4100 to 6000 unmarked child graves: truth and reconciliation after 7 years

It is quite within the mark to say that fifty per cent of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education which they had received therein. — Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendant of Indian Affaires, 1914

In anticipation of Truth and Reconciliation Day, I read this week for the first time the book 21 Things You May Not Know About The Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality by Bob Joseph, published in 2018.

→ Pour lire le billet en français

I highly recommend this book not only for the political discussion it contains — I'm willing to bet a good chunk of people reading this will have never even heard of the debate surrounding the abolition of the Indian Act — but also for surveying some key points in the history of Canadian colonization. If one seeks to understand, for example, why and how the Indian Act and residential schools were formed, this is a good book. These are facts that I was certainly not taught in school. For example, I remember quite well when my history teacher in secondary 4, Mr. Bordenaro, taught us the British North America Act of 1867, a very important part of the constitution of Canada. But we weren't taught that the act paved the way for the creation of the Indian Act a few years later and, in the decades to follow, residential schools. In university, when I studied Canadian literature, we were taught the poetry of Duncan Campbell Scott without ever mentioning his role in residential schools. Bob Joseph's book includes a chapter at the end with excerpts from letters and speeches by Duncan Campbell Scott from 1879 to 1941. His speeches are shocking, even for the period.

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The Indian Act was created in 1876. The main purpose of this law was to force First Nations people to abandon their culture and adopt a so-called “civilized” Euro-Canadian lifestyle. It does not affect Métis or Inuit. The law forced First Nations children to attend residential schools and prohibited them from practicing their religious ceremonies. The law was amended many times, including after World War II and in the 1950s (at which point, for example, the Act's definition of "people" was amended to include Indigenous peoples for the first time), and in the 1980s. However, it has not yet been abolished.

Source: Indian Act (Plain-Language Summary) et 21 Thing You May Not Know About The Indian Act, pp. 15, 27

During the summer of 2015, after years of meetings with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released numerous documents and reports, including its 94 Calls to Action. Seven years and thousands of children's graves found later, I still meet too many settlers and immigrants in Québec who have never read the 94 Calls to Action and are very unfamiliar with the reasons for the Commission, for why the 2015 Calls to Action are still relevant today, as well as the history of colonization across Canada more broadly.

My reading of Bob Joseph and the impending Québec elections convinced me to use my tiny platform here on the web to once again share the 94 Calls to Action:

According to CBC and Radio-Canada, in the seven years since appeals were made to the federal government, only 14 out of 94 actions have been honored. The chasm between the Canadian state and First Nations, Métis, and Inuit persists. In Québec, as a cherry on top, the Premier keeps trying to convince everyone that systemic racism does not exist here despite, for example, the conclusions reported in 2019 by a Commission mandated by the Government of Québec on relations between Indigenous peoples and public services (the Viens Commission).

As I write these words, we have just seen the very sad second anniversary of the death of Joyce Echaquan pass, without health authorities promising any sort of real reform to ensure that this never happens again. It seems more than clear to me that with our current Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ) government, former police-spokesperson-turned-minister Ian Lafrenière in charge of Indigenous relations (😬), and François Legault at the helm (a situation that I don't see changing after the elections on Oct. 3, unfortunately), I don't see how reconciliation between Indigenous and Québec communities will move forward from our leadership.

Although impossible to achieve at the individual level, reconciliation remains the responsibility of each person. So I must inform myself: I'll read (and reread) the 94 appeals, familiarize myself with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), as well as the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. I'll keep up to date with the various bodies who track governmental progress on the Calls to Action, such as the CBC or the Yellowhead Institute.

But reconciliation cannot consist of just a few evenings of reading a year.

Here are some other possible gestures:

  • Demanding correct action from our elected officials when it comes to respecting the sovereignty and self-determination of Indigenous peoples, no excuses.
  • Immediately counter the denigrating and racist comments that still circulate far too easily and shamelessly around us, especially in our families or at work.
  • Never deny or try to mitigate the history of colonization and genocide on this continent.
  • If you're in a province that has turned September 30 into a holiday, do not take the day to have fun but rather take this day of mourning to think about how to better inform yourself, get involved, and act. (Ideally, don't just use one day a year to contemplate or put that contemplation into action...)
  • In Montreal, take part in the Every Child Counts rally on September 30 downtown. Do not use that space as an opportunity to talk about electoral politics, as it is a gathering for mourning and memory.
  • Bonus: When the municipality of Montreal sends out surveys to see how to attract more people downtown for shopping, leave a comment asking why one of the answers to this latest survey is: "fewer homeless people please" (taking into account that displaced Indigenous women are triply discriminated against in Montreal) and why none of the answers are: “maybe the eternal construction and traffic jams are to blame?"

All right. I've talked more than enough for today. I leave you with a few more reading suggestions below and take my leave. Until next time.

Suggested Reading

21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act
Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality
To Montreal? Click here to buy Bob Joseph's book from the Argo. This is not an ad: I don't get anything if you use this link to buy the book.

Gersande La Flèche

Gersande La Flèche they/them/their

By day I am an independent language worker, writing coach & English-French translator. When not working, I can be found drinking lots of tea and scribbling away in one of my notebooks.
MTL // Tiohtià:ke