Following the discovery of the bodies of 215 Indigenous children, John Clarke examines Canada’s colonial past and its racist legacy
The colonial regime Canada imposed on Indigenous people has been starkly exposed with the discovery of the bodies of 215 children, buried in unmarked graves, on the grounds at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, knowing very well what they might find, hired ‘a specialist in ground-penetrating radar’ in order to make this grim discovery. Previously, it had only been possible to determine that 51 deaths had occurred at the school.
The Kamloops school, part of a network of such institutions across the country, operated from 1890 to 1969, when the Canadian government took it out of the hands of the Catholic Church. Speaking of the children buried at the site, Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir stated,
"Some were as young as three years old. We sought out a way to confirm that knowing out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families, understanding that Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc is the final resting place of these children."
Calls have now been made for protection of residential school sites all over Canada so that the true scale of the deaths that took place within them can be revealed. It is acknowledged that the remains found in Kamloops ‘likely represent just a small portion of the thousands more who died while the schools were in operation.’ This is another element of what the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ referred to, in 2019, as a ‘Canadian genocide.’
‘Kill the Indian’
The primary objective of Canada’s residential school system, implemented under the Indian Act, was to crush Indigenous identity. From the 1880s, through to the last part of the 20th Century, these institutions ensured that children were separated from their families for extended periods so that they could be remoulded according to the needs of the colonial power.
The founder of one of the equivalent schools in the US put the objective of the whole undertaking very clearly with an infamous call to ‘Kill the Indian and save the man.’ Canada’s schools were administered by churches and devoted to ‘indoctrinating them into Euro-Canadian and Christian ways of living and assimilating them into mainstream white Canadian society.’
Children confined in these schools faced severe punishment if they acknowledged their heritage and culture or attempted to speak in their own languages. Beyond this, their ‘education’ consisted mainly of religious indoctrination and forced labour. The victims of this system were subjected to brutal physical and rampant sexual abuse by those in charge.
Roughly 150,000 children attended these places and, up until now, some 4,100 deaths had been accounted for. We may consider this to be a seriously underestimated figure. The single greatest killer was tuberculosis. ‘Given their cramped conditions and negligent health practices, residential schools were hotbeds for the spread of TB.’ The school authorities frequently failed to note the names or gender of children who died and their bodies were not returned to their families.
The children that were sent to residential schools were from ‘Indian reserves’ that consisted of impoverished scraps of the territory their people had once lived on. The North-West Mounted Police (forerunner of the modern RCMP) was created to force Indigenous people onto these reserves and the conditions on them can be understood from a statement given to the House of Commons by Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald in 1882:
“I have reason to believe that the agents as a whole … are doing all they can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.”
The residential schools and the broader effort to eradicate Indigenous identity must be understood within the logic of settler colonialism. Canada was created, as part of the British Empire, through the dispossession and large-scale eradication of the Indigenous inhabitants. Like all states that have been established in this way, the process has been deeply infused with racism.
Settler colonialism invariably constructs and acts upon the belief that those it dispossesses are inferior and expendable. This perceived hierarchy in the value of human life has played out in Canada, as it has in the US, Australia, New Zealand and Palestine.
These dreadful schools would not be the final effort by the Canadian state to ‘kill the Indian.’ In the second part of the 20th Century, as the schools were wound down, Indigenous children were taken from their families and put up for adoption by white families. In 1951, the Indian Act was amended to give Canada’s provinces jurisdiction over Indigenous child welfare. This led to a process of child removal by the state that extended into the 1980s and that has become known as the ‘Sixties Scoop.’ However, the horrible injustice of ‘stolen children’ remains part of Indigenous life in Canada and the enormous scale it takes place on is not even properly measured.
In recent years, there has been a marked shift towards the use of incarceration as the preferred method of social control. Though Indigenous people make up only 5% of the country’s population, they comprise 30% of the prison population. Moreover, ‘since April 2010, the Indigenous population in prisons has grown by nearly 44%, whereas the non-Indigenous incarcerated population has declined over the same period by 13.7%.’ It is easy to see why a leading Canadian magazine ran an article, in 2016, that was headlined, ‘Canada’s prisons are the ‘new residential schools’.
In 2007, the implementation of an ‘Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement’ began. This included a lengthy process of public hearings and deliberations by a ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission.’ In 2020, five years after its final report had been issued, the members of the Commission spoke out on the failure to implement their ‘94 Calls to Action.’ ‘We're losing survivors every day, and the one thing that they were looking for, was they were looking for change,’ said Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Commission.
This failure to deal with the lasting impacts of the residential schools is hardly surprising. Justin Trudeau has taken up the issue of ‘reconciliation’ with Indigenous people as an ongoing theme. Yet, his tearful apologies and assurances of meaningful change have made little difference. Even promises that Indigenous communities across Canada would have access to something as basic as clean drinking water have been shamelessly broken.
Now, as the farce continues, Trudeau has called for flags to be lowered across Canada for the children who died in the Kamloops school. Yet, his promise of ‘concrete action’ by way of response comes without details or any clear commitments.
The truth is that Trudeau and the governing Liberal Party are not merely delaying remedial action on addressing the wrongs of the past. On the contrary, they continue the attack on Indigenous people that the residential schools were part of. They perpetuate the despairing conditions on impoverished reserves. They allow the federal police force, the RCMP, to go on terrorising Indigenous communities.
Today, the process of dispossession has shifted focus to what may described as ‘resource colonialism.’ Resource extraction on Indigenous territory and the driving of pipelines through those lands are strategic objectives for Canadian capitalists and governments.
In assessing the significance of the horrible discovery at the Kamloops school, it is vital to understand that the racism and colonialism it speaks to continue to this day. Those who designed and ran those places of horror thought they would crush a generation and ‘kill the Indian’ but they were wrong. Indigenous identity wasn’t destroyed and Indigenous resistance continues and that, truly, is the greatest way of paying tribute to those murdered children.
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John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.
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