July 1st is an occasion we usually celebrate the "birth" of this country and our pride as citizens living within it. We love to gather with our loved ones and show our spirited enthusiasm at parades, concerts, and festivities. There is so much to love about this beautiful country that we call home and much cause for celebration: the wild and open spaces, the fresh air and clean water, the abundance of natural resources, our universal healthcare and education system, and the opportunities here to build a life where we can thrive and watch our children do the same.
Perhaps what we celebrate most of all on "Canada Day" is our people, and being "Canadian". We celebrate our people coming together from around the world to live together peacefully. We celebrate our people who are diverse as they are kind and industrious as they are polite. We celebrate our status as “peacekeepers”, and being a beacon to the world. We celebrate being a nation of people who care. Toronto, our “cultural” capital, is known as the most “multicultural city in the world”. And that speaks volumes right there - because at the heart of our identity as a nation, and embedded in our social and cultural ideals is the promise of freedom and diversity. I know some Canadians will still be celebrating all of those things today. But this year, however, my family and I will not be celebrating, this year we are choosing instead to reflect.
Acknowledging our Colonial Past (and Present)
We are reflecting on the fact that this life we enjoy is built on a history that the Canadian Government and (primarily) Catholic and Anglican Churches have tried to erase. First elimination, then assimilation. To understand our colonial past and the policies that still control every aspect of Indigenous people’s lives to this day, we need to look at The Indian Act, a series of federal laws and policies consolidated in 1876, designed to "assimilate First Nations Culture into Settler Culture”.
The Indian Act authorizes the Canadian Federal Government with overarching political control - from imposing governing structures on Aboriginal communities, to the rights of Aboriginals to practice their culture and traditions, determination over the land base of First Nations, and even defines who qualifies as “Indian”. Despite several amendments, it still remains largely the same to this day. In short, under this Act, the government has control over Indigenous land, their rights, their bodies, culture, and even their identities.
You can read more about the Indian Act here.
"The Indian Act is a human rights abomination and must be abolished. It must be replaced with something that goes far beyond the pittance of a welfare system that takes all of the Indigenous rights away and gives them to the federal government. We need a system that addresses the crimes that the government has committed and make real reparations that include: land return (in some form) control of territories and self-determination" - Dr. Fraser Gray, PhD, Political Science
No more words, the Canadian government must act.
This history and ongoing legacy of systemic oppression and genocide need to be learned and examined by every Canadian, so that we may hold those responsible accountable.
We need to recognize that as we grew into the country that we are today, the Indigenous people who live in this country were. (and still are) facing a very different reality. Their parallel history has been one of genocide and suffering that continues to this very day. This is the history and legacy they did not teach us in public school, and one that must be learned and examined.
“Residential Schools” in Canada
(Map of former Residential Schools in Canada)
On June 23rd, 2021, 751 unmarked graves were found on the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School, on Cowesses First Nation in Saskatchewan. This came in the wake of the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, which closed in 1978. Although this was no surprise to those who knew their history, the findings prompted national shock, grief, outrage, and an outcry for more investigations into the legacy of the “residential schools”.
As a mother of 3 (soon to be 4) who immigrated to this country from a country (where I was an ethnic minority) that is actively committing genocide against another ethnic minority, I have no words to describe the heartbreak and devastation I feel, and the anger that Canada and China now share something in common: genocide.
Canada’s residential school system was created as part of the Indian Act and forcibly separated more than 150,000 indigenous children from their families from the 1840s to the 1990s. This network of schools was funded and mandated by the Government of Canada and run by Catholic and Christian Churches. The children were forbidden to speak their own language, or even acknowledge their Indigenous heritage or culture. The official policy of this “educational” scheme was to “kill the Indian in the child”. And the punishments for breaking the rules were severe. Those who survived have documented widespread physical, emotional and sexual abuse, neglect, and malnutrition. An investigative report in 2015, found more than 4,100 documented cases of children who died while attending these “schools” - but the actual number is estimated to be much higher. In fact, neither the children buried on the grounds of the Kamloops or Marieval Indian Residential Schools were accounted for in that number.
The last residential school closed in 1996. Marieval was one of them. 1996. That is well within living memory. For the survivors and their communities, these are not only memories but ongoing personal and intergenerational trauma.
On June 11, 2008, the Canadian government issued a formal apology for the damage done by the residential school system.
Apologies are not enough
It is not enough to apologize for the cultural genocide that ensued at the residential schools, which took seven generations of children from their homes, their families, and communities and stripped them of their identities in order to disconnect them from their culture, disempower them and take away their land and resources -- a cultural genocide that persists to this day. It is not enough to apologize and then try to forget. And the Canadian government has done everything they can to forget these lost children. As shocking as the recent findings may be for many Canadians who were not taught this history, Indigenous people knew these days were coming, and many more like this. While as settlers of this land, we are grieving for their loss, the Indigenous people live with this grief as part of their reality.
Truth and Reconciliation
The systemic oppression of Indigenous people in Canada continues to this day. 73% of First Nations do not have access to safe, clean drinking water. They also need proper healthcare, infrastructure, and support for mental health and addictions. Suicide rates are three times higher than the rest of the Canadian population. There is also the crisis of missing and murdered aboriginal women that have devastated Indigenous communities across this country. All of this continues because of government inaction and the indifference and apathy of the Canadian population which we must shoulder the responsibility for.
Indigenous people have also made their demands very clear. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Report commissioned in 2015, outlines 94 Calls to Action. Of these, only 10 have been completed. We need to pledge as a nation to not rest until all of these calls to action are fulfilled, until every residential school has been thoroughly investigated, and every child is finally brought home.
Less than 85% of Indigenous people identify as "Canadian" and it is their right whether to self-identify with this colonial/settler identity or not. We cannot forget that "residential schools" existed as part of a series of assimilation policies designed to make them into "Canadians". So let's be careful when making statements such as "we are all Canadians" or "they are Canadians too" or even"Canadians supporting Canadians" when referring to the Indigenous people today. Instead, we must seriously reflect on the very meaning of Canadian itself, and re-define what it means and who it is inclusive of, and who has suffered thus far for it. Yes, it's awkward and uncomfortable. But instead of moving on from this moment, we need to sit with this discomfort, to mourn, grieve, come to the truth as individuals, and collectively to ensure it never happens again. Because Indigenous families do not have the privilege of forgetting.
My family and I will do more than just reflect. We will listen to Indigenous voices and stories and acknowledge their struggles and support their calls to action. This is not “a day to listen” this is an era - to listen and more importantly, to act. And that is exactly what we will do. We will educate ourselves on the history of residential schools, the continued legacy of systemic oppression against the Indigenous people, the colonial structure of our government, and the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action. We will call out and work to dismantle systemic racism and oppression, support Indigenous businesses and donate to Indigenous foundations and organizations.
Whether or not you consider yourself a "political activist" or a "social advocate", remember: this is not only a social and political issue, this is a human issue that should concern every Canadian who is living in this country, owning land, raising children and building businesses.
We stand in solidarity with the Indigenous peoples of Canada and promise that we can and will do better.
2015 Truth and Reconciliation Final Report: http://www.trc.ca/assets/pdf/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf
Indian Residential School Survivors Society: https://www.irsss.ca/
Settlers Take Action: oncanadaproject.ca/settlerstakeaction
Every Child Matters/Orange Shirt Day: https://www.orangeshirtday.org/