The University of Toronto’s Student Newspaper Since 1880

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

Opinion: The Canadian government must take responsibility for residential schools

The Kamloops residential school discovery draws attention to Canada’s persecution of Indigenous peoples
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email
The residential school system allowed for the abuse of Indigenous children and the erasure of Indigenous heritage and culture. PHOTO COURTESY OF STILL PHOTOGRAPHY DIVISION_NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA
The residential school system allowed for the abuse of Indigenous children and the erasure of Indigenous heritage and culture. PHOTO COURTESY OF STILL PHOTOGRAPHY DIVISION_NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA

Content warning: This article contains mentions of suicide, substance abuse, and sexual violence.

The discovery of the remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops residential school — one of the largest residential schools in Canada — has prompted outrage from around the world at the deplorable treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Kamloops is part of the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation, and the discovery of the remains there has not only garnered condemnation from across Canada, but it has also reopened questions about our dark history of discrimination and racial prejudice.

In a recent debate, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau criticized the country’s historical treatment of Indigenous children at residential schools and referred to the discovery of the remains in Kamloops as part of a larger tragedy. Despite Trudeau’s expression of solidarity, the Canadian government’s integral role in the establishment of residential schools has made it complicit in the death of these children.

The harsh reality is that the discovery of the remains should not come as a surprise to anyone. The deaths of these children are the product and ultimate consequence of Canada’s historical persecution of and disregard for Indigenous peoples.

The roots of residential schools can be traced back to 1876 when the Canadian government passed the Indian Act. This act was much more than a simple body of laws that regulated Indigenous life — it became the blueprint for controlling and assimilating Canada’s Indigenous population into Eurocentric ideals.

In keeping with its Eurocentric ideals, the Canadian government established residential schools in an attempt to ‘civilize’ the Indigenous population. By severing ties between children and their families, the government hoped to achieve a ‘notableʼ cultural shift.

And so, for over a century, 150,000 Indigenous children were forcefully separated from their parents and placed in these schools. Parents who withheld their children or tried to remove them from the schools faced arrest and imprisonment.

At the schools, the children encountered neglect and maltreatment. The children were beaten, starved, and sexually abused. Indigenous cultural practices were strictly prohibited; children were forced to convert to Christianity and speak English instead of their own language, in what can only be described as a cultural genocide.

At least 6,000 children are said to have died in Canada’s residential schools. However, some estimate that the total number of deaths could be substantially higher.

In 2008, the Canadian government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as part of an initiative to repair some of the damage done by residential schools. In 2015, the commission identified 94 “calls to action” in order to make amends for the legacy of residential schools and further the progress of Canadian reconciliation.

However, the truth is that the morally reprehensible actions undertaken by officials in residential schools have irreparably damaged Indigenous communities, which have had to perpetually struggle against intergenerational trauma. As generations of children left residential schools and returned to their home communities, they lacked the knowledge and ability to cope in either world. The psychological, physical, and sexual abuse that these children endured at the hands of their supposed guardians left them with lifelong battles against depression and anxiety. These struggles have inevitably resulted in the high rates of substance abuse and suicide Indigenous communities face today. 

This is why finding the children’s remains at Kamloops is such a painful reminder of the long history of residential schools. Today, those children would have been grandparents, great grandparents, and Elders in Indigenous communities. 

After the discovery of the remains, lawyers across Canada formally requested that the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigate the Canadian government as well as the Vatican for crimes against humanity. The ICC has the power to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes when national jurisdictions for any reason are unable or unwilling to do so. If the ICC does investigate the Canadian government further — as it rightfully should — it will have the power to compel all parties involved in residential schools to disclose all documents and information, which could aid in the identification and repatriation of the children’s remains.

Once the remains of the children have been identified, additional efforts should be made to uncover unmarked burial grounds at numerous other former residential schools across the country. In doing so, the Canadian government can finally return the children to their communities — albeit decades after they were initially stolen.

If the Canadian government chooses not to assume responsibility for its actions, it will not only undermine the lived experiences of every Indigenous person, but it will also perpetuate the same prejudicial ideals that resulted in the establishment of residential schools. Ultimately, the discovery of the remains is a testament to the ongoing impact of settler colonialism on Indigenous communities and the impact that it will continue to have for many years to come.

Shernise Mohammed-Ali is a third-year student at Victoria College studying neuroscience with minors in psychology and English.

If you or someone you know is in distress because of the recent news about the Kamloops residential school, you can call the Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419 (available 24 hours a day).

If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
  • Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
  • Connex Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
  • Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030

Warning signs of suicide include:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence or harassment at U of T:

  • Visit svpscentre.utoronto.ca for information, contact details, and hours of operation for the tri-campus Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre. Centre staff can be reached by phone at 416-978-2266 or by email at [email protected]
  • Call Campus Police to make a report at 416-978-2222 (for U of T St. George and U of T Scarborough) or 905-569-4333 (for U of T Mississauga)
  • Call the Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre at 416-323-6040
  • Call the Scarborough Grace Sexual Assault Care Centre at 416-495-2555
  • Call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 866-863-0511