Cultural genocide: On discovery of hundreds of graves in Canada
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The recent discovery of hundreds of graves in Canada has put the spotlight back on its dark past, when indigenous people faced systemic discrimination and violence. In June, the Cowessess First Nation, an indigenous organisation, found 751 unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Saskatchewan. This came a month after another indigenous organisation discovered the remains of 215 children at a closed residential school in British Columbia. Canada’s residential school system was a telling example of how indigenous people were treated. Between 1882 and 1996, an estimated 150,000 children were sent to residential schools, that were funded by the federal government and run mostly by the Catholic Church. Most of these students were forcefully taken away from their families. And thousands never returned. In 1883, Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, defended in Parliament the system of residential schools, saying indigenous students should be kept away from their parents, “who are savages”. The children were not allowed to speak their languages or practise their culture. Many were abused. An estimated 4,000 children died, mainly due to TB, malnutrition and other illnesses resulting from the squalid conditions in the schools. Despite these horrors, the residential school system continued for over a century.
In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology. The Government also set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to document the history and the lasting impact of the school system on the indigenous communities. In 2015, the commission called the violence against the indigenous students a “cultural genocide”. It has made 94 “calls to action” to different levels of the government and communities that included independent investigations and steps to protect Aboriginal rights and culture. It also asked the Catholic Church to apologise and take steps toward reconciliation. The Vatican is yet to formally apologise for the schools. Justin Trudeau, who came to power in 2015, had promised that addressing the grievances of the indigenous communities was a core agenda. But six years later, indigenous organisations say the authorities are half-hearted. The back-to-back discoveries of unmarked graves strengthen indigenous organisations’ claims that the actual number of the dead is way above the estimates of the commission. Mr. Trudeau has expressed “guilt” over the abuses. But that is not enough. His government should assist indigenous organisations to find unmarked graves. He should order investigations into the residential schools with graves to get to the bottom of the matter. Mr. Trudeau should also accelerate steps to implement all the recommendations of the Reconciliation Commission to ensure reparations are done to the country’s indigenous community.