iot is hard to fathom the full horror of what happened in Canada’s church-run residential schools for over a century: systematic abuse and mistreatment, on an industrial scale, with an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children ripped from their homes. The last school closed in 1996. Thousands have since testified to widespread sexual and physical abuse, forced labour on starvation rations, the eradication of their language and culture, and diseases allowed to run rampant. Some witnesses even spoke of killings. Il 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report called it cultural genocide.
But it has taken the discovery of hundreds of children’s bodies to fully awaken Canada. La settimana scorsa, 751 unmarked graves were found at a former school in Saskatchewan province, weeks after 215 were located in Kamloops, British Columbia. Murray Sinclair, who led the TRC, suggests as many as 15,000 died: one in 10 of the students. Since the state funded over 130 schools, and many more were run by churches, others believe the toll could be much higher.
The mistreatment and abuse of Indigenous peoples did not end even after most residential schools had closed; in the “Sixties Scoop” children were seized and placed with mostly non-Indigenous families or state institutions. These traumas resonate through the generations, with descendants pointing to mental ill-health, substance abuse, e high rates of removal of children from their families even now. The government has directly linked the schools with the killings of Indigenous women today, which a public inquiry labelled as genocide.
In his 2017 apology to survivors, the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, acknowledged that saying sorry was not enough. Yet just nine of the TRC’s 94 recommendations had been fully met by 2019. The Kamloops graves were found only because the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation instigated a search. The government, having spent 14 years in a legal battle with daytime-only pupils of the schools, has suddenly said it has reached a settlement. Nel frattempo, the pope has spoken of his “sorrow”, but not apologised. Catholic churches in Canada, which ran most of the institutions, promised to pay C$25m (£15m) to survivors, but after legal wrangling provided only C$4m.
A thorough investigation of the deaths is long overdue. Church and state must now release documents in full, without using privacy concerns as an excuse for mass redaction. The proper funding of services for survivors and their descendants is essential, but insufficient. Though Mr Trudeau talked of a “dark and shameful chapter” in Canada’s history, the schools are better understood as part of an ongoing story of injustice. Eradicating Indigenous culture was an intrinsic part of settler colonialism. The stealing of children and of land were not separate endeavours, but intimately related. Significant parts of Canada are still unceded territory, never signed away, while treaties for other land were swiftly broken. Just as the schools cannot be understood as an isolated evil, so redressing them requires a broader frame, in which the federal government makes clear that it is paying up not from benevolence, but to begin to meet a vast debt.