This has not been a happy time in Canada. We have been confronted with the Truth, or maybe one could say we’ve been hit over the head with a sledgehammer called the Truth. The Truth of the cruel, inhumane, criminal residential school system perpetrated on the Indigenous Peoples by the colonizers of what has become Canada. Twelve full years after June was first proclaimed as National Indigenous History Month by Parliament in 2009, the recognition and the need for it can be doubted by no-one.
This June has been bookended by the discovery (confirmation) of the remains of hundreds of remains and unmarked graves of Indigenous children at the sites of former Residential Schools in Kamloops, B.C. and Saskatchewan. Both of these residential schools were run by the Catholic Church, funded by the federal governments at the time. A Catholic Church that has yet to officially apologize for its unspeakable actions against innocent children or turn over its records of the schools and grave sites.
It was always clear to those in the know and those who reported on the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that such grave sites existed and would be found. That they needed to be found. In fact, that requirement is one of the 94 recommendations of the TRC Report, which was presented to the federal government six years ago. We have to be prepared for the reality that many more grave sites will be found.
The one positive outcome of these findings is that non-Indigenous people now recognize how real this is. There is no hiding from facts. Our telling of history will change to reflect reality. It is changing. And because of this vastly raised public awareness, surely government action will be accelerated. Surely governments at all levels will start walking their talk. Finally. We need so much more than tentative baby steps.
Report card of government actions on the TRC Recommendations.
The CBC is keeping an up-to-date interactive report card, called Beyond 94, of the expectations and progress of each of the 94 recommendations. The screen shot below is the report card as of June 22; I encourage you to take a look at the site. The number completed has just moved to 13 (out of 94) with the parliamentary approval last week of #94, replacing the Oath of Citizenship to acknowledge Indigenous history. In fact, June 2021 has been a good month for recommendations to move to the ‘Complete’ column. Hopefully this activity will only accelerate.
One of the recommendations that passed Parliament this past week was #43, harmonizing Canada’s laws with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which, I might add, was passed at the UN way back in September 2007 with a vote of 144 in favour, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and U.S against [they’ve all now ratified it], and 11 abstentions. One redeeming outcome of such a long delay in Canada is that this new legislation was amended at the last minute to explicitly reject the doctrines of discovery and terra nullius (the conquerors giving themselves permission to claim any land not populated by ‘Christians’) as “racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust.”
Let’s hope that by the time next year’s Indigenous History Month arrives, many more recommendations will be well along the ‘In Progress’ route or ‘Complete’. Clean water in all First Nations would be a great addition, an outcome long overdue. Consider sending your voice of concern to your MP.
And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) Report released in early June needs to be actioned in a timely and accountable fashion. Similarly, acknowledging and addressing systemic racism within policing across the country is critical and also overdue.
What can non-Indigenous people do to help?
Non-indigenous people right across Canada are asking themselves, “What can I do?” We try to show our shock and shame with gestures we can think of, but our small gestures don’t do much beyond acknowledging that we’ve heard and been touched. Changing our Facebook pics to orange and wearing an orange shirt on Orange Shirt Day doesn’t do much to help survivors and their children and grandchildren move beyond the trauma.
The question is, what can non-Indigenous people do to help effect real change? Sustained change? How can we help Indigenous Peoples in Canada become whole after all that has been done to break them and keep them broken? How can we individually contribute to helping Indigenous communities move past generations of trauma, to reclaim their heritage, their cultures, their languages, and their sense of self-worth, all of which the Residential Schools and other government policies have done so much to destroy?
There are several suggestions online. You can find some simply by googling ‘how to help indigenous peoples’. Here are a few for you to consider; most of these come from globalcitizen.org.
1. Practice compassion and self-reflection as Indigenous communities mourn and remember.
The recent discoveries (confirmations) of human remains and unmarked graves at former Residential Schools is a reminder to all of us of how generations of Indigenous people were denied their fundamental human rights and dignity. These revelations also make clear that violence and trauma are not just historical facts — they’re an ongoing struggle we need to confront. Listen to and respect Indigenous communities as they work through their grief about residential schools and other colonial legacies.
2. Educate yourself about Residential Schools and their ongoing impact.
- through reading any of the many fiction or non-fiction books by Indigenous authors, describing the realities of the residential schools and their enduring impact.
- through reading or hearing stories from survivors.
- through film. The film We Were Children is recommended viewing, although not an easy one. You can view the trailer here.
3. Read (and re-read) the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
4. Contact your MP and MPP/MLA/MNA to voice your concerns and expectation of action.
One point of immediate concern might be demanding action on a comprehensive search for unmarked graves at all residential school sites, as clearly specified in the TRC’s recommendation #75.
5. Support Indigenous artists, business owners, and community organizers.
This suggestion includes attending local Indigenous events to which the public is invited, such as public powwows, Orange Shirt Day gatherings and Reconciliation Day gatherings.
6. Make sure that you, your children, and grandchildren are all learning the full history of colonization in Canada.
It’s not pretty, but it’s our history, and we can’t improve as a country without learning about and acknowledging the grave injustices of the past.
7. Donate to Indigenous organizations working at the grassroots level to combat poverty, racism, and colonialism.
There are several reputable non-governmental organizations that you can find online, including The Orange Shirt Society and Indspire.
My fervent wish for next year’s National Indigenous History Month is that we will find ourselves in a position to celebrate many meaningful, successfully implemented steps towards true reconciliation. That by next June far more of the 94 TRC recommendations will have been completed, including major tangible results in improved access within First Nations and Inuit communities to clean water and acceptable standards of housing, health care, and education.
Other June posts in recognition of National Indigenous History Month, and in the wake of the horrific findings of the remains of 215 Indigenous children at a former Residential School in Kamloops and the 751 unmarked graves at a former Residential School in Saskatchewan:
– Map Monday: Indigenous history around the world pre- and post-colonization
– Canada’s day of reckoning is here: we have the Truth, let’s get serious about the Reconciliation
– Indigenous History Month: what do baby steps in reconciliation look like
– Indigenous Peoples Day, lessons in environmental stewardship and more