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A child's red dress hangs on a stake near the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia on June 6, 2021.

JENNIFER GAUTHIER/Reuters

Erna Paris’s book, Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History, inspired the Canadian House of Commons motion to apologize, on behalf of the government, to survivors of Canadian residential schools

Two Solitudes. That was the title of Hugh MacLennan’s famous 1945 book about the chasm between Quebec and the “Rest of Canada” – a fault line that has been negotiated continuously since the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759. But what if there were three solitudes all along, the third being the Indigenous nations that were suffering cultural decimation far below the radar of most Canadians? I was born and raised in Ontario and never heard, or read, a word about residential schools during close to two decades of schooling. Textbooks referenced the original Indian wars, but what happened to the Indigenous populations as the entity known as Canada emerged was obscured.

Over the past two decades, Canadians have gradually learned the fate of the 150,000 children who were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in residential schools run by often abusive religious authorities, mainly Catholic. The purpose of the schools was to forcibly assimilate the children by all means possible – language, dress, culture – and to be in breach of the rules was to court punishment. We now know that the children living in these 139 institutions were underfed, that many were subject to sexual assault, and that disease, neglect and abuse killed at least 6,000 of them.

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Even after Kamloops, the Catholic Church opts for obfuscation

On June 11, 2008, the government of Canada mounted a moving spectacle to apologize for the treatment Indigenous Canadians had received. The apology was meant to be a symbolic turning point. It even had a follow up: a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose primary goals were to acknowledge and record the residential school experience, including its consequences; to provide emotional support for individuals wishing to come forward with their stories; and to educate the Canadian public about this previously occulted history.

The broadcast sessions of the TRC were affecting. But there was a structural flaw: they included no accountability for what had occurred. The Stephen Harper government had carefully excluded legal culpability from the Commission’s formal mandate. The TRC would “not hold formal hearings, nor act as a public inquiry, nor conduct a formal legal process…”

What this meant was that the perpetrators – primarily the Catholic churches – were paradoxically allowed to behave like social workers, comforting the survivors as they completed their personal testimony. Yes, individual bishops had issued apologies, but the Catholic Church, the Vatican, had not, and no one was accountable. How much more compelling it would have been had Canadians been allowed to watch the upper echelons of the clergy testify about what they knew about gross breaches of human rights and possible criminal behaviour, even if the original perpetrators were dead? The Harper government may have rightly feared evidence that Canadian governments knew about these abuses and did nothing. It is to be noted that as early as 1907 a lawyer who conducted a review of the schools told Duncan Campbell Scott, then deputy superintendent-general of Indian Affairs, “Doing nothing to obviate the preventable causes of death brings the Department within unpleasant nearness to the charge of manslaughter.”

Fast forward to June, 2021, and more words of remorse by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. A radar search had uncovered the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School and it is widely assumed that there are thousands more elsewhere.

The discovery of the bodies of maltreated nameless children has unleashed a cascade of grief among Canadians, as though the truth of what was revealed at the TRC hearings has only now become visceral. The deaths of children abused and neglected by their caregivers touches a chord. That this continued for a century in our land of “peace, order, and good government” has elicited outrage that will be assuaged only by a process of accountability. A group of Canadian lawyers has already asked the International Criminal Court to investigate the Vatican and the Canadian government for crimes against humanity. According to Asad Kiyani, assistant professor of law at the University of Victoria, there might also be grounds for domestic prosecutions for manslaughter.

In my own study of five countries that had to confront shame-producing historical truths, Canada may be unique. Unlike those who participated in authorized attacks on devalued minorities, or watched as bystanders, then struggled to create a narrative of who they were in light of what was done, Canadians were kept in the dark by successive governments that opted to efface history by means of isolated residential schools and sanitized text books. Today, there is little, if any, debate in this country about the need to make substantive amends. This does not absolve us from knowing that what was done to Indigenous children was done in our names, nor does it erase the reality of continuing racism – a prolongation of the 19th-century attitudes that produced the schools in the first place. There has been progress since the TRC issued its report in 2015, but in light of what we have recently learned, we must put pressure on government and the churches to provide all requested documentation to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Anything less than full disclosure will be seen as stonewalling.

Unsurprisingly, the question of what to do about monuments that honour those who initiated human rights abuses has intensified. A statue to the 19th-century educator, Egerton Ryerson, who helped create the residential school system and is the namesake of a Toronto university, was torn down earlier this week. Just days earlier, a picture circulated of a statue of Sir John A. MacDonald being carted away in Charlottetown, looking not unlike the French monarch, Louis XVI, in a tumbrel en route to the guillotine. There are persuasive arguments for removing the late Ryerson, although, to his credit, he was also known for promoting free education. But we, too, should be careful about excising history. Although he operated according to the repugnant “White Man’s Burden” ideology of his age, MacDonald was the lead figure in the creation of Canada and our first prime minister. To “remove” him is to reject the origins of a shared country. The French revolutionaries also believed they could sluice away history: they even devised a new calendar, starting with Year One. In our own day, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama fantasized that the Cold War victory of liberal democracy indicated “the end of history.”

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But history neither begins, nor ends. It is a cumulative record of people, events and changing ideas that cannot be buried. It can only be managed – with factual truth, contextual understanding and a commitment to change direction. This will be best accomplished by adding interpretative material to disputed monuments to enhance a layered comprehension of our country’s less-than-honourable past.

We are again reminded that the forced assimilation of devalued peoples will always fail, for humans cannot change their inner selves the way a snake sheds its skin. In his 2008 statement, former prime minister Stephen Harper said, “The apology today is founded upon … the recognition that we all own our own lives and destinies, the only true foundation for a society where peoples can flourish.”

These were fine words, but words will no longer suffice.

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