The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The racist legacy of Canada’s residential schools is still reflected in current policies

Flowers, children's shoes and other items rest at a memorial on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press, via AP)

Alicia Elliott is a Mohawk writer from Six Nations of the Grand River and author of “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground.”

Last week, the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nation confirmed that the remains of 215 Indigenous children, some as young as 3 years old, had been found buried on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

When a Liberal MP from British Columbia named Ken Hardie was asked on the radio what he will do to help Indigenous nations since this devastating discovery, he started off saying we should listen to Indigenous leaders. He then proceeded to encourage Canadians to read books by Indigenous authors.

It was a shameful response — the kind of response that seeks to avoid facing a deeper truth. As an Indigenous author, I don’t believe my work, and the work of my peers, should be used to deal with this tragedy. To suggest that is to rely on the distinctly neoliberal notion that representation in art can somehow act as a stand-in for justice and desperately needed change.

It also conveniently elides discussing why those 215 Indigenous children were found in unmarked graves to begin with. Namely, the Canadian government did not care about them, and didn’t require those they made responsible for them to care, either.

What Hardie failed to discuss was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report, which deals with the racist and brutal legacy of residential schools. And why wasn’t he asked why the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nation had to rely on a local government grant to afford searching the school grounds for their lost babies?

To be clear, the 215 children found in Kamloops were victims of racist policies that supported the residential school system — a system that was, according to the 2015 report, less about education and more about separating Indigenous children from their families in order to weaken cultural ties and indoctrinate them in what the first Canadian prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, called “the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

In other words, residential schools were put in place with the express intent of committing cultural genocide, if not genocide itself. The Canadian government was aware of alarming death rates at these schools dating all the back to 1907. Less than 25 years after residential schools became official Canadian policy, Peter Bryce released the Report on the Indian Schools of Manitoba and Northwest Territories, which revealed 24 percent of all Indigenous children at residential schools had died of tuberculosis. Bryce went so far as to call residential schools “a national crime.”

Nothing changed. The schools remained open and their conditions remained horrific. This shows the Canadian government knew exactly what they were doing to these children — and, in turn, to the families and communities they stole these children from. They simply didn’t care.

They still don’t. Continuing the legacy of Canadian negligence and Indigenous genocide, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has spent $3.2 million fighting the survivors of St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in court since 2013. His government wouldn’t even hand over the records St. Anne’s survivors needed to apply for compensation under his government’s official assessment process until the Ontario Supreme Court forced them to in 2014.

This doesn’t even touch on the fact that, following in the footsteps of residential schools, social services in Canada have unfailingly targeted Indigenous children for removal from their homes since the infamous Sixties Scoop, which removed thousands of Indigenous children from their communities and placed them with White families in the 1960s. According to the 2016 census, the situation is even worse today. Indigenous children reportedly make up 52 percent of all children in foster care. Forcibly transferring children of one group to another group is one of the five acts listed as genocide in Article II of the Genocide Convention.

Poverty is cited as one of the main reasons Indigenous children get taken from their families. I myself grew up poor. As a kid, my father had to train us on what to say to social workers so they wouldn’t take us away. I wrote about all this in my book, and I’m grateful to anyone who has read mine — or any other Indigenous writer’s work. But reading won’t stop the avalanche that is colonialism, nor will art alone rectify its ongoing, deliberate effects.

Only action can do that.

In the background of this latest gruesome discovery is the fact that only nine of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action have been fully implemented.

If Canada wants to show that it does, in fact, care about Indigenous children’s lives — and the communities, cultures and languages it has decimated, both in the past and today — there are at least 85 more concrete ways they can go about proving it.

Read more:

Alicia Elliott: Canada grapples with a charge of ‘genocide.’ For indigenous people, there’s no debate.

Courtney Skye: Canada finally acknowledged the genocide against Indigenous women. It’s time to act.

Nora Loreto: A settler-state mentality perpetuates racial injustice in Canada