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Reckoning with History

Talking about schools in the middle of summer vacation isn’t exactly a riveting topic. But in the last two months, while students across Canada are getting ready for break, a wave of orange has cropped up across school grounds and the country at large. In Vancouver (where I live), orange ribbons dot the chain-linked fences at my local elementary school, and orange shirts adorn the median strip of the highway as I make the trip to tennis practice.

In recent months, just as the country is beginning to step out from the pall cast by Covid-19, Canada has been confronted with a similarly thorny issue—its treatment of Indigenous groups under the residential school system. Over a thousand unmarked graves have been discovered on the sites of former residential schools around the country. Canadians are using the color orange, which has been associated with the cruel process of forced assimilation, to express their solidarity with the indigenous community and call for changes that need to be made by the government. Although the government is moving in the right direction with this ongoing controversy by acknowledging their mistakes, there remains a disappointing lack of concrete action.

One of the foremost participants in Canada’s history of indigenous repression and assimilation is the Office of Indigenous Affairs. Founded in the mid-19th century, it opened compulsory boarding schools across the nation in an attempt to isolate indigenous children from their communal structure and culture. Many victims of the system have alleged that children were beaten for speaking their native language and that many died of suicide, diseases, and abuse. Even though such anecdotal evidence of children dying at boarding schools abounds among indigenous communities, it was not until May 28 of this year that researchers found the remains of 215 children in British Columbia through the use of ground-penetrating radar. In the subsequent weeks, 4 other unmarked sites were found across the country, bringing the total number of unmarked graves at residential schools to over 1,500.

The Canadian government, for its part, has acknowledged the systematic abuse of indigenous children in the residential school system. The federal government pledged $27 million in funding to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to aid searches for other unmarked graves, while provincial governments provided a further $32 million. Unlike other countries who have oppressed their indigenous populations such as the United States and Australia, the Canadian curriculum includes sections on Indigenous history and boarding schools. Recent calls to further amend the curriculum have also generally been positively received.

While these are certainly necessary steps to begin the process of reconciliation, Canada is still hardly the diverse, open-minded country that it often portrays itself as. On July 15th, the newly appointed Manitoba Minister of Reconciliation and Northern Relations said that residential school administrators “believed they were doing the right thing.” It seems ironic that, after the recent furor about the atrocities at these schools, a newly appointed minister would go on to support the very system he was meant to denounce. The continuing mistreatment of indigenous people today casts doubt on whether this injustice will ever come to an end. Last month, Inuk parliamentarian Mumilaaq Qaqqaq announced that she would not stand for re-election after stating that she had been chased down hallways and racially profiled by the Parliamentary Protective Service during her term. Indigenous communities, especially those in remote regions, continue to suffer from a disproportionately low level of care—98 of the 100 lowest ranked communities on the Community Wellbeing Index in 2015 were First Nations communities. In face of these inequalities, Canadians have voiced their dissent through waves of angry orange. Instead of verbal acknowledgement, they want to see concrete action.

By acknowledging its errors and actively funding initiatives to bring closure to indigenous communities in Canada, the Canadian government is moving in the right direction. However, as evidence continues to show, First Nations people in Canada often do not receive the same treatment as others. Canada has styled itself as a diverse country largely free from the racial and ideological conflicts that plague its neighbor to the South. To live up to this characterization, it will have to do better.

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