Imagine if you could have voted while residential schools were still operating. When you were reading headlines like children are “dying like flies” because of the “absolute inattention to the bare necessities of health” in these federally controlled institutions, would you have spoken up and refused to vote for any government that perpetrated what the truth and Reconciliation Commission coined “cultural genocide?”
In June, headlines of the unmarked graves of hundreds of children confronted Canadians with the reality that government-run residential schools were more akin to re-education camps and death traps than “schools.” Flags were lowered, the number “215” on orange shirts and hearts appeared everywhere and then the headlines faded and so did the shirts, but the injustices kept building.
Months later, more than 5,000 unmarked graves have been identified and yet political leaders have said little about it and neither has the media. The story that got the most coverage was when Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole called for the flags to be raised again even though the government has done little to fix the injustice. Politicians always want to cast government wrongdoing into the past and “move on.” It is the classic self-serving government colonial strategy that always costs First Nations children their childhoods – and the media and the public seem to be obliging.
The Canadian government has long thought that “Indian” children were not worth the money, so they gave them fewer public services. They under-funded everything from First Nations drinking water to education and health while piling on the trauma arising from the racist Indian Act and residential schools.
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This spurred the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations to file a human rights case against Canada alleging its unequal provision of child welfare and other public services was racially discriminatory. The majority of the evidence for this landmark case came from the government’s own documents revealing that “the situation (for Indian children) is dire,” while one of their charts classified cases as “resolved” when a child waited so long for health, education or social services that they grew into adulthood or died waiting.
One of those “resolved” children was a four-year-old little girl who needed medical equipment so that she could breathe. The request passed through the hands of more than a dozen public servants before writing “absolutely not.” Around the same time, Michael Wernick, then deputy minister of the Department of Indian Affairs, literally gave an award to the bureaucrats for stonewalling children like her. As of 2011, it was clear that discrimination toward First Nations children was not only tolerated in the federal government — it was award-winning.
A 2016 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal legal decision found the federal government was racially discriminating against First Nations children by underfunding public services and ordered Canada to stop. The government welcomed the decision, the media covered it for a few days and then everyone looked away. Canada did not comply and First Nations children continued to be removed from their families unnecessarily at higher rates than in residential schools, and some children died.
In 2018, a First Nation community sent in an urgent request for mental health services to stop a suicide pact among young girls; Canada did not respond. Three 12-year-old girls died of suicide and Canada’s official response was that the funding request came at an “awkward time.”
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A year later, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found Canada’s conduct to be “wilful and reckless” discrimination in a “worst case scenario” linked to the unnecessary separation of thousands of children from their families, serious harms to children and, sadly, the deaths of the three girls.
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This isn’t from Canada’s “dark history” — all of this is unfolding before our eyes. These facts arise from a human rights case filed by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations in 2007 against Canada to try to stop Canada from discriminating against First Nations kids; many are the grandchildren of residential school survivors.
After reviewing hundreds of pages of evidence largely from the government’s own records and hearing testimony from 25 witnesses, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered Canada to stop its discrimination in 2016. The federal government did not appeal the order – instead, it chose not to implement it.
Since then, there have been 20 non-compliance and procedural orders against the Canadian government. The tragic deaths of the three 12-year-old girls in 2018 were linked to Canada’s non-compliance and the most recent order from the tribunal came two weeks ago.
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After the news broke of the 215 children in unmarked graves on the grounds of the Kamloops residential school, Parliament voted unanimously on a motion to stop fighting against residential school survivors and First Nations children in court. The prime minister denied fighting Indigenous children in court and then he and his cabinet abstained from the vote on the motion.
A week later, the Canadian government was in Federal Court trying to overturn an order to ensure First Nations children living off-reserve got the public services they need and to avoid compensating the children it had harmed. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada argued before the tribunal that it should not even compensate the estates of the children who died, like that four-year-old little girl.
While this litigation continues, I often think of a letter penned by Edward B. and addressed to “Dear Parent” in the Christmas season of 1923. He wrote about the physical abuse he and the other boys endured and how they were so hungry that they were eating cats and wheat. When Duncan Campbell Scott, the top bureaucrat on the residential school, read it, he exclaimed that “99 percent of the children in the schools are too fat anyway!”
I don’t think the government’s conduct has changed much since then, regardless of the political party in power. The federal government approaches its discrimination towards First Nations children as a public relations matter – appearing to be sorry but remaining repeat offenders.
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I am hoping this is the moment when we, the people of this period, show them that we are not going to put up with it anymore. The federal government needs to comply with the law, stop fighting First Nations children and residential school survivors in court and implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.
The best way we can honor the children in the unmarked graves and the children who are suffering under the weight of the federal government’s ongoing discrimination is to wear an orange shirt into the voting booth to honor residential school survivors and then only vote for candidates who are serious about ending the injustices and implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry Calls for Justice.
Look for candidates who will apply the same “can do” attitude that they put to rolling out the CERB or negotiating trade agreements to ensure First Nations kids get clean water and proper schools, and folks who understand that litigating against First Nations children and residential school survivors is not in the public interest. If they launch into a speech about what they have done in defense of what they need to do to fix the discrimination, don’t vote for them. Then watch them — and take them out of office if they don’t follow through.
Your vote has the power to stop the long, dark shadow of the federal government’s “dark history” in residential schools. Vote for this generation of First Nations children.
Dr. Cindy Blackstock is a Canadian-born Gitxsan activist for child welfare and executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. She is also a professor for the School of Social Work at McGill University.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.