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The Government of Canada’s Aboriginal History in Canada page starts like this: “The history of Aboriginal peoples in Canada is rich and diverse” — which is one (very light) way of putting it.
While there are a lot of things that the webpage gets wrong, it does get one thing very right: it accurately highlights the desperate need for the Canadian government to get its sh*t together when it comes to its treatment of the Indigenous groups from which they
stole got their land. (More on that later.)
If you went to school in Canada, you probably had a few (brief) social studies classes on Indigenous history that covered things like the groups’ first contact with Jacques Cartier, the war of 1812, and a sugar-coated debriefing on residential schools that concluded with some ideological “all was well” propaganda spiel. Your textbooks may even have referred to Indigenous peoples as “Indians” (read: Christopher Columbus was an idiot).
For those of you that dozed off during class (we don’t blame you) or need a quick refresher, here’s a quick breakdown in 150 words or less:
Indigenous peoples lived in North America for thousands of years before Christopher Columbus decided to find a naval route to India. By the 1500s, the kings and queens of Europe couldn’t get along (surprise, surprise) and, with the discovery of this great new land mass (a.k.a. the Americas), decided to face off in a colonial race.
The prize: world domination.
The cost: literally tens of millions of Indigenous lives as Europeans viewed them as either barriers to their prize or slaves to do with what they pleased. There was a mass slaughter, thanks to diseases like smallpox, human crimes like rape, murder, and countless other unspeakable acts of violence and traumatization that the Canadian elementary education systems deem too dark for your average Grade 6 social studies class.
EDUCATING YOUR KIDS
In 2017, a sixth-grader in Edmonton raised her hand in class and said, “[M]y grandpa told me we had to put the Indians in residential schools because they were killing each other and we had to civilize them.” (Cue record screech.)
There are so many things wrong with her statement that we can’t even. (No really, we can’t.)
It’s shocking that Canadians are still using the term “Indian” to describe the Indigenous population in Canada, but equally shocking is how deeply the story of colonial assimilation has perpetrated the minds of non-Indigenous Canadians — especially since this period of history only “ended” in 1996 when the last federally operated residential school closed. (The doors may have closed but the emotional and psychological repercussions remain.)
Let’s debunk the myth: residential schools (defined here) were not created to better educate Indigenous children. A writer for Today’s Parent put it best when she described the experiences of Indigenous children in residential schools as “nightmarish.” The program has also been deemed cultural genocide, though one could almost argue that simply “genocide” would work given the violence and death that occurred within the system.
Residential schools were run by various churches and denominations but had full governmental support and were therefore backed by the military. A 2011 reportfound that the RCMP really did go onto reserve land and forcibly round up the children. They were taken from parents who didn’t want them to go, and other parents kept their kids in hiding to protect them from the horror that awaited them at the schools.
Once abducted, the children were not only expected to abandon all ties to their Indigenous identity (they were beaten if found speaking in their native language, for example), but they also became victims of innumerable abuses at the hands of teachers and administrators. Physical and sexual abuse was common and death due to the resultant injuries ran high. The environmental conditions of the schools were also preposterous, where the combination of overcrowding, poor sanitation, and lack of medical care (or, should we say, care in general) allowed diseases such as influenza and tuberculosis to run rampant. Estimates put the death toll at 3,200 — but the government decided to stop recording the deaths after 1920 due to the alarming numbers. (See no evil, right?)
To this day, the exact number of children who never returned home to their families is unknown; beyond the thousands of unmarked graves, the lack of record-keeping after 1920 could put the number of missing and murdered residential school victims at five times the number originally thought. In other words: 16,000 Indigenous children murdered by government and institutional forces. That’s not even counting the tens of thousands of victims who survived the life-changing abuse.
MISSING, MURDERED INDIGENOUS WOMEN AND GIRLS
We love our statistics here at The Bullet, but we don’t love this one: Indigenous women only make up 4% of Canada’s female population, but they make up 16% of all the women murdered in Canada between 1980 and 2012. The number of missing Indigenous girls and women was at 1,181 as of 2014, and it continues to grow. Some of the main causes for the high number includes racism and colonialism’s legacy, according to numerous reports on the crisis. (Not to mention the fact that very few seem to be doing anything about it.)
Something doesn’t add up.
After decades of authorities claiming that the thousands of cases of missing women and girls lacked suggestions of foul play, CBC News conducted their own investigation into just 34 of them — and found that the evidence in each one pointed to suspicious circumstances. There’s no way around it: the authorities that Canadian citizens are supposed to be able to turn to and rely on in these situations have failed and abandoned the Indigenous community.
It took a growing public call to action for the Canadian government to begin its National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (because who pays attention to facts anymore?). This is where we’d usually make a quip about how you can’t have everything, but let’s be real — it’s no joking matter.
LIFE ON THE RESERVE
An eighth-grade teacher once told one of our writers this analogy: A European man walks up to an Indigenous man sitting on a log. The European points to the log and asks if he can sit. “I’d be happy to share this log with you,” the Indigenous man says, and moves over so the other man may sit.
The European sits down and, after a while, asks the Indigenous man to move over so that he may have more room for himself. “Absolutely,” the Indigenous man says, and shuffles down. This carries on for a while until the Indigenous man finds himself at the end of the log. The European again asks, “Can you move over so that I may have more room?” The Indigenous man looks to the side and, seeing that there is no more log left, asks, “But where will I sit?”
The European points to the stump from which the log came. “You may have that stump,” he says. The Indigenous man reluctantly gets off the log and moves down to the stump. The European eventually invites his friends to join him on the log and the Indigenous man, realizing he is outnumbered and there is no more room left for him on the log, resigns himself to his spot on the stump.
The reality of what happened is much less civil, but you get the idea.
Now imagine a wet, rotting stump in the middle of the forest and you have a rough idea of the lovely conditions persisting on most reserves today. In 2006, Statistics Canada found that “Aboriginal people [were] more likely to live in houses requiring major repairs,” and that the number had risen more than 10% in just 10 years.
In a First World country, the Indigenous population often finds themselves living in Third World conditions. There are roughly 3,100 reserves across Canada and 55 of those are currently on short-term boil-water advisories, meaning their water is not safe to consume by people or pets or for hygienic use, such as brushing teeth or washing food.
As of March of this year, 81 reserves were on long-term advisories. Some reserves, such as the Neskantaga First Nation and the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation have been put on boil-water advisories for more than 20 years without the government doing a damn thing about it.
In addition to daily water crises, Indigenous reserves also experience overcrowding, high unemployment rates, high suicide rates (particularly among youth), and limited to no access to decent healthcare. One of the main reasons for this is underfunding, and many have pointed out that if the government is able to raise more money for other budgets, such as military, then they can also raise more money to properly fund the reserves that they have put the Indigenous peoples on.
A shadow of despair hangs over the Indigenous communities, and one of the leading causes of death is suicide. Here’s another statistic we don’t like: the youth suicide rate in the Indigenous population is five times greater than that of all of Canada. So why aren’t more people talking about it?
SORRY NOT SORRY
On Wednesday, June 11, 2008, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to the students of residential schools on behalf of the Government of Canada. Of the 150,000 Indigenous children that were separated from their families, 80,000 still live today.
Just over a week before the apology was made, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was founded with the purpose of documenting the history and impact of residential schools on Indigenous communities and attendees. Nine years later, in 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also apologized to residential school survivors from Newfoundland and Labrador but acknowledged that his words would do little to heal their wounds. His apology was an attempt to make up for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s refusal to apologize to the survivors of Newfoundland and Labrador due to those particular residential schools not being federally run. (Because that’s what mattered. Sigh.)
It can’t get much worse than the Prime Minister selectively apologizing for the government’s atrocities.
Just this past March, Pope Francis shocked Canadians when he also refused to apologize to any survivors and their families for the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the abuses — sexual and physical — that the students endured at their hands. After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended a papal apology, Prime Minister Trudeau asked the Pope personally to consider doing so. This was after the Pope had apologized to Irish victims of sexual abuse at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church and to the Indigenous peoples in America for the actions of colonialism. Needless to say, all were slack-jawed when Pope Francis couldn’t extend such an apology for the Roman Catholic Church’s violence towards the children in Canada’s residential school system. (Insert face palm here.)
If there’s one important thing we should all remember: the Canada we know and love exists on a mass grave.