I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this statement, after an awful revelation of Canada’s colonial treatment of Indigenous people: “It all happened in the past. Canada shouldn’t be held accountable for what happened then.”
I’ve heard it uttered at dinner tables or in casual conversation, by people you’d think would be more empathetic, knowledgeable or would simply know better.
That person had “no idea” that 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were removed from their families and put in schools aimed at turning them into white-washed, “good” Canadian citizens with no trace of who they are. On my most cynical days, I find that hard to believe. How could an entire country have blindfolds on? How could people not wonder about the school at the edge of town where only the Indigenous children attended, until the last such school closed in 1996?
These are all forms of denialism, and they have long been ingrained in Canada’s national fabric. The truth has been buried so deep that it failed to make it into decades’ worth of textbooks, classrooms and university lecture halls. An entire history of the colonizers’ treatment of Indigenous peoples, and the truth about broken treaties, was erased. This denialism, over the years, served to ensure that generations of lawmakers, teachers, politicians, journalists and lawyers weren’t raised to know what happened, which led them to further perpetuate the myth that nothing did.
One small example of that played out on newsstands this weekend. While the National Post published a piece taking aim at some of what has been reported in the year since the announcement about unmarked burial sites at Kamloops Indian Residential School, The Globe ran a feature I wrote about the Williams family from Skwah First Nation in British Columbia’s Fraser River Valley. Elder Gary Williams was one of 15 siblings, with the seven oldest going to Kamloops Indian Residential School and the youngest to St. Mary’s Mission. One brother did not attend – he died by drowning. They shared their truth – accumulated over decades – with me.
Canada’s internal truth reckoning – the struggle to understand even the bare facts – could not have been more pronounced. Deep in its collective conscience, Canada is struggling to comprehend how, for so long, it could have ignored the mass deaths of so many children in at least 139 residential schools: children who died of malnutrition, neglect, tuberculosis and, yes, abuse.
So yes, it has been a difficult and uncomfortable year. Yet consider, for perspective’s sake, that for generations Canadian denialism has been supported and smoothed by institutions, governments and systems built by those who benefitted from a false narrative.
It wasn’t really until 2007, when the civil court system led to the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, that the open truth-telling began in earnest – bringing what we were speaking about and dealing with, in our own families and communities, to the forefront. The IRSSA, in part, called for the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which then spoke to 6,000 survivors and witnesses across Canada, before the commissioners came out with 94 Calls to Action in 2015.
Canada’s courts have led the way in reconciliation in the past, and they may need to again. In 2019, the Federal Court approved the Federal Indian Day School settlement, which was the result of the tireless work of survivor Garry McLean. But the agreement set out a tiered compensation structure for survivors, one that requires not just proof of attendance, but also proof of abuse; this is sometimes almost impossible to prove or find, and often means dredging up painful memories many have worked hard to keep hidden. There has got to be a more humane way to accept, understand and file claims concerning what happened in the schools than this transactional approach. Worse, a deadline now looms for people to file these claims: July 13. It would be an olive branch to survivors, to say the least, to remove the deadline altogether, especially given the pandemic’s effect on people’s ability to learn and act on filing a claim. The claim process opened on Jan. 13, 2020.
The Anishinabek Nation, which represents 39 First Nations in Ontario and 65,000 people, along with the Chiefs of Ontario and the Iroquois Caucus of six Iroquois Nations, are among those asking federal Attorney-General David Lametti to intervene and push the date forward in order to give all survivors a chance to file.
More time, it seems, is something we all need. As Canada continues to come to grips with the “new” and ugly reality of the schools, while debating the denialists, why not give more time for the truth to be told by those who lived it, or know it in their family’s history?
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