Residential schools are not a footnote in Canada’s history. They are its past and present

OPINION: The discovery of 215 children's remains near Kamloops is yet another reminder that residential schools were not merely a dark chapter in the story of an otherwise great nation
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jun 01, 2021
Shoes line the edge of the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill on May 30 in memory of the children whose remains were found at the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Justin Tang/CP)

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In a drawer of the desk I haven’t worked at for more than a year now, there’s a map of Canada’s residential schools. Back when I still went into the office, it was tacked up inside my cubicle, and I would stare at it some days when I was supposed to be writing or making phone calls. At some point, after having looked at it for months, it occurred to me: residential schools were as much a part of the Canadian national project as railroads, medicare, or fighting in two world wars.

Even a thumbnail sketch of the history of residential schools tells us something about their scope: they were built in nearly every province and territory, as far south as London and as far north as Baffin Island. They operated for more than a century, and it may be an exaggeration to say that the establishment and operation of residential schools constituted the most concerted, sustained attention vast areas of this country have ever received from policymakers — but it wouldn’t be unfair hyperbole. 

The discovery of 215 children’s bodies at a residential school near Kamloops, British Columbia — and the near-certainty that these will not be the last unmarked graves we find, if we have the integrity to conduct a real search — forces us to ask: What does it say about a country that can’t seem to commit to anything beyond the current election cycle that it was able to perpetrate such crimes, for so long, as an unquestioned part of the national political consensus? 

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The natural impulse in Western nations is to talk about the unseemly parts of our history as “dark chapters,” to use euphemisms that make them seem like sidenotes to the more central, more important, and more positive and affirming parts of our history. Yes, Canada had that messy business with the residential schools (this type of historical memory goes), but that’s just a small part of the story of an otherwise great nation, etc., etc. — hey, let’s all talk about Vimy Ridge again!

It's not just that this is obviously a case of motivated reasoning, of constructing the history many want to hear and retell. It also doesn’t stand up to even a little bit of factual interrogation.

The residential-school system outlasted every major Canadian war and crisis of the 19th and 20th centuries and was brought to an end only in 1996, when the last school closed. There’s almost nothing else in Canadian history that lasted as long as the residential-school system or that for so long was an unquestioned part of the national consensus. The earliest antecedents of the residential-school system predate the Constitution of 1867; the last school closed more than a decade after Pierre Trudeau had repatriated the Constitution and added to it the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

A country that loves to talk about its role in the liberation of Europe should also be able to think hard about what it means that the last victims of the residential schools will long outlive the last veterans of Juno Beach, or that credible estimates that the odds of dying at a residential school were roughly the same as the odds of dying in the Second World War on Canada’s side.

The residential schools are not a historical footnote. They are not some shady parenthetical we can briefly mention before moving on to other, sunnier topics. They were one of the earliest real national policies we had, and they were just one part of the larger Canadian project of eliminating or immiserating Indigenous people.

Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa spoke in the Ontario legislature on Monday about the discovery at Kamloops, and he did not allow his fellow politicians to forget that part.

“Speaker, all Indigenous peoples living today in Canada are survivors of Canada’s tools of genocide. We are survivors of residential schools. We are survivors of the Indian Act. We are survivors of the Sixties Scoop and survivors of the ongoing systemic racism which attempts to erase us,” Mamakwa said. “But we are still here.”

Mamakwa also asked the government to commit to a thorough search of the grounds of residential schools in Ontario for more unmarked graves — and the government swiftly announced it would do just that.

For anyone who’s made it this far and thinks my read of Canadian history is too uncharitable, I’ll leave you with this: the province of Ontario on Monday committed to looking for the unknown and uncounted remains of Indigenous children, that they might be returned to a true resting place — and in 2021, that somehow counts as progress. I can’t think of anything grimmer that anyone could say about the place I call home.

Support is available to anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and to those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional-support and crisis-referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-441.

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