Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) just released its Executive Summary Report on their inquiry into Indian Residential Schools finding that in Canada’s dealings with Indigenous Nations, it had engaged in a form of genocide and made 94 recommendations for action. The TRC’s mandate came from the class action litigation (and subsequent settlement) by survivors of the residential schools who wanted Canadians to have a true understanding of what happened in those schools. The Summary Report represents over six years of historical research, investigation, and the documentation of the stories of over 6,750 survivors. The final report is expected to be at least six volumes.
Indian residential schools were boarding schools created and designed by the federal government to eliminate the “Indian problem” in Canada – not unlike the Indian boarding schools created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the United States. The federal government, in partnership with churches of various denominations (primarily Catholic), apprehended Indigenous children from their communities and forced them to live in residential schools under the guise of civilizing them with education. Instead of receiving an education (most never received more than a grade 6 education), most were starved, beaten, tortured, raped, and medically experimented on. In some schools, upwards of 40 percent of Indigenous children never made it out alive. Nationally, the death rate for these children was 1:25 - higher than the 1:26 death rate for WWII enlistees – and that was war.
While some have characterized the Indian problem as the desire by Canada to erase cultural difference, the reality had far more to do with power and economics. The oft-quoted Duncan Campbell Scott, the deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, appears to claim that the objective is one of assimilation: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem … Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.” However, when presented with the alarming death rates in the residential schools by his chief medical officer, Dr. Peter H. Bryce, Scott decided that the deaths of Indian children was in line with departmental objectives which he characterized as “the final solution.”
“Indian children … die at a much higher rate [in residential schools] than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian problem,” said Scott.
So the central question seems to be what exactly was the Indian problem? Was it truly a desire to rid Indians of their cultures – or was it more about eliminating Indians? Canada’s record, considered on the whole, would seem to suggest that the Indian problem was more about Indians refusing to die off, than maintaining different languages and cultures. Colonial governments didn’t issue bounties on Mi’kmaw scalps because of their culture – they did so because Mi’kmaw people refused to give up their land. Canada didn’t forcibly sterilize Indigenous women and girls without their consent to stop them from speaking their languages – they did it to eliminate the population. By the United Nations definition – that is genocide.
It doesn’t matter whether Canada ever agrees that its actions amounted to genocide – very few nation states ever admit to committing acts of genocide. What happened in residential schools were crimes back then, just as they are today. It was always against colonial and Canadian law to assault, rape, torture, starve, and murder children. Despite the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the federal government, and church officials all knowing what was happening in those schools, everyone with the power to stop it allowed it to continue. That is why residential schools had grave yards instead of playgrounds.
Canada’s record … would seem to suggest that the Indian problem was more about Indians refusing to die off, than maintaining different languages and cultures.
The Indian problem was always about power and economics – the sovereign Indigenous Nations who occupied and controlled the very territories coveted by early colonial governments refused to die off and therefore stood in the way of unfettered land acquisition, settlement, development, and resource extraction. Despite having suffered many deaths in the waves of disease that came from European contact, scalping bounties and various colonial aggressions, Indigenous peoples survived. Indigenous peoples never gave up their sovereignty or their rights and responsibilities over their territories. Aboriginal rights, treaty rights and the refusal to die off has impeded Canada’s attempts at unfettered settlement and development ever since.
Moving forward, the biggest mistake that could come from this report would be for Canadians to historicize what happened. Indian policy is not a sad chapter in our history – it is a lethal reality for Indigenous people today. Today, there are more Indigenous children in state care than during the residential school era. Nationally, there are 30-40,000 children in care and in some provinces, like Manitoba, Indigenous children represent 90 percent of all kids in care.
Canada’s current policy of purposefully underfunding essential human services on Indian reserves like food, water, sanitation, housing, health and education, leads to the premature deaths of Indigenous peoples by 7-20 years. Indigenous peoples are overrepresented in prisons by 10 times the national rate, and the problem is getting worse. In the last decade, the Indigenous inmate population has steadily increased by more than 56 percent. In the last 30 years, there have been over 1,200 cases of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls and little action from Canada to protect them. None of this is because they practice different cultures, but because they are Indians – impediments to unfettered land access, development, and resource extraction.
It’s long past the time that Canada live up to the spirit and intent of the treaties signed with Indigenous Nations (now constitutionally protected) and work towardsa new policy which reflects the promises of mutual respect, mutual benefit and mutual protection. The vision of the treaties was always to share these lands. Despite all the horrors of residential schools, Indigenous Nations kept their treaty promises.
It’s time for Canada to stop trying to eliminate Indians and work together in peace. A good start would be to implement the recommendations in the TRC report.
Dr. Pamela D. Palmater is an Associate Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.