is seeing what is happening around us and dismantling those systems.
So while in your orange shirt tomorrow, I ask that you read even one of these three things: