Robert Jago: Why accepting reality of residential school harms is necessary

Last updated: 06-09-2021

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Robert Jago: Why accepting reality of residential school harms is necessary

It is not possible to look at the unmarked graves of 215 children that were uncovered on the grounds of the former Kamloops Residential School and deny the reality of Canada’s attempt at the genocide of Indigenous peoples. All the facts of it are known, many have been tested in courts, 25,707 individual hearings have been held to address claims of those who attended the schools, 5,315 living perpetrators have been identified, and 840 have testified, resulting in admissions from the culpable parties. That this was a crime against humanity, and that the residential schools were created with malign intent is as true a fact as gravity or the sun-rise. However, in the face of the mountain of evidence, many Canadians deny much of the reality. On social media and in the press, writers defend residential schools and dismiss these deaths as being exaggerated, arguing that they’re nothing out of the ordinary for the time. They propose as questions, facts that have been litigated to death, and reach for the exceptions to the rule, to create a false narrative of a mitigating complexity where none exists. We apologize, but this video has failed to load. tap here to see other videos from our team Try refreshing your browser, or Robert Jago: Why accepting reality of residential school harms is necessary

The wake-up call provided by the discovery of these unmarked graves should force Canadians to rethink their toleration for such views. Just as we are intolerant of the promotion of pedophilia because of the harm that may come to children — we should be intolerant of views which deny the crimes of the residential schools. These aren’t opinions, they are a refusal to accept facts, a refusal that is often based on racial animus towards Indigenous people. This is a view that social media companies have recently come around to as well, at least with respect to Holocaust denial, labelling it hate speech. In October 2020, after years of lobbying, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg directed his company to both label all Holocaust denial as banned hate speech, and redirect any searches for it, to posts with more credible information. Twitter followed suit days later, with a spokesperson saying: “Our Hateful Conduct policy prohibits attempts to deny or diminish violent events, and our glorification of violence policy prohibit glorification of genocide.”

The uniquely Canadian residential school denialism takes the form of dehumanization of Indigenous people, asserting that they were primitive nomads at the time the schools were operating; that children were mistreated at home and were being saved by the schools. Canadians who take this view, try to poke holes in the numbers, and insult survivors, arguing that they had a “distinct pecuniary motive” to exaggerate. Indigenous people are even told we should thank Canada for the residential schools. More On This Topic Colby Cosh: Remains of 215 children at Kamloops residential school the reality of odious system The phenomenon can be found newspapers and universities all across the country, and can even be found in Parliament.

In a private speech to supporters in December 2020, Conservative leader, Erin O’Toole said that Residential Schools were created to “try and provide an education” and he bemoaned the current understanding of the horrors of the residential schools, saying “we’re not helping anyone by misrepresenting the past.” When his comments leaked, O’Toole walked it all back, and said that the residential schools “were a terrible stain on Canada’s history”. The effect of this false narrative is a devaluing of Indigenous lives. The consequences of that can be seen in Canada’s lackadaisical effort at ending the on-reserve water crisis, the low bar set for the seizure of Indigenous children by child welfare agencies, and overt acts of racist mistreatment in health care — such as with the death of Joyce Echaquan, the Atikamekw First Nation-woman who live-streamed nurses abusing her as she died of a treatable illness.

The change to hate speech policies at Facebook and Twitter is critical, as the reach of social media has meant that extremist views can spread more easily than ever before. In an August 10th, 2020 op/ed in the Post, the editors of the Canadian Jewish Record explained that “in years past, in order for hate groups, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and Holocaust deniers to spread their vile messages, they were mostly forced to stand on busy street corners, handing out their abhorrent messages…(but now) all that is required for hatred to seep into our communities is a laptop and internet hookup.” The immediate impact of extremists publicly denying the full reality of residential schools is clear: far too many Canadians see residential schools in a favourable light. Thirty-four per cent said in a recent poll that their school teachers presented residential schools positively.

It’s a truism that if you don’t learn from history, you will repeat it. And perhaps this is why so many graves are still being filled by Indigenous children in state care today. The excuse that children sent to residential schools were saved from harsher conditions at home is still used to justify the disproportionately large number of Indigenous children taken into the care of provincial child welfare services. In some provinces, as many as 87 per cent of the children in foster care are Indigenous. APTN’s Kenneth Jackson has been investigating the problems of the child welfare system in Ontario. In his reporting, Jackson showed that over the last five years, the underfunding and neglect that caused so many deaths in residential schools, has likewise been linked to 147 deaths of Indigenous children in one corner of Ontario alone. No flags have been lowered for them though. I would argue that because Canadians see it as acceptable to debate whether or not a superlative evil like the residential schools was in fact bad, they are unable to see the danger in its parallels today. Decency, morality, and concern for the harm caused should be enough for Canadians to reject the distortions of what happened at the residential schools. Such views are harmful and have consequences in the here and now. Robert Jago is a Montreal-based entrepreneur and writer, he is a citizen of the Kwantlen First Nation.


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