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What does justice mean for Indigenous survivors of genocide in Canada?

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The discovery of yet more graves of Indigenous children taken by the government for forcible assimilation has – at last – shocked the world.

05 Jul 2021

Billy Wilson/Flickr

This article was originally published by Open Democracy.

Imagine if your child was ripped from your arms by police who were enforcing the laws of your oppressors; if the devil in the form of forced assimilation and colonisation, under the guise of church-run institutions, stole your children – and your flesh and blood were beaten, sexually violated, shamed and stripped of their identity; or if your child – or aunt, uncle, brother or sister – died from malnutrition, unsanitary living conditions or were murdered by their abusers. Imagine it as your beating heart ripped from your chest. 

The spirits of lost Indigenous children are crying out for justice. Finally, the world seems to be paying attention. 

Last month’s discovery in Saskatchewan of a burial site containing thousands of bones – the remains of 751 people, including many innocent children who were forced to attend one of the houses of horrors known as ‘Indian residential schools’ – has unleashed global shockwaves. This comes just weeks after a similar discovery, in British Columbia, of the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves at another former residential school. Then just last week, a third such discovery was made of 182 unmarked graves at school in British Columbia.

Too often, the world sees Canada as a leader in peace and equality, as well as a place of vast expanses of stunning natural beauty. That façade has toppled for good. 

‘Indian residential schools’ were compulsory boarding schools with the official mission of ‘assimilating’ Indigenous children, funded by the Canadian government and largely run by the Catholic Church. They existed for more than 100 years, with the last one closing in 1997. For decades, the terrors of these places went undiscussed and survivors were expected to stifle their tears and live out the rest of their days without complaint. ‘Just get over it’ seemed to be the dominant attitude. 

Colonial violence past and present

Survivors have testified at the Truth and Reconciliation hearings of witnessing friends murders – some children died of malnutrition, others died of diseases like tuberculosis which was rampant in unsanitary living conditions. Children were systematically and forcibly taken from their families. There aren’t many ‘schools’ with graveyards in them.

I don’t expect to see true justice for the murders of our children in my lifetime. But healing is possible. Indeed, Indigenous people in Canada are already beginning to heal. Our younger generations are on fire, resurrecting our cultures and growing in strength. We are rising into our power as Indigenous Peoples and reclaiming what was stolen from us. 

I, and many Indigenous peoples, are losing patience with people who argue that our context is not genocide. This is what we have experienced: the stealing of lands and resources, and the oppression of the First Peoples. This didn’t end with the closure of the last residential school in 1997. Colonial violence is alive and well now, in the form of what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also recognised as the current genocide of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls who suffer violence at 12 times the rate of non-Indigenous counterparts. 

“The spirits of lost Indigenous children are crying out for justice. Finally, the world seems to be paying attention”

Unsafe, unsanitary water systems and living conditions exist in numerous  First Nations communities. Suicide rates have reached epidemic proportions. Indigenous men and women are grossly overrepresented in the prison system, and far more likely to experience police brutality

More than half of children in foster care are Indigenous. This means, ironically enough, that more Indigenous children are being raised by the state right now than were at the height of the residential schools system. On top of this, the federal government is currently refusing to follow Supreme Court rulings to pay restitution to Indigenous foster kids. 

Our families continue to suffer the fallout of intergenerational trauma from the atrocious abuses of the residential schools. How can you expect people to function normally after being demeaned, shamed and abused – physically, sexually, verbally and spiritually? 

This evil era, along with colonialism in general, almost wiped us out completely. Survivors were thrown out into the white world, broken and defiled. For too many, the aftermath of these experiences has included addiction, dysfunction, abuse, violence and other forms of devastation.

The Canadian government’s complacency in redressing violations of Indigenous human rights is as vast as the territories it controls

Canada has become rich through its exploitation of Indigenous lands and it continues to dishonour its numerous treaty obligations to Indigenous nations, which followed confederation in 1867 (when several colonies united and Canada, as it is known today, became a country).

Governments and industries take over and bulldoze unceded Indigenous territories for economic gain, forcibly removing Indigenous land defenders and destroying the little that’s left of traditional lands – which are sacred and essential to the survival of Indigenous nations. 

Canada actively and systemically disregards our human rights. How can we achieve justice, or proper healing, when there’s an ongoing war against our people?

What would justice look like?

The discovery of bodies at these hellish residential schools has been hard for survivors, their families and Indigenous nations. We already knew that some children were discarded in unmarked graves. Some survivors of these schools had told their stories of being forced to dig the graves of classmates, or being witnesses to murder, at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), whose final report was released in 2015. 

At the time, TRC commissioners petitioned the federal government for funding (less than Can$2m) to investigate these claims and locate the bodies, but they were refused. Some Indigenous nations took matters into their own hands, using their already straitened funding to search for missing relatives. 

Now that the bodies are – literally – surfacing, Canada is shocked? What a charade. Many Canadians have long been in denial about the truths of their country’s history and the plight of Indigenous Peoples. Ignorance and racism abound in this environment. The Canadian government’s complacency in redressing violations of Indigenous human rights is as vast as the territories it controls. It should release more information about residential schools (including the identities of abusers), investigate abuses and murders and hold perpetrators accountable. 

“Canada actively and systemically disregards our human rights. How can we achieve justice, or proper healing, when there’s an ongoing war against our people?”

Justice would also require Canada to be held accountable on an international level for its crimes against humanity. And for Pope Francis, the current leader of the Catholic Church, which ran 70% of the Indian residential schools, to apologise for his institution’s role in this horrific history. 

In Canada itself, justice would require the unequivocal upholding of Indigenous rights; the revitalisation of Indigenous languages (which children were forbidden to speak until 1997); support for healing from decades of systematic abuse; and new respect for the sovereignty and intrinsic value of Indigenous nations. 

It would also involve the return of stolen Indigenous lands to our communities; compensation for the riches that have been made off the backs of Indigenous Peoples for generations; and the possibility for our current and future generations to thrive – spiritually, economically and physically. Trudeau has said: “No relationship is more important to Canada than the relationship with Indigenous Peoples.” But justice requires action – not rehearsed words. It would require shaking up the very foundations of this nation. Unearthing the truths of Canada’s wicked past and troubled present. Uprooting racist ideologies and systems, and rebuilding together in all areas of society.