For 130 years of Canadian history, from the 1860s until 1996, an estimated 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their homes and sent to board at Christian-administrated residential schools in an attempt to ‘take the Indian out of the child’ by removing them from their own cultural and societal trappings and immersing them in the more dominant Canadian culture. First it was called ‘forced assimilation’, these days it is beginning to be recognised as systematic cultural genocide.
Over the course of the residential school period, there were thousands of overlooked cases of physical and sexual abuse. Diseases like tuberculosis and influenza, which ran rife in the close quarters of the schools, meant that only one in two children survived during the early years of the system. Over the course of 130 years, the chance of death was 1 in 25, higher than that of Canadians serving in WWII.
Since the last school was closed in 1996, survivors have been looking for ways to come to terms with these atrocities. Based on a model from post-apartheid South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up in 2008 to acknowledge survivors and address the ongoing, intergenerational effects of the schools. This came to a head when it delivered its final report in Ottawa on 2 June.
One of the fundamental developments of the TRC was the repetition of the word genocide. This is the first time the word has been so widely used to describe the residential school system. The commission hopes that defining it as cultural genocide – as defined by the UN – will acknowledge the immediate impact it had on victims and the repercussions it continues to have on later generations.
‘The TRC has really emphasised this notion that what happened was mass cultural genocide,’ explains Jacqueline Romanow, Chair and Associate Professor of the Department of Indigenous Studies at the University of Winnipeg. ‘Those are very strong, but very important words – they need to percolate in Canadian contemporary culture in order for us to comprehend the impact of the schools.’
Getting lost in the semantic arguments of whether or not the schools constituted cultural genocide is not the purpose of the commission. However, the sense of validation the TRC gave many victims brought an unexpected atmosphere to Ottawa. ‘People cheered and people clapped. It was almost like a celebration of the acknowledgement the TRC brought them,’ describes Connie Walker, reporter and producer for CBC Aboriginal. ‘It's an odd thing to call it celebratory, but I think it was a general feeling of “we’re here”. It was a powerful thing to witness.’
Nonetheless, there are many who feel opposed to the Truth and Reconciliation commission on a structural level. ‘I would never discredit the experiences of people that have been helped by the TRC,’ says David Gaertner, postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia. ‘However, the way it has been mobilised by the present government seems like a way for us pat ourselves on the back and say that we’ve passed this. It’s all part of the idea that Canada sees itself as this very moral nation state, that we are the moral leaders, that we help others, that we are the first to go out and respond to things like genocide.’
Canada was the first country to introduce the human rights act, one of the first to legalise same-sex marriage and is often the first to help a humanitarian cause overseas. For this reason, critics see the TRC as a way of smoothing out the paradoxical wrinkles that the residential school history poses to Canada’s reputation as a moral and fair nation state. At the moment Canada is a humanitarian superhero with its laces tied in knots. Thanks to indigenous issues, it keeps tripping over itself. Bringing closure to the residential school trauma could be seen as a dubious way to move forward. But into what exactly?
‘The way the different government officials in BC have spoken about how we need reconciliation in order for business to go on as usual is irritating,’ confesses Gaertner. ‘The idea being, turmoil is bad for the neoliberal economy so we need to reconcile in order to move on with a very western idea of progress and capitalism. So, the TRC can be seen as a political act of closure being enacted by the government to shut down that conversation.’
This can be seen in the finite nature of the TRC – it had just a five-year mandate to discuss 130 years of residential schools. It was extended in 2014 after the TRC took the government to court for withholding vital documents. Prior to that, Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologised in 2008 with a speech ‘as though to say, this is it. We are fully apologising here,’ argues Gaertner.
Is it possible to apologise in good will for an issue like residential schools? When philosopher, Jacques Derrida, spoke about the TRC in South Africa, he focused on the paradoxical nature of forgiveness: ‘one cannot, or should not forgive; there is only forgiveness if there is any, where there is the unforgivable. That is to say that forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself.’
There is a general suspicion that the government would like reconciliation in order to put the impact of residential schools behind it. ‘I wrote about a woman residential school survivor,’ says CBC’s Walker, ‘who was actually in the room back in 2008 when Harper delivered the full apology. She had a lot of hope at the time, but seeing the way the work of the TRC played out in the subsequent years left her feeling dejected. When she attended the TRC report she said: “I do not want my story to end up like a souvenir”.’
INDIGENOUS ISSUES IN THE MAINSTREAM
Mainstream culture has an interesting tendency to look at indigenous cultures as archaic and further behind on a timeline of human progress. Indigenous issues are nuanced. First, in the sense that there are roughly 630 recognised First Nation bands as well as Métisand Inuit cultures to reckon with. Second, in that these cultures are constantly evolving.
If residential schools have been purported as being the main indigenous issue, it is important that indigenous problems as a whole are not lumped together with past. There are other modern problems such as the unsolved cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) and the political protests to environmental legislation seen with the Idle No More movement.
‘It’s hard to think of the TRC in isolation when you’re talking about this,’ says Walker. ‘I’ve been at CBC News since 2001 and I think that there’s been a dramatic shift in the way we tell stories from aboriginal communities.’ In the last decade or so, indigenous news stories have gone from being treated as a niche subject to being treated as actual news. This attention has been catalysed by the explosion of social media across all Canada, especially among indigenous young people who are some of the most frequent users of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
‘I think that the changing landscape of media has really contributed to the amount of aboriginal voices that we hear in the mainstream now,’ says Walker. When a documentary series she produced, 8th Fire, went on air in 2012, the reaction from Canadian social media was massive. ‘I still get shivers when I think about it because it was the first time I had that kind of immediate reaction to something that we’d produced,’ she says. ‘It hammered home the idea that there is a really vibrant community that is online and engaged and wants content.’
This appetite for indigenous content is reflected in the expansion of Indigenous studies programmes at Canada’s universities, where again, it is starting to be seen as a legitimate study of culture, society and contemporary ideology instead of a kooky niche. ‘I’ve been teaching introductory indigenous studies for a number of years and have found that more and more students are interested,’ says University of Winnipeg’s Romanow. ‘Winnipeg is a unique city in that we have the highest indigenous population of any urban centre in Canada. If students want to work in almost any field, they’re going to be dealing with indigenous people. So an understanding culture, and at the very least an understanding of history, is very useful for them.’