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In this country, the month of June is National Indigenous History Month and June 21 is Indigenous Peoples Day. Both celebrations highlight the history, traditions, cultures, and experiences of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples that can be found across the landmass we refer to as Canada. However, the revelation on May 28 that 215 unmarked graves of Indigenous children had been found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School meant that June 2021 was going to be a very different kind of remembrance for people across the country, Indigenous or not.
It is utterly impossible for anyone with empathy for other humans to be unmoved by this horrifying discovery. The shocked response from people around the world confirmed a shameful fact about our country: the image we project internationally clashes angrily with the reality of our historical deeds on this soil. Canada is responsible for a massive genocide that took the lives of thousands of Indigenous children. Their only offence was to represent a future for Indigenous languages, traditions, and cultures—a future that had to be snuffed out at any cost to consolidate the ill-gotten gains of our Western settler society. As the calendar flipped from May to June, people from coast to coast to coast somberly marked the beginning of the “celebrations” as families wept and survivors relived their personal horrors, while communities grappled with the enormity of the tragedy and its ongoing devastating legacy.
More bad news came later in June with the discovery of 104 gravesites in Brandon, Manitoba, and a staggering 751 unmarked graves at Marieval, Saskatchewan. That is over one thousand dead children, killed because of racist government policy that tried to “get rid of the Indian problem” for over a century with the help of Christian churches.
I had to pause and wipe my eyes after writing that sentence. It’s nearly incomprehensible.
The problem is that Black people can fully comprehend the idea of racist government policy designed to inflict mortal damage upon specific communities and their ways of life. While the scope of the atrocity and the ways in which these policies directly dispossessed Indigenous nations of their land, resources, and sustenance makes it different from the experience of African-descended peoples in North America, we also understand what brutal oppression, state-sponsored violence, and systemic disenfranchisement feels like. The revelations in western Canada, and the certain knowledge that there is more to come, make me angry and sorrowful in equal measure.
Indigenous folks have been telling us about this stuff for decades, and yet, somehow, we’re only getting around to this work now. Canada’s shame has been revealed for the world to see, and some in this country don’t want to look too hard into the mirror. They decry the removal of monuments to architects of the residential school system and claim, as John Ivison did in the pages of the National Post, that “assuming guilt for wrongs for which the present generation bears no responsibility” is both epidemic and wrongheaded.
The mistake of such thinking is the idea that present generations need not assume guilt for those past wrongs. It is not guilt that is required, but accountability. It is not a question of who bears personal responsibility, but rather a matter of reckoning with the systemic benefits that have accrued to settler populations from over 150 years of generational disparity, driven by duplicity and violation, passed down through the entirety of our history. It is a legacy that all settlers benefit from in some way: Even people of colour reap the benefits of Canadian society when they immigrate, get educated, open businesses, and establish their families here.
Near the end of June, the murderer of George Floyd was sentenced to 22 ½ years in prison. While important symbolically, I’d wager that most African Americans are far more interested in making wholesale systemic changes to ensure there won’t be other George Floyds in the future. In the same way, we can’t bring these children back—we can only honour their memories by dismantling any vestiges left of the system that killed them and provide justice, honour, dignity, and respect to the survivors, descendants, and communities ravaged by our racist Indian Act. We as Black people can see what needs to be done for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples in this country. We only need to open our eyes, and hearts, to the pain that is right there in front of us if we are brave enough to look.
Our national celebrations culminate each year on Canada Day, when we typically gather in large numbers to mark the birth of the nation and revel in all things Canada. Without a doubt, it’s hard to maintain a country for 154 years. It should be commemorated. But this year, out of respect for the pain and grief Indigenous communities are experiencing right now, we should mark the occasion with subdued energy. With over a thousand dead Indigenous children speaking to us this June with sorrowful voices, it behooves us to acknowledge that the foundations of our prosperity are planted in the blood-soaked soil of Turtle Island.
From Kamloops to Brandon to Marieval and beyond, the soil is speaking to us. It is giving up its tragic secrets. It is holding us to account. It is challenging us to grapple candidly with our complex, violent, genocidal history—with accountability and healing at the forefront of our actions. It is insisting loudly that we pay proper respect to the silenced. It will not be finished with its thunderous barrage of revelations for quite some time to come.
And no Canadian of goodwill, especially Black ones, can close their ears to the cacophony.