Most recently, the Indigenous community discovered 751 unmarked graves belonging to mostly children in Saskatchewan, unearthing another terrible evidence of Canadian persecution.
For centuries, Indigenous people have lived across North America from today’s Canada to the US and Mexico, dominating the continent with their simple, nature-friendly lifestyles.
But with colonialist European nations’ coming to the region in the late 16th century, things changed radically across North America as the British, Spanish and French empires began occupying large swathes of the continent, forcing Indigenous populations to abide by their laws and accept their culture.
In the process of brutal European colonisation, many Indigenous people have incrementally disappeared due to illnesses and epidemics, most of which were brought to the Americas by colonialists, as well as forced migrations and armed attacks imposed by colonial powers.
Canada’s Indigenous people also got their share of those brutal colonial policies, losing many members of their communities alongside their beautiful landscapes to both French and British colonialists. While in the past they were the only people living across today’s Canada, under forced assimilation policies their population decreased considerably, currently making up nearly 5 percent of the country’s total population.
Two recent discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves in Canada’s Catholic Church-run boarding schools have brought new attention to the country’s past assimilation policies for Indigenous people and its brutal consequences.
Canada’s boarding schools, where thousands of Indigenous children forcibly separated from their families were kept under inhumane conditions, had been long used as means of assimilation, turning Indigenous-origin people into a Canadian-European way of life.
Thousands of Indigenous children, who ended up in those boarding schools, went missing while many survivors lost their national identity. Recently discovered unmarked graves in those former school fields are horrific testimonies of Canada’s past assimilation policies.
Canada’s assimilation policies
Since the 18th century, Canada’s colonial and post-colonial authorities have used different assimilation tactics to subjugate Indigenous people into the Canadian-European state’s political identity.
As it happened in the British-led American colonies and later under the independent US government, religion and education have been two important tools for Canadian authorities to assimilate Indigenous populations. Laws like the Gradual Civilization Act and the Indian Act were implemented by the Canadian state to impose its political project of assimilation step by step in the name of civilising “savage Indians”.
Despite Canada being a secularist state, these laws kept non-Christian Indigenous people out of the justice system, banning them to testify or have a case across the country’s courts. The discriminatory laws also prohibited Aboriginal people to wear their traditional dress or dance like their ancestors did, seeing those practices as non-Christian acts.
The laws also aimed to develop a sedentary lifestyle for nomadic Indigenous tribes. The Canadian government initially appeared to aim to create farming villages for its Aboriginal population, bringing them into areas close to cities, but the project failed.
Then, the creation of Indian reserves, which resembles open prisons, came into existence, where Indigenous people could not vote, drink alcohol or hunt enough. They could not also visit other community members living in other reserves.
But there was even worse to come.
Residential school system
The Indian Act was also instrumental to create a school system, which still hovers on the country’s history, keeping its discriminatory legacy alive. In an open manifestation of colonial mentality, the school system aimed to educate the so-called "savage" communities and immerse them in "higher civilization" of Canada.
For this purpose, thousands of Indigenous children were separated from their families, ending up in church-run residential schools, where they were subjected to religious missionary, particularly by Catholic Church priests and nuns. They were also banned from speaking their own native language in a clear attempt to make them lose their cultural roots. Their names were also changed into European ones.
By converting Indigenous people into either Catholicism or Protestantism, two major religions in today’s secularist state of Canada, and teaching them English and French, two major languages in the North American country, Ottawa mapped out a plan of subjugation of its native populations.
One of the survivors of those residential schools, Florence Sparvier, did not lose her Indigenous identity against all odds. Sparvier, now an elder of the Cowessess First Nation, attended Marieval school, where one of the recent discoveries of unmarked graves was found.
“They [Catholic nuns] were very condemning about our people. They told us our people, our parents, our grandparents didn’t have a way to be spiritual because we were all heathens,” she remembered her days in the residential school.
Recent discoveries of unmarked graves is the result of ongoing efforts of Indigenous community organisations and leaders to demonstrate the native people’s spiritual loyalty to their past and their losses despite having gone through intergenerational trauma and survived Canada’s past racist policies.
But those Catholic priests, who orchestrated abuse and other inhuman assimilation practices against Indigenous children in residential schools were not so spiritual, impregnating many girls during the process. According to the Catholic doctrine, priests could not have any sexual interaction with women or men. A considerable number of newly discovered unmarked graves were believed to be belonging to infants, whose Indigenous mothers were impregnated by Catholic priests.
While Canada’s assimilation laws’ implementation evokes memories of Hitler’s Nazi Germany’s Holocaust policies toward the Jews during WWII, there have been no Nuremberg Trials to punish those who were responsible for the disappearances of many Indigenous tribes and the destruction of their culture and lifestyle.
But instead, in 2008, the Canadian state allowed the formation of a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate forced assimilation practices committed across Canada’s 150 residential schools, where an estimated 150,000 Indigenous kids did their time between 1883 and 1996.
In the end, the commission found that the practice amounts to “cultural genocide”. According to the commission’s president, more than 10,000 kids went missing after they ended up in those residential schools.
Despite the commission’s recommendations, in 2009, the Canadian government refused to finance search efforts to locate missing Indigenous children. While Justin Trudeau’s liberal government promised to take all recommendations of the commission seriously, there has been no real progress.
But the Indigenous community, who has been long schooled by the Canadian state’s political delay tactics, decided to take the issue of searching for the remains of children into its own hands. In May, they found a mass grave of 215 children near the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
“It’s a harsh reality and it’s our truth, it’s our history. And it’s something that we’ve always had to fight to prove. To me, it’s always been a horrible, horrible history,” said Chief Casimir, an Indigenous leader, during a news conference.
Despite several requests from Canada’s Indigenous community, Pope Francis refused to apologise for Catholic Church’s past wrongdoings across residential schools.