Cornies: We must help Indigenous families heal deepest colonial wound

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What is it about the discovery of human remains on the grounds of a former residential school outside Kamloops, B.C., that has so shaken Canadians?

Is it the sheer number of bodies — 215 — quadruple the estimate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for that school? Is it that they were children as young as three? Or that so many Indigenous families never received an official accounting of the fates of their children and grandchildren?

It should be all those things. But coupled to them are two larger truths that have now come plainly into view.

The first is the cries of Indigenous communities about a cultural genocide, perpetrated against them, can no longer be dismissed as overstatement or hyperbole, either by individual Canadians or their governments. We’ve long known about policies to “kill the Indian in the child” and the determination of senior civil servants to solve “the Indian problem.” But the presence of hundreds of children’s bodies in pauper’s graves vanquishes all doubt the term “genocide” is appropriate.

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The second is the realization that any prospect of real reconciliation with our Indigenous neighbours is impossible — a pipe dream — without a full forensic accounting of the lives lost, together with an unreserved confession of the misguided policies of assimilation that inflicted so great a burden upon Turtle Island’s first peoples.

Last week’s revelations were contained in preliminary findings from a survey team at the school, built on unceded Secwépemc territory. It had to apply for a government grant to discover those basic facts using ground-penetrating radar. A full report is expected this month.

At one point in history, the Kamloops residential school was Canada’s largest. It was open from 1890 to 1969, run mostly under a Catholic order called the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Then the federal government operated it as a day school for nine more years before it closed.

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There were 139 such schools across the country; the last one closed in 1996. Nearly every school had a makeshift graveyard. Tuberculosis was the primary killer of children in residential schools, partly because underfunding led to poor nutrition and living conditions. But investigators also have many reports of babies, born to girls sexually assaulted by priests, being left to die in school “infirmaries” or abandoned outdoors. Some survivors have told of hearing their babies cry at birth, but never hearing or seeing them again.

It wasn’t until passage of the Indian Act in 1935 that a process for recording the death of a child was formalized, leading to creation of makeshift records. Before that, few written documents existed. And even among the records in hand, nearly half did not specify cause of death. A quarter did not even specify the child’s gender. All of it was kept purposefully vague.

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Raymond Frogner, head of archives at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, is continuing negotiations with church orders for the records they hold.

“There are approximately 88 church signatories for a final distribution of records that we feel we should hold. By far and away, it’s the Catholic orders that still need to produce for us sets of records that indicate the history of those schools,” Frogner told The Decibel podcast this week.

Several times over the last decade, I have been privileged to hear, in small-group settings, residential school survivors from the London region recount their experiences. Each time, their testimonies were emotionally wrenching. One, a Chippewa elder, had asked his dying father why he had so seldom hugged him. The answer: doing so triggered terrible memories of the sexual abuses he’d experienced at residential school. Another spoke of how separation from family and culture left him in a deep, lifelong sadness and shame that he was still trying to comprehend.

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Every parent knows the impulse to defend and protect a child. In functioning families, it’s a primary instinct. For so many Indigenous peoples, forced removal of their children and grandchildren to remote schools, away from family, culture and even language, produced emotional scars that became multigenerational in their effects.

Apologies are certainly worth making — prime minister Stephen Harper offered a formal apology for the residential school system to Indigenous peoples, on behalf of Canadians, almost exactly 13 years ago. Vigils outside cathedrals and government offices are useful gestures, too, as are the lowering of flags. But they’re in the vein of thoughts, prayers and protest, when what’s needed among Indigenous families are cold, hard answers and raw data that will begin to offer closure for colonialism’s deepest wound.

The unsettling, alarming truths of Kamloops are major blockages on the road toward reconciliation. What’s needed now is full funding for forensic investigation of other school burial sites across the country, and complete disclosure of records still held in the tight grasp of government and church institutions.

Larry Cornies is a London-based journalist

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