Discovery of bodies of indigenous children: as if Canada “woke up from a long amnesia”

In Canada, the discovery of the remains of several hundred children near former residential schools has caused astonishment and outrage in the country. Beyond the tributes, some call for a real awareness in order to reverse the “invisibilization” of the First Nations.

“It’s a brutal confrontation with reality”, judge Marie-Pierre Bousquet, anthropologist and director of the program in native studies at the University of Montreal, in an interview with France 24. For the second time in less than a month , the discovery of hundreds of anonymous graves, presumably of children for the most part, on the outskirts of a residential school for natives in western Canada, caused great emotion and amazement among the general population.

As tributes multiply, voices are now rising to denounce an “invisibilization” of the First Nations – the name given to the indigenous peoples of Canada – and of their history.

“These Native residential schools – there are officially 140 of them – were set up in the 1880s. The last one closed in 1996,” recalls Marie-Pierre Bousquet. “Most often run by the Catholic Church, their goal was to ‘civilize’ First Nations children.”

“For nearly a century, the state has torn more than 150,000 Amerindian, Métis and Inuit children from their families to assimilate them into the dominant white culture,” she continues. A report published in 2015 estimates that between 4,000 and 6,000 have died in these institutions as a result of disease, undernutrition, mistreatment or sexual abuse.

“Residential schools remained a very taboo subject”

“These discoveries are a national shock. However, they were not surprising. We knew that children had died and that we would one day find their graves,” said the specialist.

As early as the 1940s, the media had reported running away from children attending residential schools, never found. A few doctors had also sounded the alarm, to no avail. “But from the 1990s, thanks to the testimony of a former resident who became a politician, we witnessed a free speech among survivors,” recalls Marie-Pierre Bosquet.

Today, the subject comes back regularly to the headlines, over new testimonies or research work. In 2008, then-Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized from Canada to First Nations for the mistreatment of federal residential schools. In 2015, when a commission responsible for investigating these schools issued its report, current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did the same and promised to make reconciliation with indigenous people the priority of his mandate.

“Despite all this, residential schools remained a very taboo subject, something that we do not talk about or that we minimize,” said the anthropologist. “But now that the graves are clearly visible, it is as if the population is waking up from a long amnesia.”

At the end of May, the discovery of a mass grave on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian residential school, near Vancouver, sparked an unprecedented wave of tributes. 215 pairs of children’s shoes, as many as discovered bodies, were placed on the steps of a church and on the steps of the Legislative Palace in memory of the young victims. The flags were at half mast for 215 hours on federal and provincial buildings. A huge sign displaying “Every Child Matters” lit up the Toronto stadium ahead of a highly anticipated hockey game.

As Canada prepares to celebrate its national day on July 1, several cities have already announced the cancellation of their festivities, wishing to show their support for the victims. “All this causes a real national questioning”, observes Marie-Pierre Bousquet.

An invisible population

More broadly, these macabre discoveries revive the debate on the place of Indigenous communities in Canada. In total, these represent 4% of the population. Majority in some regions, especially in the north, they remain marginal in others.

“They are still subject to a law dating from the colonial era: the Indian Act, which defines Indian status,” recalls Martin Papillon, specialist in indigenous rights, contacted by France 24. “They live on reserves – delimited spaces under federal government protectorate. They have their own education system, “he explains.

Emmanuelle Dufour is from Quebec. A few years ago, during a trip to New Zealand, a little Maori girl asked her about the First Nations. For the young woman, it was the click. “I realized that I had spent my childhood 50 km from an indigenous reserve. And yet, I knew nothing of its inhabitants, I never saw them, I had no idea of ​​their reality, nor of their history “, she testifies to France 24.

Since then, this anthropology graduate has made it her mission to encourage the population to take more interest in these communities. Last April, she published a collection of First Nations testimonies in a graphic novel, which will be available at the end of October in France, entitled “Quebec was born in my country”.

“A young woman told me that, systematically, when she introduces herself to a stranger, he tries to guess which country she comes from. We ask her if she is Moroccan or Spanish. At no time do we consider that she is First Nation. Suddenly, she systematically retorts ‘Quebec was born in my country!’ ”

All agree, however, that the situation is improving. “Never a work like mine would have found its audience a few years ago,” says Emmanuelle Dufour. “We are slowly witnessing a change in relations”, agrees Marie-Pierre Bousquet.

“Thanks to social networks, in particular, we have seen the emergence of young indigenous leaders who manage to make their voices heard and to make themselves more visible”, notes Martin Papillon. “And several events, such as the death of Joyce Echaquan, shed light on the ordinary racism that still affects First Nations and served as an electric shock.”

In September 2020, in Quebec, Joyce Echaquan, 37-year-old Atikamekw woman, died in hospital under the insults of the nursing staff. The scene, filmed and broadcast on social networks, caused a stir across the country.

In recent months, several voices have also been raised to denounce the forced sterilizations, frequent among indigenous women. A subject that already had caused the concern of the UN in a report published in 2018. “This is not a historical fact, it still happens today. As we speak, there are still indigenous women in this country who are being sterilized in spite of themselves”, denounced Canadian Senator Yvonne Boyer in March.

“The recent discoveries linked to residential schools are just one more example of the discrimination to which indigenous communities were and still are,” maintains Martin Papillon.

“We are still far from reconciliation”

“As long as we do not have a better knowledge of the reality experienced by the indigenous populations, we will not be able to achieve reconciliation”, judges Marie-Pierre Bousquet.

Beyond a better consideration of the natives on a daily basis, it is necessary, according to her, to shed full light on these residential schools and on the abuse suffered during the colonial era. “We must continue to search, we must identify the bodies, and we must succeed in talking about it because it is part, whether we like it or not, of our national history,” she insists. “And let’s also give the locals time to heal their wounds. Let’s not try to go too fast.”

For many, the first of these steps would therefore be to carry out systematic research around former residential schools, as the Aboriginal communities have been advocating for several years. Excavations were initiated at the end of May on several sites across the country.

“We are still in the ‘truth’ phase. There are still many stages before reaching reconciliation,” concludes Martin Papillon.

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