The recovery of mass and unmarked graves at former Indian residential school sites in recent weeks has released a deluge of outrage and grief across the settler colony known as Canada. Horrifying truths are being unearthed that reveal the treachery by which Canadian governments, churches and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) originally stole — and continue to steal — Indigenous lands. I say recoveries because these are not new discoveries; this particular form of genocide unleashed against Indigenous children has been aggressively instituted and actively concealed by Canadian governments, churches and the RCMP since 1831, when the first residential school was established in Brantford, Ontario. Genocide here is defined both as murders of children and criminal acts of negligence and mistreatment that caused deaths that could have been prevented if authorities had acted on the concerns that were repeatedly brought to government. The high death rates, inhospitable conditions and preventable causes of death were known.
“It was not secret, even beyond the stories from survivors and all we heard during the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC)],” states Anishinaabe filmmaker Lisa Jackson, referring to a national commission that took place in 2008, in a recent social media post. “[It was k]nown by the government, known by the churches, and to some degree known by the Canadian public. We cannot pretend this is a revelation — that would also be hiding the truth. This is a reckoning of generations of criminal wrongdoing and widespread complicity in this brutal system.”
None of what I say here is “news”; rather, it is the culmination of urgent messages that Indigenous peoples have been shouting for years, across the country and the globe, in myriad ways, in perpetuity.
“I find myself frustrated with words at this point,” Tuscarora writer Alicia Elliott tells me, “because they so often take the place of action in this country.”
These are recoveries of our loved ones who never made it home, the truths that were always suppressed and denied, the anguish that makes sense of our lives, and our compounded righteous rage. Meanwhile, our long-standing demands for justice, decolonization, the return of our lands and restoration of our sovereignty are reaching a crescendo — that, perhaps for once, the majority of Canadians are unable to deny or look away from.
“Don’t just give us back our babies’ bodies; give our land and let us sing them their songs, give them ceremony, speak their names, reclaim our languages, reclaim our responsibilities and heal our pain,” demands Dënesųłiné Indigenous rights and climate action advocate Eriel Deranger, in a social media post. “If you’re celebrating Canada Day [July 1], what are you celebrating? The deaths of all of these children, the continued oppression of Indigenous peoples, the desecration of our lands and sacred sites, the reign of white supremacy and colonial power.”
It is fitting that the upcoming national holidays of Canada Day and Independence Day in the U.S. are preceded by this stark opportunity for citizens to finally see the truth of their countries.
The founding of these two North American neighboring countries has everything to do with genocide and erasure of Indigenous presence — as well as erasure of the horrors committed by white supremacist authorities in government, police, religious institutions and educational systems. James Baldwin described this willful amnesia (in the context of slavery and anti-Black racism) as a sinister crime, rendering white citizens ignorant of both self-knowledge and the systemic violence that they personally reinforce.
Genocide and erasure are the origins and continued modes of operation of these countries. “Clearing the land” for white settlement was enacted by police and government officials through the deliberate spread of smallpox in British Columbia, for example. Railroads, built by Chinese laborers, many of whom were indentured, forged paths for white settlers through the provinces and shored up the country. Starvation tactics were used in the prairies to thin Indigenous populations, weaken resistance, force them onto reserves, and sign treaties in which their rights and title to the land were officially extinguished. Erasure of Indigenous presence through the Indian Act and reserve system, building cities and extractive resource projects over our sacred homelands, sterilizing women, and kidnapping children are just some examples of how this settler nation was built.
“After I shake off the emotional petrification and spiritual shock, I re-center myself in the understanding that not even horror writers can come up with something as sickening and culturally destructive as the realities we (Indigenous Nations) are coming to terms with now and over recent years since the TRC reports [were] published,” Mohawk/Tuscarora poet, media producer and artist Janet Rogers shares with me. “This truth is more disgusting than fiction. And it was all brought here from over there.”
Tanya Tagaq writes: “I did this painting years ago. She is sick. Throwing up the graves. Throwing up the sickness. They found an unmarked grave with 215 children in it at a residential school in Kamloops. There are more unmarked graves around more residential schools in Canada. It is time for all these children to be allowed to Rest In Peace. Those children would have all grown up to become Elders. The graves are unmarked because they are trying to hide what they did. The numbers the general public knows are wrong because the perpetrators were the ones documenting it. The lies are told to say it was only illness. The lies are told to say these schools were no worse than any other boarding schools. Those are lies. The reality is monsters did the most unspeakable things to children. I can’t even type out details. It hurts. Canada needs to know. Canada demands to know. The people that did this…some of them are still alive. Their descendants need to know what they did. Name the names. My heart is broken. My heart is broken because I am a mother. All the love to everyone who is hurting learning about those children found. Thank you to the Tk’emlups people for holding ceremony for the children. I believe justice should be served. I believe that the grounds of other residential schools should be searched. I believe that it is time for “benevolent” Canadians to look at the blood in their hands. It’s time.”
Indigenous voices are urgently asserting that colonial genocide and erasure are far from over. Although the “schools” (or as many are more accurately calling “internment camps”) officially closed in 1996, we continue to exist within a genocidal society superimposed upon Indigenous homelands that targets our women and children at unconscionable rates. Canada’s aggressive institution of Indigenous youth genocide carries on to this day in the accelerated form of the foster care system that breaks apart Indigenous families and apprehends children at higher rates than residential schools, redistributing them in mostly non-Indigenous families and away from their communities. It also carries on in the federal government’s refusal to cease discriminating against and violating the human rights of our children by obstructing immediate access to health care and other needed resources, despite direct rulings by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 2016, and 19 noncompliance orders issued since then.
The institution of genocide persists in the crushing ongoing crisis of Indigenous (and especially Inuit) youth suicide. “If it were to happen in these overwhelming numbers in any non-Indigenous community in Canada, it would be considered an absolute emergency,” states Inuk writer and performer Inuksuk Mackay. “This is an emergency and it is falling … on unwilling hearts.”
Genocide persists in the racist Canadian health care system that enables widespread negligence and malpractice at the expense of Indigenous lives. It persists in the extinguishment clauses that remain central to modern-day treaties with federal, provincial and territorial governments. It persists in governments’ failure to officially recognize Indigenous languages or ensure access to fresh drinking water or adequate housing.
It persists in the rampant systemic racism within the RCMP. This national police force was established in 1873 to suppress Indigenous peoples, forcibly “settle” and relocate us to reserves and other remote locations, enforce the Indian Act, and of course, kidnap Indigenous children. Genocide persists in the arrests and criminalization of Indigenous land protectors enacting responsibilities to sources of life in our homelands.
The historic erasure and fierce protection of institutionalized white crimes against humanity is finally coming to light: the callous failure to notify thousands of Indigenous families of these deaths; mass destruction of records; continual withholding of records; refusal to disclose names of perpetrators; the obstruction of any accountability or justice. Colonizers buried the truth of their horrific crimes with the bodies of our precious children in mass grave sites that were never meant to be found — without gravestones, without ceremony, humanity or remorse. I tell myself that at least in the earth, they could be held, and in some way, returned to creation.
“The utter devastation and deep impacts are difficult to articulate and bear,” Anishinaabe filmmaker Michelle Derosier shares with me. “And so, I keep making offerings, laying down sacred medicines and repeating the words: our beautiful abinoojiizhenag (babies), I hear you and I love you.”
“Recently, I’ve been posing this question to others: Has there been anywhere in the world where the targets of genocidal war crimes have been solely against babies and children? No one (not even my lawyer friends) seems to have an answer,” she says. “The sacred, powerful children being unearthed are speaking now; conjuring and willing us to find one and act accordingly.”
The deliberate effort to make these mass grave sites appear invisible, like an ordinary open field, is a perfect example of Canadian nationalism. Institutionalized racism and white supremacy have been so extensively normalized as to be invisible and even trivial to most Canadians. The ongoing violence and yes, genocide, that make way for Canadian authorities and non-Indigenous society to thrive are characteristically hidden, suppressed, denied and simply ignored.
Erasure of the truth is a practice of genocide. Refusing to admit actual genocide by downplaying actions that the state not only instigated but continues to protect is a practice of genocide. These systems are in need of profound scrutiny and destabilization, as absence of remorse or accountability breeds only further promise of harm.
As the Canadian government, RCMP and churches abdicate responsibility and place the onus on each other to apologize, Indigenous voices are demanding that all of them, as well as the predators and murderers in official positions at these schools, be held to account for their crimes against humanity.
“As Indigenous people, our grief and anger stemming from the discovery of mass graves across so-called Canada is directly linked to the love we have for our people and lands,” Wet’suwet’en land defender Molly Wickham tells me. “We have always known, in our bodies, the genocide that happened there — we carry it with us each day that we continue to survive. What happened to our children is reflective of the deeply inherent racism that Canada was founded on and continues to operate within.”
In our grief, Wickham says, we must take immediate action to ensure justice and reparations, and to fight for liberation by any means necessary. “We cannot allow the current colonial mentality to continue to exist. The state stole and murdered our children for land and we must have both returned, so all our children can belong to their homelands once again.”
We must stop looking to colonial governments, churches and police for transformative action, let alone honesty. These are the corrupt perpetrators, murderers, deniers and tyrants who speak empty words of change while continuing to aggressively consolidate their power over Indigenous peoples and homelands.
A Note to Non-Indigenous Readers
Writing with an awareness that Truthout’s readership encompasses many different groups, I’d like to share some final thoughts specifically addressed to the non-Indigenous readers of this article — especially those in Canada but also those in the United States, as we share a very similar history that is about to be investigated by U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland).
Look to yourselves: What is within your power to do? How can you enact responsibility, restitution and respect in relation to Indigenous peoples within stolen Indigenous lands? How can you address the existing white supremacy, racism, bigotry and injustice in your everyday lives?
“I feel like a lot of people are still missing the mark despite being sympathetic and supportive of the babies being recovered,” writes Nehiyaw activist Desiree Raton Laveur. “A lot of folks still have this notion that these are ancient crimes that have long passed…. There are thousands who perished and need to be sent home and grieved, yeah. But there are thousands more who lived through the nightmare and are actively and endlessly villainized for it every day of their lives. You’re sad for those who were buried nameless, yet you want the survivors pushed out of your sight in the exact same way,” she says.
“If you want to honor the babies who never made it home, support the ones who did.”
Connect all of these dots. Do the work to understand. Correct misinformed white people. Cultivate compassion toward Indigenous peoples and create safety for us by holding racists, bigots and homophobes to account in word and action. If you are in a position of privilege, activate it to transform policies, structures and systems so they provide opportunities for Indigenous peoples to access resources, innovate and thrive. Redirect all the resources you can to Indigenous organizations and causes — especially those that protect life, restore our sovereignty, foster healing and generate creative expression.
Demand that your governments divest resources from police and other offending institutions and redirect them to Indigenous education, harm-reduction and mental health services, midwifery, health care and environmental protection. Demand an end to paternalistic authority over Indigenous nations, organizations and funding.
Your governments and educators refused to tell you that your presence on treatied Indigenous lands was contingent upon a relationship of mutual autonomy and respect, so that all may prosper. They especially did not tell you that your presence on unceded Indigenous lands (such as the majority of British Columbia) is based on illegal occupation.
Your responsibility is to activate this knowledge, to do your part in rectifying the damage and dismantling the continued sources of harm. There are many. We urge you to do everything you can to make it right.