Major trigger warnings: genocide, racism, anti-Indigenous racism, sexual and physical assault
If you don’t follow Canadian news you may not know, but late last week a mass grave was found at Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada; on the traditional and ancestral territory of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation; containing the bodies of 215 children, some as young as three years old.
Canada does a very good job at hiding it’s racism behind it’s international reputation. Heck, even Canadians look at the USA and say “Thank God, that’s not us.” but it totally is. Residential schools were part of the Crown (Canada was a British colony until 1867, but didn’t really become “independent” from the UK until the Canada Act of 1982) and Canada’s tactic to “assimilate” the Indigenous people of Turtle Island (what North America was called before Canada and the USA). When disease, war, and the other aspects of “conquering” the land didn’t completely wipe out the Indigenous peoples a policy of assimilation began. Part of this was taking children away from their families and forcing the children into Residential schools, which could have been state run, church run (Catholic, Presbyterian, and United have all admitted to running schools), or a combination of the two. The children would be punished for using their native languages, interacting with their siblings, interacting with a student of the opposite sex, practicing any of their traditional/cultural practices, or basically doing absolutely anything that the school or the person supervising them didn’t agree with. These schools would also be terrible physical environments, prompting outbreaks of tuberculosis, flu, and other diseases that could terribly weaken students to the point that they would be “sent home”, only to die at home, or die in the school. It was also a policy to not repatriate bodies to families “due to the cost”. There is also significant evidence that teachers and staff at these school would brutally and repeatedly physically and sexually assault and rape the students. It is estimated that up to 6000 children disappeared, likely murdered by the system, without a trace. It is unlikely that the mass grave found last week is the last to be found or the only one to exist.
The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996. [National Post]
Residential schools aren’t even the half of it. Next comes what is now called the Sixties Scoop. When residential schools weren’t enough to beat, rape, murder, and starve the Indigenous culture out of the next generations child services organizations got involved. Now, because of the systemic racism, loss of land, conversion of the area to a capitalist society, and creation of reserves, many Indigenous people live in poverty. The child services organizations would come in to inspect the homes and families and deem them unfit to care for their children. The children would be taken into the foster and adoption system and would nearly 100% of the time be placed with white families. Again erasing their culture, history, and biological connections. To make it even worse, no records were kept or they were so poor that it was nearly impossible for children to access their records and find their biological family. This isn’t to say that these children ended up in bad homes or were abused by their adoptive or foster families, I don’t know enough about each individual’s situations to make that claim. What I do know is they were forcibly removed from families who loved them and provided them their best and there was an entire generation of lost culture and trauma created [UBC].
There are also estimates, based on numbers, that the same thing happened in the 90s and is happening now. There was recently a story, where instead of removing girls from a foster care scenario where the girls said sexual assault and rape was happening, the social worker forced them to get IUDs. Some of these girls were 9 years old [Vice].
There are many more articles, documentaries, docuseries, that are better told, better researched, and told by Indigenous people and survivors than this summary. I strongly encourage you to check them out.
Like everyone else in Canada I have been processing this news and struggling with this news. It had a slightly delayed impact on me I think. But I always struggle with how to manage, deal with, compensate for, the role new immigrants play in reconciliation. There is an attitude among many that it wasn’t us, we weren’t the ones who killed you, destroyed you, etc. why should we have to pay for what other people did?
And I will admit to frequently thinking this way. My parent’s didn’t come to North America until the 90s (although as I pointed out earlier, there was still at least 1 residential school open then). And because I was 2 when we moved to the USA I consider myself to be an immigrant to Canada, I count my time in Canada from 2006, because does it really matter where you live from 0-2? What country you are in? I don’t remember any of it, my parents being Irish had more of a cultural impact on me at that point in my life then us living in Manitoba ever did.
But we benefit from this country having been colonized. The institutions that exist, the land that we occupy, the government that approves our immigration, all exist because of colonization. And who knows, maybe immigration as we now know it would have happened with Turtle Island, but we will never get to know what the Nations that were/are here would have grown and evolved into because the colonizers killed them.
So what are new immigrants to do? How do we reconcile the fact that we are here because they are not? I don’t have a good answer. But there are things that we can apply from last summer’s anti-racism lessons.
- Listen. When Indigenous people are talking about their history and their issues listen and believe them.
- Ask your local government and land use organization(s) to include Indigenous people in discussions on land use in your community.
- Don’t just listen to the land acknowledgements at events, learn about the land that you live and work on. Who lived there? What is their language? Do they consider the land unceded?
- Amplify the demands they make of the government and industry. The treaty rights and land rights promised by the Canadian government have been continuously eroded when water or other valuable resources are “needed” by Canada. Even though the land has been promised to the Nations, Canada views it as federal land and they continue to take from it and decide what to do with it. Stand with these Nations and people when the government tries to do that.
- Grieve with them. This is awful. Feel it. Feeling pain over all the lives lost and in particular, the 215 bodies found last week, shows that you can be empathetic and then we must take that emotion and turn it into action.
- Read the Calls to Action put forth by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, I’m probably over-simplifying and reducing hundreds of years trauma and racism into a blog post but I can’t escape this feeling that I need to do more and not really knowing what or how. This post also doesn’t really make me feel better. So I don’t even know. Is there a better? Is wanting to feel better and and thinking and talking and writing about the immigrant role, my role, centering myself – which isn’t the point of anti-racism?
I don’t know, but that’s why I like only having like 30 people who read my blog lol.
If you’re a new or recent immigrant on stolen land what do you think our role is? How are you working on reconciliation?
I wish you all the best, try to find the joy where you can.