By Adam Katz
It gives me little pleasure to write this article, but I could not see failing to respond. Throughout most of the 20th century, Canada ran “Residential Schools” meant to deprive the aboriginal population of their culture. Yesterday, Friday, May 28, 2021, a mass grave was found beneath one of those schools.
This finding comes some six years after the conclusion of Canada’s National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which looked into the practice of Residential Schools. Go to the website. Read the accounts. They are mystifying. Most of them are banal, and focus on the most uninteresting details, which is itself interesting. But I will quote a passage from the introduction to one of the reports:
“For children, life in these schools was lonely and alien. Buildings were poorly located, poorly built, and poorly maintained. The staff was limited in numbers, often poorly trained, and not adequately supervised. Many schools were poorly heated and poorly ventilated, and the diet was meagre and of poor quality. Discipline was harsh, and daily life was highly regimented. Aboriginal languages and cultures were demeaned and suppressed. The educational goals of the schools were limited and confused, and usually reflected a low regard for the intellectual capabilities of Aboriginal people. For the students, education and technical training too often gave way to the drudgery of doing the chores necessary to make the schools self-sustaining. Child neglect was institutionalized, and the lack of supervision created situations where students were prey to sexual and physical abusers.” (What we have Learned, Page 7).
Individual schools came and went, but the last of these residential schools closed in 1996; as of 1964, an estimated 75% of school-age Inuit children were in these schools. Justin Trudeau, who is recorded by the Reuters article multiple times as saying all the right things and tut-tutting with the appropriate amount of sympathy, called the incident: “a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history.” But Trudeau was 25 when the practice ended. His father, Pierre Trudeau, was an MP, and much else, while this practice was going on. Justin Trudeau’s attempt at sympathy, in historical terms, is like a person whose house is a wreck, referring to last night’s debauch as “a chapter of my history.” Something that happened this recently is not a previous chapter; you are still living in the selfsame dark chapter, and the only way forward is to make amends for it. Based on his sympathetic sweet nothings yesterday, it would surely come as a suprise that Trudeau fils himself led the effort to delay reparations for as long as possible (ibid), as well as how angry the First American leaders have been at Canada’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
25 years is not a long time. The whole genocide is so recent that this grave, situated near a school that closed in 1978, was known to the first Americans who lived there. This grave was not discovered; the people who knew about it told the people in power and the latter finally listened. How many of the teachers who perpetrated “cultural genocide” are still alive and perhaps still teaching? What are they teaching? How many government- and church-officials are still in charge of something, anything? What form of justice was done for victims and perpetrators alike? And what of those who dragged their feet when called on to make reparations?
Institutional transparency is a massive responsibility. Justice for those who cannot protect themselves is a massive responsibility. But we are not out of these woods yet. I don’t expect to find a mass-grave beneath any American school based on practices that are currently enforced, but under a U.S.-run facility overseas? Under a U.S. prison or ICE facility? We have evidence that similar practices are rather the norm than the exception. In any case, there are other abuses than death by privation.
The good thing about a Truth and Reconciliation Commission such as Canada has enacted, and such as the United States desperately needs–one for slavery and segregation, one for immigration, one for Native American genocide, and one for the prisons, and those may just be for starters–is that it’s harder for the responsible parties to hide. When your own government produces a document accusing itself of “a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will,” it becomes harder to dither over making restitution. But they are managing to.
The lessons in all of this:
-Democracies can be just as brutal as authoritarian governments; as long as they can find a legal loophole. Be very careful when your government tells you that someone doesn’t belong–Uighurs in China, First Americans in Canada, immigrants in the United States… “doesn’t belong” is code for “we can hurt them with impunity.
-The responsibility of rectifying a bad system rests on all of us. Spread the word; talk about these issues at the dinner-table. Join people who have plans.
-Listen to people. The people whose children were in that mass-grave knew approximately where it was. They knew it was there. So why are we only finding out now? Because nobody listened. Problems get bigger when nobody listens.