The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After summer of horrific discoveries, Indigenous issues are getting little attention in Canada’s election campaign

A teddy bear sits beside a lantern outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in June as part of a makeshift memorial to honor the 215 children whose remains were discovered buried near the facility. (COLE BURSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

TORONTO — The spring and summer in Canada were marked by one grim announcement after the next.

Several Indigenous groups said they had uncovered evidence of hundreds of unmarked graves on or near the sites of former residential schools, thrusting the terror of Canada’s mistreatment of Indigenous people back into the spotlight and unleashing a nationwide tide of grief and anger.

Cities canceled Canada Day celebrations. Statues of the leaders who created the residential school system were brought down. Canadians laid children’s shoes on the steps of public buildings in makeshift memorials. There was cautious optimism that the findings would spur a real reckoning.

But halfway through a 36-day federal election campaign, as Canadians prepare to choose a prime minister, reconciliation and Indigenous affairs have received little attention on the campaign trail.

“You would think it would have — given the shock to the public consciousness — a considerable place in the election,” said Veldon Coburn, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Indigenous Research and Studies, “but it’s very quiet.”

Judy Wilson, chief of the Neskonlith Indian Band in British Columbia, said the relative absence of Indigenous issues from the public debate ahead of the Sept. 20 vote was a topic of conversation at a meeting of First Nations leaders in the province this week. She described it as “totally disappointing” but not surprising.

“It’s like this almost every election,” Wilson said. “We have to fight to get our issues raised.”

What to know about Canada’s residential schools and the unmarked graves found nearby

From the 19th century to the 1990s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were separated from their families, often forcibly, and sent to government-funded, mostly church-run residential schools, which were designed to assimilate them.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in 2015 that the schools carried out “cultural genocide.” It documented sexual and physical abuse at the schools; thousands of deaths, including from neglect; and “intractable legacies” such as the disproportionate number of Indigenous children in the child welfare system.

Then came this year’s disturbing findings. The Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced in May that a ground-penetrating radar specialist had uncovered evidence of some 200 unmarked graves near the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

In the weeks that followed, several other Indigenous groups announced their own findings. The discoveries, which stunned many non-Indigenous Canadians, rippled in the United States, where Interior Secretary Deb Haaland launched a probe of federal boarding school sites for potential unmarked graves of Native American children.

David Coletto, chief executive of the polling firm Abacus Data, said reconciliation is resonating with more voters than before. A survey taken before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a snap election last month found that 1 in 5 Canadians ranked it as a top-five priority issue — double the figure from the 2019 vote.

“It’s not the top issue for most people or even for half, but it’s a top issue for far more people than it was in the last federal election,” he said. “And I think that it is almost entirely because of the attention and the impact that the discovery of the remains of those children had on people.”

Hundreds of graves found at former residential school for Indigenous children in Canada

But despite the international attention, the election campaign has been, in the words of Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Center at the University of British Columbia, “a scattershot of debate on health policy, housing affordability and support for seniors.”

“Recent polling data demonstrates that public opinion in Canada is shifting, and one would expect this would parlay into voters demanding better policy and support for truth, justice and reconciliation with Indigenous people,” said Turpel-Lafond, a former provincial judge in Saskatchewan.

“It is a conundrum of Canadian politics,” she said, “that virtue signaling is one of our favorite stances and global exports, while the meaningful work with Indigenous peoples lags with an intransigent bureaucracy.”

In 2015, Indigenous people voted in record numbers and were in part responsible for the groundswell of support that swept Trudeau into power.

Public opinion polls show support for Trudeau has eroded since he called the election Aug. 15 in a bid to regain a parliamentary majority, with his Liberals running neck-and-neck with Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives.

Several of the main political parties have released their platforms, which dedicate some space to pledges aimed squarely at Indigenous people. But the major, almost daily policy announcements have focused mostly on other issues, including housing affordability, long-term-care reform and child care. Reconciliation has been getting only brief or passing mentions in campaign speeches or in response to questions from journalists.

The Conservatives have pledged to implement the six calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission related to unmarked graves and missing children, but they are silent on the other 88. O’Toole has held 12 “tele-town-halls” to take questions from voters on the phone or on social media. Of the more than 150 questions he has fielded, four have been about Indigenous affairs. The party did not respond to a request for comment about how the questions are selected.

The New Democrats have vowed to appoint a special prosecutor to pursue those who perpetrated abuses at the schools. Their leader, Jagmeet Singh, visited an unmarked gravesite during the first week of the campaign. Last week, in a potentially awkward moment, several Indigenous leaders in Manitoba endorsed a Liberal candidate at a New Democratic Party campaign event that Singh attended.

The Liberals, who pledged more than $250 million before the election to conduct searches of residential school sites, released their platform on Wednesday. Many pledges, such as a promise to fund mental health supports in Indigenous communities, echo those from Trudeau’s campaigns in 2015 and 2019. The party is also committing to funding searches of other federal institutions that Indigenous people were forced to attend, such as the so-called Indian hospitals.

Trudeau, who often says that Canada’s most important relationship is with Indigenous people, has faced some criticism over the slow pace of change on some prior commitments, including for a self-imposed deadline to end all long-term drinking water advisories on reserves. He made a campaign stop in Nunavut this week.

An unmarked gravesite drags a not-so-distant horror back into the spotlight. Is this a real reckoning?

O’Toole drew criticism from Indigenous leaders after he said last week that flags on federal buildings that have been at half-staff since the spring to honor the children who died at residential schools should be raised.

“It’s not a time to tear down Canada,” the Conservative Party leader told reporters. “It’s a time to recommit to build it to be the country we know it can be. And reconciliation is very important, and it should be important to all Canadians.”

Cindy Woodhouse, the Assembly of First Nations regional chief for Manitoba, said “First Nations don’t appreciate being used as a wedge issue in the pursuit of power in Ottawa.”

“Until impacted First Nations can finally name and lay to rest thousands of our little ones lying in unmarked graves … we are still grieving,” she said in a statement. “At half-mast, the Canadian flag is still flying, but if Mr. O’Toole and the Conservative Party of Canada are over this national tragedy, this is duly noted and message received.”

RoseAnne Archibald, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Tuesday that she believes flags should remain at half-staff. But she added that the space dedicated to Indigenous issues in the Conservative platform “indicates progress because we know that First Nations have had a difficult relationship with previous Conservative governments.”

“This election, more than any in the past, involves a Canadian electoral population that is more engaged and supportive of First Nation issues,” Archibald said. “And it’s essential that parties reflect our priorities in their campaigns and in their actions once they are elected.”

Read more:

Remains of 215 Indigenous children discovered at former Canadian residential school site

Thousands of Canada’s Indigenous children died in church-run boarding schools. Where are they buried?

Indigenous people in Nova Scotia exercised their right to catch lobster. Now they’re under attack.