Content warning: This article discusses the abuses perpetrated against Indigenous peoples.
Since May, the number of Indigenous children’s unmarked graves found at residential schools has jumped from the initial 215 found in Kamloops to more than 1,300 unmarked graves in total. The official number of deaths which we know happened at residential schools is over 4,000, but this is likely an underestimate. These discoveries were happening at the same time that Canadians were celebrating Canada Day and cheering on their nation in the Summer Olympics. Given the horror of these recent discoveries — evidence of something Indigenous peoples have known all along — Canadians may wonder how they can feel proud of their country. Four contributors discuss the tension between national pride and righting Canada’s wrongs.
Holding Canada accountable for Indigenous genocide
Today, national pride seems almost tone-deaf. How can we be proud of a country that has committed genocide? For a country that takes pride in advocating for children’s rights in the United Nations, it is disappointing to see that these same values have not been applied to the Indigenous children who were forcefully taken from their homes at a young age to live in neglectful and abusive environments.
Indigenous communities and allies who boycotted Canada Day did so to acknowledge the tragedy of these children who survived and died in residential schools, and who were purposefully forced into adopting European culture through churches. Canadians should recognize the role of churches in these atrocities, as well as the Canadian governmentʼs large role in the system.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Council (TRC) released its Calls to Action for the Canadian government, with Article 73 addressing missing children and burial information. The report demonstrated what was already well known in Indigenous communities: there were still many graves of children yet to be found. However, despite the TRCʼs calls to action, major breakthroughs in the discussion of unmarked graves at residential schools have only started in the summer of 2021.
Graves were not properly managed while the residential schools were operating. In one particular case, at the Red Deer Industrial School, principal J. F. Woodsworth assured his superiors that in order to cut costs, students were buried as pairs in a single grave. This case alone demonstrates the disrespect students were given even in death and the neglect they faced by their supposed ‘caretakers’.
As Canadians mourn the Indigenous children who never survived the residential school system, we must push our government to make meaningful changes to the system that has facilitated the suffering of Indigenous peoples. On top of educating Canadians about the residential school system, political leaders should consider meaningful actions they can take to make positive changes for Indigenous communities, such as providing access to clean water or investing in public transportation for Indigenous communities in rural, secluded areas to help prevent kidnapping, murder, and assault.
Canada’s past is shrouded in colonial rule and genocide, so Canadians must work with Indigenous communities if they want to build a legacy worth being proud of. Until then, it would be neglectful and ignorant to take pride in a genocidal nation.
Jasmin Akbari is a second-year industrial relations and human resources, digital humanities, and writing & rhetoric student at Woodsworth College.
Focusing on constitutional patriotism
What does it mean to be Canadian? There doesn’t seem to be a universal cultural experience, one cultural costume, and there isn’t any intense shared long-standing history between all provinces and territories. Canada cannot be considered one nation in the traditional ethnic or cultural sense.
Canadians are united around a set of national values they themselves hold in high esteem. This constitutional patriotism means that the Canadian identity is more of a shared national philosophy of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. This shared nationalism is something we can use in our journey through reconciliation, and to promote unity and human rights around the world.
There is no reason for Canadians to be completely ashamed of being Canadian. If singular events in a nation’s history — even if they are as heinous as the harms which Canada has committed — could doom a nation and its people to an eternal and irredeemable status of total utter shame, no nation would be able to survive. Almost every nation has these moments of failure, because nations are much like regular people — we fail horrendously from time to time. The past actions or beliefs of a nation do not define it entirely, and we must take into account the progress it has made. If we declare that these horrible events in the Canadian experiment reduces it to total ruination, what does that say about the things we have achieved? Are they suddenly meaningless?
The only way Canadians can deal honestly and effectively with their national guilt is action. This means compensating residential school survivors fairly and having the federal government strengthen funding to revive and support Indigenous communities and their traditions. Acting also means seeking reconciliation and forgiveness from Indigenous communities, and recognizing our status as settlers.
All of these actions and more are the only way to recover Canada and the Canadian identity. Canadaʼs past crimes will never be erased, but they can be somewhat remedied. Taking action and adopting the shared values of a modern Canada — constitutional patriotism — will only help Canadians with reconciliation.
Logan Liut is a first-year social sciences student at University College.
Reconciling our national failures and our achievements
The pursuit of peace is not a goal held exclusively by Canada, but Canada has made numerous global contributions to the preservation and promotion of peace. The Suez Crisis of 1956 saw Lester B. Pearson — who later became prime minister — devise the first ever large-scale United Nations peacekeeping force, which stopped a potential war. Since then, more than 125,000 Canadians have served as peacekeepers, and 130 have lost their lives.
Canada’s devotion to world peace has not just been something performative to get votes to win an election; rather, it has been — and remains — a core national belief that we actively pursue and make sacrifices to achieve.
Canada should also be celebrated for its multiculturalism at a time when countries are focused on assimilation and being a melting pot. This commitment is seen in the Multiculturalism Act of 1988, which charges the government to ensure all levels of Canadian society remain diverse. This act was the first of its kind in the world. Our country has also continued to welcome over 200,000 immigrants annually, with around 184,000 arriving in 2020. These actions have allowed Toronto to become the cultural icon it is today, sporting a population that is nearly 50 per cent foreign born.
With all that being said, we must also spend a significant amount of time tackling Canada’s dark past. Our nation’s dirty laundry must be aired out so there are no misconceptions when we celebrate the good Canada has done — our country is not perfect.
We must remove statues or monuments that venerate the perpetrators of our country’s atrocities. Ryerson University is renaming itself, and protestors toppled a statue of Egerton Ryerson, who was a prominent contributor to the residential school system. The Toronto City Council decided to rename Dundas Street, which was originally named after Scottish politician Henry Dundas, who delayed the abolition of slavery.
These monuments have displayed these individuals’ names to be honoured for generations. By removing these memorials, we show our determination to recognize our nation’s missteps and our refusal to celebrate wrongdoers.
David Okojie is a second-year political science student at University College.
Taking ownership of our inaction
While the international community often labels us human rights champions, our domestic failures make it difficult to feel any sincere national pride.
Many are quick to say that residential schools and their appalling narratives are irrelevant events of the past. However, we cannot simply move on from these tragic discoveries. Rather, we must reflect on how we’re acknowledging this horrific history, and what we’re doing to rectify the consequent wealth, educational, and health gaps currently facing Indigenous individuals.
In 2015, the TRC released a report detailing 94 Calls to Action, each addressing the ongoing issues facing the Indigenous community, such as reconciliation, education, health, and justice. Regrettably, as of this article’s publication, only 13 of the 94 have been completed, with 61 still in progress and 20 yet to be broached.
The result of failing to implement each Call to Action have been seen in the continuously increasing gaps in the quality of life between Indigenous peoples and settlers: premature death rates have rapidly increased for First Nations peoples in Manitoba, and COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting the mental health of Indigenous peoples. It’s evident that we have made little to no progress toward addressing the consequences of colonialism and erasing the effects of systemic racism toward Indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, the same follows for acknowledgement and cultural recognition.
The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, September 30, is officially a federal statutory holiday, but the Ontario government recently decided to not provide equivalent provincial status for it. This decision is especially troubling as the purpose of the holiday is for Canadians to reflect on the cruel legacy of the residential school system. One of the largest provinces in Canada ignoring the calls of Indigenous leaders and activist groups only perpetuates Canada’s unwillingness to achieve reconciliation.
Our prime ministerial candidates reflect similar attitudes, diminishing Indigenous identity during the September 9 English language debate. The term ‘First Nations’ isn’t all-encompassing; not all Indigenous peoples are First Nations. However, during the debate, the terms “Indigenous” and “First Nations” were frequently used interchangeably — a clear indicator of Canada’s failure to recognize and respect Indigenous culture. The candidates also neglected to discuss land and fishery treaty rights — two exceptionally important issues for Indigenous communities.
To truly be able to possess national pride, we need to remedy the deep inflictions of Canada’s colonial past on Indigenous peoples: addressing the disparities between Indigenous peoples and settlers in present-day Canada, acknowledging Indigenous history, and respecting Indigenous culture. Most importantly, we need to listen to Indigenous leaders and communities and fulfil each of the TRC’s Calls to Action until reconciliation becomes a reality. Only then can we genuinely say that we’re proud to be Canadian.
Nina Uzunović is a first-year social sciences student at Trinity College.
If you or someone you know is in distress because of the recent news about residential schools or hearing about abuses against Indigenous peoples, you can call:
- Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419 (available 24 hours a day),
- Hope for Wellness Helpline at 1-855-242-3310,
- KUU-US Crisis Line at 1-800-588-8717,
- Talk4Healing Help Line at 1-855-554-4325.