Canadian Sin: Canada’s Multigenerational Oppression of Aboriginal Communities Comes to a Head

by Francesca Marquez
July 22nd, 2021

In their native, Canadian lands, generations upon generations of aboriginals have been oppressed if not downright massacred throughout the course of their nation’s history. The colonial machinery quite literally beat these communities into submission without respite, and sans mercy, for purely genocidal purposes. The repercussions of such abhorrent colonialism— which encouraged everything from forced assimilation to land theft— left aboriginal communities just a shadow of their former selves.

Canada’s 1876 Indian Act alone guaranteed that the aboriginal way of life would be crushed beneath the government’s iron fist as it controlled aboriginal land, resources, regalia, cultural practices, and more yet. Under this statute, the Kwakwaka’wala-speaking people of British Columbia could no longer hold potlatch ceremonies, or practice their sacred sun dance, because Canadian law prohibited their “Indianness.” Quite inevitably, the stringent, even subhuman, nature of the Indian Act gave way to hollowed-out cultural traditions, dying languages, and a dwindling aboriginal population, but that is not even the half of it. In fact, it is not even close.

Especially considering the recent, horrific discovery of an unmarked burial site at the former Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia— which contained the remains of 215 children— leaves no room for doubt that Canada’s colonial past still haunts indigenous communities. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), at least 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children were separated from their families and sent to government-funded, church-run residential schools beginning in the 19th century. Spanning until the late 1990s, these schools regularly subjected indigenous children to physical and sexual abuse, with students beaten for speaking their native languages as well. Often malnourished and living in poor housing, students frequently caught infectious diseases and had higher mortality rates than other Canadian children, even for the time period.

And it is these traumas of the old residential school program in particular which now takes center stage as hundreds of unmarked graves are unearthed in different Canadian provinces. Mere weeks after remains were found at the former Kamloops school, 751 unmarked graves were discovered in late June at the site of another former residential school, this one located in Saskatchewan. Met with shock from non-Indigenous people, this tragic news came as no surprise to aboriginals communities; Jewell, who is descended from residential-school survivors, said that it is “very, very telling” that Canadians are shocked right now given that it is no secret that Indigenous children died at these schools.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called these graves “Canada’s responsibility to bear,” and apologized for the government’s former injustices in supporting the residential school system, though many aboriginal communities remain wary that his apologetic rhetoric is enough. What indigenous people truly want is action from the prime minister; Chief Jason Louie of the Lower Kootenay Band, for example, says he is really “done” with the government and churches saying that they are sorry, because “Justice delayed is [still] justice denied.”

Though, not all the churches have apologized. Despite being the de facto head honcho of the residential system as it overlooked up to 70% of the schools, the Roman Catholic Church has yet to issue a formal apology. A Canadian bishops conference in 2018 even remarked that the pope could not personally apologize for the residential schools. Apparently, the fact that the Catholic Church played a principal role in such a sinful system is of little matter to the Vatican hierarchy. Nevertheless, leaders of the Anglican, Presbyterian, and United churches of Canada have already apologized for their own role in the residential school system, and in doing so, did the very least an active participant in such a horrific system could do— apologize.

Whether or not these graves represent a formidable reckoning for Canada, they will always remain a shameful reminder of the nation’s genocidal acts against aboriginal people and especially aboriginal children. Stephanie Scott, executive director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, put it best when she identified what these children ended up being placed in as nothing more than “pauper graves,” each child going unmarked and unknown into the afterlife. It is a sobering realization that only lends to more outcry at the appalling outcome; cautious optimism that there will be real, institutional change and policy within the Canadian government is really all any aboriginal community can emotionally afford to have. In reality, that is the very least due to them. Will Canada finally learn from these lost, forsaken souls that faced a premature death? I sincerely hope so.