La Croix International [France]
July 27, 2022
By Alexis Gacon
Aboriginals have talked about the atrocities in residential schools for decades, but most Canadians became aware of the tragedy only after the recent discovery of unmarked graves
Are Canadians finally aware of what happened in residential schools for their country’s Indigenous peoples?
“With Kamloops, Canada may have woken up,” said Angela White, director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society. “But our families have been telling us about the horrors of residential schools forever.”
Kamloops is a charming little town in British Columbia’s Thompson Valley. But in the collective psyche over the past year, the mere mention of Kamloops immediately evokes the dark reality of these institutions.
The discovery of 215 unmarked graves of Aboriginal children on the grounds of the residential school in this town moved and gripped the entire country.
Rallies were held and statues of the architects of the residential schools were pulled down.
“We felt that something was happening, that people were more aware,” said Karine Vanthuyne, associate professor of sociological and anthropological sciences at the University of Ottawa.
She said Canadians are slowly opening their eyes to these dark years.
More openness since 2015
The discoveries of the past year have left their mark on people’s minds. And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government have also given more space to Aboriginal issues than the previous administration.
While Canada’s first official apology to residential school survivors dates back to 2008 under the conservative government, Vanthuyne noted that Trudeau “has reiterated it several times since then”.
“He also expressed in 2015 his wish to hear the pope’s apology,” she pointed out.
But Father Yoland Ouellet, director of the Pontifical Mission Societies for French-speaking Canada, found the liberal Prime Minister’s request a bit cavalier.
“We don’t impose our four truths on the Holy Father,” the priest said. “But it has set in motion a process and raised public awareness of what happened in the residential schools.”
Father Ouellet also believes that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was set up to shed light on the history of residential schools, has played a substantial role.
From 2008-2015, former students in 77 communities across the country recounted the physical abuse and the methodical annihilation of their culture suffered in these institutions.
Behind the rhetoric, what changes?
The duty to remember was institutionalized last year with the creation of a National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, to be held annually on September 30.
According to the federal government’s website, it’s a day to commemorate the “tragic and painful history” of residential schools and “their lasting legacy”.
One day to reflect, but how many to act?
Radio-Canada reported last August that of the 94 measures recommended by the TRC to facilitate reconciliation between Aboriginal peoples and the rest of Canada, only 14 had been implemented.
Beyond recognizing the long-term effects of residential schools, the researcher Vanthuyne regrets that other critical Aboriginal issues remain relegated to the background.
“In recent years, it has become commonplace to speak at an official event and state that you are on ‘unceded Aboriginal territory’. This is an undeniable step forward,” she said. “But are we doing too much in the symbolic and not enough concretely?”
“Aboriginals who demand more respect for their ancestral territories, on the part of public authorities and companies, are not heard, despite these fine speeches,” Vanthuyne said regretfully.
Angela White is aware of how far the rest of Canada has to go before it understands the extent of intergenerational trauma born of colonial history.
“The struggles of our parents and the high suicide rates are also the consequences of residential schools and colonial policies. And people don’t always understand that,” she said. “Our land, our culture, was taken away.”
“The pope’s visit is an opportunity for Canada to choose the path of listening,” Father Oullet insisted.
“We can hide for a long time, telling ourselves that all this never existed. But the truth, even if it takes time to be assimilated, eventually takes over.”