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  • Glauce Fleury

Indian residential schools reveal the past and present of Canada

WARNING: This piece contains disturbing details.

There's no reason to celebrate Canada Day. There's no reason for slightly celebrating colonialism and oppression in 2021 after so much inequity and social injustice highlighted during this pandemic.

Born and raised in Brazil, I've seen the effects of colonialism particularly on the Black population (descendants of African enslaved people) and on Indigenous communities (their genocide is evident). I live in Canada now, so I respectfully write from the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Coast Salish peoples — ​xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (​Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and Sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.

I learned about residential schools in 2012, my first year in Canada. I was an international student in a professional writing program, and we discussed journalist Laura Robinson's article for the Georgia Straight. The piece involved allegations of abuse against John Furlong, former CEO of the Vancouver Olympics (he had taught in one of those schools, but didn't mention it in his biography). Furlong sued the paper and her, but dropped his legal action. Alleging defamation, Robinson counter-sued him, but her case was dismissed by the court (more here). Having said that, I recognize many started hearing about residential schools after a whole life lived in this country.

According to a June 30 statement from the community of ʔaq̓am, one of four bands that make up the Ktunaxa Nation, preliminary results from an investigation found — with the use of ground-penetrating radar — 182 unmarked graves near the former site of the St. Eugene Residential School. The finding adds to previous unmarked burial sites discovered in June, including 215 in Kamloops and 751 in Saskatchewan.


These discoveries reopen wounds in Indigenous communities across the country. Published by Canadian outlets, the news stories have been shared all over the globe and remind us that this atrocity is not historical, but a daily experience for many Indigenous people who attended residential schools and for those who, as a result, live with intergenerational trauma.

Systemic racism persists to date with the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples by our institutions — from the police to health care. The impact of the abuse in residential schools also affects Indigenous communities until today. Many children have never returned home, and their families were never told what happened to many of them.

The Government of Canada has much to do, and the Catholic Church still has to issue an apology for their role in the residential school system. Pope Francis has finally agreed to meet with Indigenous leaders this year to discuss coming to Canada to apologize for the Church’s role in operating those schools. A papal apology was one of the 94 recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (see links at the bottom of this story), set up as part of a government apology and settlement over the schools.

EDUCATING OURSELVES The residential school system was funded by the federal government, run by churches — Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Methodist, and Presbyterian were the major denominations involved — and operated in all parts of the country. More than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and placed in one of the 140 schools for months or years. Their parents could be fined or jailed if they tried to keep their kids at home. The Canadian government aimed to force Indigenous kids to assimilate to the Euro-Canadian society, consequently erasing their culture and stopping its transmission between generations. That included their languages, spiritual beliefs, and traditions. Many children suffered physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, which has led to post-traumatic stress disorder, survivor syndrome, and intergenerational trauma.

We all have a role to play. People in power have a role to play. As Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Provincial Health Officer for British Columbia, said on her May 31 pandemic briefing, while the deaths happened in the past, our systems and laws continue to perpetuate racism and discrimination that hurt Indigenous peoples. “This is our history of colonization,” she said. “It’s not something that happened to First Nations children and families. This is something we did to First Nations children and families.”

We all must remember this every single day, and take action so that we can effect change.


Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by these reports. A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.


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