By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Canada celebrated its 150th anniversary of Confederation on July 01, 2017. Canadian Confederation was the process by which British colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick united into one Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867. Over the years since Confederation, Canada has seen numerous territorial changes and expansions, resulting in the current union of ten provinces and three territories. Canada is a federation and not a confederate association of sovereign states, which “confederation” means in modern political terminology.
The indigenous population of present day Canada are known as First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. First Nations are those peoples who historically lived in North America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, below the Arctic. Inuit historically lived along the coastal edge and on the islands of Canada’s far north. The Métis descend from the historical joining of First Nations members and Europeans. The three groups each have their own culture, based largely on the environment they traditionally inhabited. The indigenous population at the time of the first European settlements is estimated to have been between 200,000 and two million, with a figure of 500,000 accepted by Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Canada’s indigenous peoples suffered from repeated outbreaks of newly introduced infectious diseases, such as influenza, measles, and smallpox (to which they had no natural immunity), believed to result in a forty to eighty percent population decrease in the centuries after the European arrival.
Europeans started arriving, commencing with Italian seafarer John Cabot in 1497 under the commission of King Henry VII of England followed by the Basque and Portuguese mariners in the early 16th century and French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1534. In 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, by the royal prerogative of Queen Elizabeth I, founded St. John’s, Newfoundland, as the first North American English colony. French explorer Samuel de Champlain arrived in 1603 and established the first permanent European settlements at Port Royal (in 1605) and Quebec City (in 1608).
Al Jazeera, Doha based media network, after extensive research, produced a documentary titled ‘Canada’s Dark Secret’, giving details of a program by Canada’s predominantly white majority government to assimilate the aborigine children into the dominant Euro Canadian and Christian culture. The program begins thus;
“In 1876, the Canadian government under the leadership of its first Prime Minister John A Macdonald, passed The Indian Act. This legislation was a blueprint for controlling, administering and assimilating Canada’s indigenous population. Shortly after, the government established ‘residential schools’ to Christianize and ‘civilize’ it’s indigenous citizens. The government funded the boarding schools and tasked various churches to turn them. For over a century, 150,000 indigenous children were separated from their parents and placed in these education centers. The last of the schools closed in 1996”.
Under this program, residential schools were set up by the Canadian government to be administered by churches. The objective was to erase the ‘uncivilized’ culture of the indigenous population without a trace and replace it with a ‘civilized’ European culture, values and Christianity.
Selected aborigine children were taken away from their parents and admitted to residential schools. No further contact with parents was permitted.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) staff were often used by the government to pick up indigenous children and transport them to residential schools. Parents who resisted the removal of their children were fined or jailed.
“At the time, I didn’t like the idea of taking kids away from their family and it bothered me,” says Ron Short, a former RCMP officer. According to the report, many officers still live with feelings of regret over what their government did and the role they were made to play in it. “I’m ashamed to say I’m Canadian because of what my government has done.”
Once in a residential school, children spoke only English and wore only western clothes. Christianity became their faith by default. Discipline was military style. Everything was a line up; meals, showers, school, church, to name a few.
Bud Whiteye, a survivor of the Mohawk Institute Residential School, was “picked up” and taken to the school along with four other children as they walked along a public road to visit his grandmother. Whiteye elaborated, “They didn’t put us in a room and indoctrinate us all day long or anything like that,” he explains. “It was in the routine of the place. You didn’t speak anything but English. You went to the white man’s school. You went to the white man’s church. You wore white men’s clothes. All those were built in. It wasn’t a classroom-type lecture. It was ingrained in the system. I worked on a farm so long that I picked up a certain discipline for hard work, to get me where I’m going.”
Denalda is also a residential school survivor. She cannot remember how she arrived at the school, only that she was there for some part of her childhood. She was also a witness to abuse at her residential school – abuse that may have resulted in the death of a friend.
“I met this older girl who kind of took care of me when I was growing up. She was going to ask her mother to come and take me home to be her little sister,” Denalda recalls. “But it didn’t happen because she got hurt. She got hurt bad. I think somebody hit her against a tree.”
The education provided at such residential schools was by no means ideal. Emphasis was in manual labor such as agriculture. Higher studies were probably meant for the privileged and ‘civilized’ white Canadian Christian ‘majority’.
The last rehabilitation school was closed in 1996. Since then, details of Canada’s racist past have slowly begun to come to light. Abuse – mental, physical and sexual – was rife and, although research and statistics vary, it is estimated that 6,000 children died in these schools. Some evidence puts the casualties at three times that number. In mid 1990s, Canadian courts ruled in favor of victims suing the Canadian government for compensation.
132 years after the enactment of the Indian Act, the Canadian government, in 2008, launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which finally enabled survivors to give their testimonies on life in the residential schools. The TRC, after gathering testimony from thousands of former inmates of rehabilitation schools over a period of six years have now put together programs for healing.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in his message on the occasion of Canada’s 150th Confederation Day on July 01 stated ““As we mark Canada 150, we also recognize that for many, today is not an occasion for celebration. Indigenous Peoples in this country have faced oppression for centuries. As a society, we must acknowledge and apologize for past wrongs, and chart a path forward for the next 150 years – one in which we continue to build our nation-to-nation, Inuit-Crown, and government-to-government relationship with the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Nation”, hardly an acknowledgement, let alone an apology to a People, for 150 years of oppression.
The Canadian Tamil community in Toronto paid tribute to Canada during Confederate Day celebrations with a spectacular red and white maple leaf flag formation in Toronto. It was a Bharathanatyam performance by 1,100 dancers and 150 singers, organized by Canadian Tamil Arts and Cultural Organization. They are a community who fled ‘Sinhala Racism’ in Sri Lanka and made Canada their new home, a nation known to welcome migrants of all shades and color. Nevertheless, they need be aware of ‘Canadian Racism’, suffered by the indigenous peoples of Canada for over a century. Some of the notorious ‘residential schools’ were in operation at the time many of them, fleeing ‘Sinhala Racism’, arrived in Canada.
The Canadian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Shelly Whiting took a principled stand and boycotted the Victory Parade in 2014, organized by GoSL. In a statement issued to the Island, she stated; “five years after the end of the conflict, the time has arrived for Sri Lanka to move past wartime discourse and to start working seriously towards reconciliation. It is time to mend relations between communities and to ensure that all Sri Lankans can live in dignity and free from discrimination based on ethnic, religious or linguistic identities. Fathers and daughters, sons and mothers, all were victims, who were killed or never returned home at the end of the conflict.”
There are many traumatized First Nations, Inuit, and Métis ‘fathers and daughters, sons and mothers’ who were ‘separated and never returned’ to their parents. Some were killed. To celebrate 150th anniversary of Confederation, the formal commencement of the subjugation of indigenous peoples of the land, both in Canada and its embassies overseas, to say the least is hypocritical.
Two wrongs do not make it right. Yet, there is a saying, ‘those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.’
Readers interested in viewing Al Jazeera’s documentary ‘Canada’s dark secret’ may do so by clicking here