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Residential Schools in Canada: Is Justice and Reconciliation Possible?

Publié le 1 août, 2008 | Pas de commentaires
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The campaign to expose the hidden history of genocide in Canada opened a new front recently, when hereditary Squamish Chief Kiapilano ordered the churches that directed the horrific Indian residential schools off his territory, and his followers began a series of occupations and protests to enforce his eviction order. In this article, Kevin Annett describes some of the history of the residential schools, and why the churches and Government of Canada are responsible for intentional crimes against humanity.

Author bio:
Kevin Annett is a community minister in Vancouver who lives and works with Native and low-income people. An award-winning filmmaker and author, Kevin helped establish the International Human Rights Tribunal into Genocide in Canada, and is an advisor to numerous indigenous groups.

Lennon Wall Art
Jenni Douglas, Lennon Wall Art, 2008
Certains droits réservés.

Thelma Jacobs was just nine years old and an inmate at a Catholic Indian residential school in Manitoba when she watched small corpses being loaded into the basement furnace for incineration. She was the person who held open the furnace door (1).

In 1953, nine-year-old Sylvester Greene and three other boys buried a young Inuit child behind the United Church’s Edmonton residential school, at the behest of Principal Jim Ludford (2).

The following year, at the same school, Ed Samuels heard scratching noises coming from inside the small coffin that he was then ordered to cover with dirt and bury (3).

These are but a few of the eyewitness horror stories that have emerged recently, as the murders and disappearances of thousands of children at Christian Indian Residential Schools in Canada are finally being acknowledged by the government and mainstream media (4).

It has been a long struggle to get this recognition. Even in the face of a mountain of evidence, including archival documentation and hundreds of firsthand testimonies (5), Euro-Canadian society has steadfastly denied and ignored the truth of the genocide it deliberately inflicted on indigenous people for centuries.

But things are changing thanks to an enormous pressure from below. After years of studiously ignoring the evidence of widespread deaths and tortures right under their noses, mainstream commentators like the CBC and the Globe and Mail are acknowledging deaths in Canada’s Indian residential schools and reporting what was already known a century ago: Half of the kids interred in Christian Indian schools died each year because of a deliberate practice of spreading communicable disease among them (6).

But Canadians never like to go « too far » and compulsively seek the mental middle-ground on any issue—especially one that personally implicates them, like criminal acts by their very own charitable institutions like the Catholic, Anglican, and United Church of Canada.

It is difficult for most Canadians to continue avoiding the truth now that mass graves next to former residential schools have been publicly identified (7). After years of ignoring the banging at the door, the Canadian government has been forced to peek nervously out the window to see what all the fuss is about and try desperately to keep the whole thing calm, reasonable, and firmly under control.

They will probably succeed. This is not South Africa, after all, where whites were a little mouse on a big black elephant. This is the Great White North and it does not have to answer to any Indian, be they the crushed majority or the carefully manicured and assimilated poster boys like Phil Fontaine in the Assembly of First Nations. Being unaccountable, except to itself, colonialist Canada is a lot like a nuthouse that is run by the inmates; we are free to invent whatever reality we like and call it justice, or healing, or even « Truth and Reconciliation. »

The winners of any war define the terms, and we are no different. It is just that, being Canadian, we labour under a paternalism that makes us cast our worst acts in a comfy glow of « good intention » that does nothing but worsen the crime and fog reality.

For instance, suddenly the very churches that starved, tortured, and sterilized kids for generations are talking about « healing » things (8), which amounts mostly to engaging in verbal gymnastics rather than doing something concrete like returning the bodies of those they murdered. But that is an honest depiction of who we are, as Canadians: Those who have done the crime but who cannot imagine ever serving the time.

Everybody seems to want reconciliation these days, and even « truth »—at least our truth, dispensed over and over. For the horrible reality of what we did to secure this land and its wealth has to be repackaged, constantly, into an acceptable self-image that never shakes our sense of ourselves as a country of reasonable humanity.

The government recently announced the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) (9). Sadly, the TRC lacks the power to subpoena documents and other evidence, summon or try accused perpetrators, or even compel participation of the churches responsible for the deaths of at least 50,000 children over a century (10). This « independent » body is being appointed by the Office of the Prime Minister and overseen by the churches that ran the residential schools.

As if to confirm its partisan nature, TRC leader Bob Watts announced earlier this year that even though criminal acts definitely occurred in the residential schools, « there will be no criminal investigation (…) now, or in the future » (11). Naturally, such a body is unlikely to reveal the atrocities that occurred in these residential schools, since potentially hundreds of church and government officials could be incarcerated if a serious inquiry ever took place. The last of the residential schools did not close until 1996 and it is said that, for more than a century, every crime defined as genocide by the United Nations took place within their walls.

In response, many of the survivors I work with, and a handful of non-governmental Native elders, have formed an independent inquiry called the International Human Rights Tribunal into Genocide in Canada (IHRTGC). This tribunal has already done what the government’s TRC has refused to do and published a list of twenty-eight mass graves next to former residential schools where untold numbers of children are interred (12).

What happens next is anyone’s guess. Every day, more eyewitnesses are testifying that deliberate murder and cover-up was the norm in these schools throughout the twentieth century, and they are naming those responsible. But the very people identified as criminals are part of the church-state system that is still in power and can absolve itself of its own crimes.

Nevertheless, survivors like hereditary Squamish chief Kiapilano are taking matters into their own hands. Starved, tortured, and nearly killed as a child by Catholic priests in Vancouver, Chief Kiapilano recently declared that healing will only be possible for him and his people when the churches that committed these crimes get off his land. And so on April 21, 2008, Chief Kiapilano filed a formal eviction notice in the B.C. Supreme Court and expelled all 243 Catholic, Anglican, and United churches from his territory, which includes all of Vancouver. Some of the Chief’s people have already tried enforcing his order by taking over a few downtown Vancouver churches, seeking to rid themselves forever of an odious foreign power. Win or lose, these genocide survivors have declared their independence from a Canada that tried, and failed, to exterminate them.

The evidence is all there. It is documented in the stories and records of our tribunal, the result of more than fifteen years of labour (13). The problem is not a lack of evidence, but Canada’s refusal to acknowledge and explore its own history. Perhaps it is coming to that self-realization that is part of the purpose of this long struggle. In that sense, let a survivor have the last word: Virginia Baptiste, a Catholic residential school victim who spoke at a gathering in Cranbrook, B.C. shortly before her death in 2004.

Speaking to the church and government officials present that day, Virginia said:

You whites will never face up to what you did to us. You sterilized my cousin; you killed my brother Bugs; you beat kids to death at the Cranbrook school, right in front of me. So you think you got away with it.
[…]
But you’re wrong, ’cause there’s a higher judgment you got to face. And it’s started already, in the dying rivers and the global warming and all the suicides among your own children. You were really killing yourself off when you tried killing us.
[…]
But maybe, once you’re all dying and you know it’s over for you, maybe then you’ll learn what your own teacher Jesus tried to teach you, but you didn’t hear, that his kingdom isn’t about money or who’s got the power. It might take you all dying for you to finally learn that(14).

References

(1) As told to the author by Thelma Jacobs on April 23, 2008, in Kenora, Ontario.
(2) From a videotaped interview with Sylvester Greene, February 16, 2006, in Vancouver, B.C.
(3) From a conversation with Ed Samuels of Hazelton, BC, on May 3, 2008, in Vancouver.
(4) This information is based on many interviews, conversations, and public forums that started in February 1996 and are too many to list here.
(5) See, for example, Curry, Bill and Karen Howlett. « Natives Died in Droves as Ottawa ignored warnings. » Globe and Mail. 24 April 2007.
(6) Unknown author. « Schools Aid White Plague.” Ottawa Citizen. 15 Nov. 1907: Front page.
(7) For the list of mass graves see “Updates” at www.hiddenfromhistory.org; also, Canadian Press, April 10, 2008).
(8) For information on forced sterilization, see The Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta (1928) and The Sexual Sterilization Act of B.C. (1933); also, with less academic authority but very valuable insight, Black, Edwin. War Against the Weak. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003; p. 242, where he discusses the involuntary sterilization of Metis and Indians in Canada; further, see the testimonies of Sarah Modeste, Jackson Steene, and others who underwent sterilization, in our film Unrepentant, available at www.hiddenfromhistory.org.
(9) The establishment of TRC was announced in June of 2007, but didn’t formally commence until a year later, June 1, 2008.
(10) This figure is based on government statistics showing a constant death rate of between 40% and 60% in the residential schools over nearly a century, as quoted in Curry, Bill and Karen Howlett. « Natives Died in Droves as Ottawa ignored warnings. » Globe and Mail. 24 April 2007, and based on the reports of Dr. Peter Bryce (1907) and other government officials quoted in Annett, Kevin D. Hidden from History. Vancouver: The Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada, 2006.
(11) Watts, Bob. “Untitled Speech.” Ottawa: 8 Feb 2008.
(12) This list was released to the Canadian media on April 10, 2008 in Vancouver, and is reprinted on our website, www.hiddenfromhistory.org.
(13) See www.hiddenfromhistory.org.
(14) Baptiste, Virginia. “Untitled Speech.” Residential School Healing Conference. Osoyoos Nation, Cranbrook, B.C.: 23 Aug 2003.

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