Truth: Yesterday and Today

Thursday, September 30 2021 marks the first Truth and Reconciliation Day in Canada. It was Call to Action number 80 in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action. I strongly recommend reading this as a foundational background.

We call upon the federal government, in collaboration
with Aboriginal peoples, to establish, as a statutory
holiday, a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to
honour Survivors, their families, and communities, and
ensure that public commemoration of the history and
legacy of residential schools remains a vital component
of the reconciliation process.

The other document that is worth a read is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This document was first adopted at the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, 13 September 2007. You can view the document and backgrounders here.

You’ll find that Canada was not one of the original signatories. This is putting it mildly. At the time, Canada was unequivocally opposed to supporting the document. I say this because there were 11 abstentions – a role Canada could have taken. But instead, the government took a position, and lobbied allies Australia, United Stated, and New Zealand to support the stance. You can find the rationale from news articles at the time. One of the first actions that the new Liberal government took when coming to office in 2016 was to reverse the prior government’s position and become an official signatory in support of the declaration. This was followed by a vote in 2021 in the Canadian House of Commons, which interestingly saw support aside from the entire Conservative caucus and one of the two Green Members. There is still a lobby to abandon the declaration, despite the fact that doing so would be irrelevant, according to those with more knowledge than myself.

For starters, Gunn said many don’t understand that UNDRIP is not a treaty — meaning countries don’t decide whether to sign on to it.

“The UN declaration became international law in 2007 when the majority of the General Assembly voted in favour of the declaration,” Gunn said.

“Once it passed in 2007, it became part of international law and thus was relevant in Canada,” she explained.

So, this provides a great jumping off point. Given the reality, it appears that opposing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was code for “we don’t like this signal of change, we prefer the status quo, we prefer to control the narrative in a way that works for us.”

The era in which the Conservative government lobbied to vote against UNDRIP was also beset with other major events in Canadian society. Judging by the Wikipedia entry, history seems to recall the 2012 Idle No More protests with mixed reviews. However, as my memory serves me, society at large was quite ambivalent about the events. It was characterized as a jumbled sideshow, as I recall from news briefs at the time. The narrative was that it was leaderless and directionless, and it would eventually fade into distant memory.

Contrast Idle No More and the numerous other occasional protest movements with news of the discovery of buried children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in the central BC community. It took modern techniques using ground penetrating radar for Canadian society to take notice. The reaction that followed was swift and unshaking. Symbolic remembrance through children’s shoes were deposited on steps and other public places.

Photo of children’s shoes on Vancouver Art Gallery steps (Ben Nelms/CBC)

I had very mixed feelings about this movement. I am not First Nations, but I’ve been an 0bserver for a long time. I remember growing up in Greater Vancouver, a cosmopolitan city by any measure, and recalling regular conversations of people irritated with First Nations people. I probably spent too long in University, taking a unique combination of courses mostly in Sociology and Human Geography that gave me a deeper insight than most of my peers. When I tried to infuse some civility into conversations around rights of indigenous, I was either met with full on detraction or criticisms of an overly liberal university education.

In early 2020, while travelling through Kamloops, I was struck with curiosity of the large red building past the highway. There were no markers at the time, and asking local residents yielded no answers. Interested in old architecture and probably too curious for my own good, I drove to building that was oddly void of any placemarkers 0r street signage indicating what it was – odd considering it is perhaps one of the largest structures in the community. The most noteable signage around the building were references to the soccer fields and soccer camps that appeared to typically occupy the grass expanse in front of the building. While wandering around the building, I was fortunate to run into a security guard. I had not yet seen the historic placemarker in front of the building that was only installed one year earlier.

KIRS as viewed from Transcanada Highway.

After confronting the security guard to query for information about the site, he revealed that he was actually an elder with the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. After some chatting and my obvious thirst for more information, he kindly offered a tour of the building’s interior. To say this event was remarkable is an understatement. To feel the ghosts of yesterday walking through the building and hear the stories of life in this environment was soul-crushing. I then discovered the placemarker sign, and spent some time looking upon the field where I was told that children would toil on the farms to grow the crops that they relied upon to be fed – a field that only had evidence of soccer camps, with the Secwepemc Heritage Park outdoor gathering place in the background.

KIRS with Placemarker installed in 2019.

So, why did we as a society not care about issues facing indigenous people? Why am I still hearing the narrative that ‘they should just get over it’? There are some fascinating insights when digging through opinion polling research. All the big polling firms look at this stuff. Environics has a number of polls worth poking through. One of their most recent studies showed some compelling before and after polling given recent events.

So, trends are apparently changing – as a society, it appears that we are starting to take indigenous concerns a bit more seriously, and moving away from blaming these peoples for their plight. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. One 2016 poll found that “Two-thirds of non-Aboriginal Canadians have heard or read something about Indian residential schools,” meaning a full 33% of non-indigenous Canadians are completely unaware. In politics, I’ve learned of a certain one-third axiom: one third are supporters, one third are opponents, and one third are neutral, and can go either way. Extending this axiom, it is fair to say that there is more to do to inform the Canadian public.

So, how do we inform ourselves? The double-edged sword is that we have known of atrocities for a very long time. Ground penetrating radar did not make a novel discovery. Ground penetrating radar simply provided evidence to a stubborn public that something awfully actually transpired. We have plenty of very informative resources that were always there, if we cared to look.

Over a series of posts, I plan to document my personal journey of discovery through some really interesting resources. We live in an incredible age of information wealth. A generation ago when the residential school system was in its heyday, ignorance of the systemic abuse could be forgiven – there was an equivalent apparatus that sequestered knowledge and continued to spread the doublespeak that Canadians were actually doing a good thing by educating this society to integrate ‘with the rest of us’. But, mostly, the isolation of these schools and systems were sufficient to keep information to a trickle in this vast country.

So, come along with me, as I attempt to colour in the Truth from the way I know how – as an outsider looking in, with an obsessive interest in history. Here are some topics I hope to cover:

    • Timelines resources
    • Origins of Residential Schools
    • Case studies on theft of land, or at least one that will take us on a journey to the United Kingdom
    • Comparisons with Holocaust memorials in Germany and elsewhere

Okay, stay tuned!

School photo, 1934 (Archives Deschâtelets-NDC)