Warning: The following column contains details some readers may find distressing.
The discovery of the bodies of approximately 215 children in unmarked graves on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in the territory of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation – thanks to the use of ground-penetrating radar – rightly shocked the province, the nation, and beyond.
Soul-searching and self-reflection is the order of the day as Indigenous people heave a collective sigh of “we told you so,” while those of us who have paid attention to history find the news horrific, if unsurprising.
Residential schools were at best a bad idea – a racist and colonialist policy. Very bad things happened to many Indigenous people who attended those schools, make no mistake.
While one might think this is a terrible reality that we can all coalesce behind to move towards some true glimmer of reconciliation, I was faced this week with a residential school apologist. Maybe naively, I was surprised, and a little upset, frankly, to see otherwise intelligent people continue to wade through their tunnels of cognitive dissonance wearing both blinders and rose-coloured glasses.
“I’m having trouble understanding what people are thinking happened in Kamloops,” a person messaged to me. “Do the authorities believe 215 children were murdered without the knowledge of their families? Or did they perish due to disease? I find the national press is riddled with outrage and drama with few facts. What were the causes of death?”
My response was simply this: “If they were murdered and abused and sexually assaulted, as some certainly were, then that’s outrageous. If, best-case scenario, they died of disease, undocumented, and were tossed in unmarked graves and their parents weren’t told as part of a national campaign of cultural genocide, outrage.”
There is still pushback from some residential school apologists who rely on arguments such as the supposed good intentions of individual nuns and teachers and even Indian agents and politicians.
“I think a lot of work needs to be done before journalists such as Daphne Bramham of the Vancouver Sun employ words like genocide to describe the situation in Kamloops,” wrote a Facebook friend.
“I don’t believe for a second that the churches involved, nor the vast majority of the teachers, were on an organized mission to exterminate children in organized killings. A racist imposition of white European values and language? Yes. A campaign of genocide to purposely kill people? I don’t see even a hint of that in the articles published in The Progress, Paul. The hyperbole in today’s press contrasts starkly with Robert Freeman’s perfectly balanced writing from 30 years ago.”
Balanced as Freeman’s work was, it did indeed point directly to the “dark past,” the “bitter memories,” and how survivors are still struggling to cope.
“The good intentions of the school were also marred by an underlying government motive,” Freeman wrote in one article that focused on former Coqualeetza school student Wilfred Charlie.
“What they really wanted was to change us people, to change our culture.”
That’s exactly what the residential school policy was intended to do. To kill the Indian in the child. European settler politicians who founded the Dominion of Canada set about to ensure the integration and assimilation of Indigenous children by forced education and separation from their families.
“I want to get rid of the Indian problem,” said Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs in 1920. “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question.”
This is the very definition of a cultural genocide. Let’s stop denying it.
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