Canada has returned to the world news as of late. Dozens of Catholic churches have been attacked, with at least 8 burned to the ground. The assailants are unknown as of now, but it seems to be related to the other big news in the country – the horrible discoveries, since May, of 215 unmarked graves of indigenous children in a Catholic/government residential school closed since the 70’s in the city of Kamloops, province of British Columbia, on the Canadian west coast. At the moment this text has been written, around 1500 unmarked graves have been found in other schools, some as young as 3 years old.
By Miki Sayoko
Families are discovering evidence, in the worst possible way, of the long-known fate of brothers, aunts, daughters and cousins long disappeared. This would be terrible news in any time and context, but it’s worse now because, by bitter irony, June is, since 2009, National Indigenous History Month in Canada. And considering the Roman Catholic Church has not yet apologized for its role in this genocide, as well as refused to open its archives for investigation by the natives, it seems likely that the youth of the First Nations is taking matters in their own hands – eight of the churches burned were in indigenous territories, after all.
We are deeply sorry for the pain of those who lost relatives, especially the Tk’emlúps te Secwépenc nation, in whose land is the city of Kamloops, and support their struggle, which has made it possible to find the graves despite the efforts of the Canadian government to hide the past. What they must feel right now is unimaginable. However, we humbly believe that this tragedy has a series of important lessons for the indigenous peoples around the world, as well as the working class and other oppressed sectors, to stop it from repeating itself.
The image of Canada, for most of the world, is generally quite positive. With a high human development index, one of the biggest industrial economies of the planet, a series of significant welfare policies and placing 1st worldwide on the ranking of adults with a higher education degree, the enormous North American country rarely appears in other countries’ media with this sort of horrific news. On the contrary: the media stereotype of the average Canadian is that of an educated, peaceful and overall nice person, a citizen of a democratic, multicultural country.
Reality is, as always, more complex than that. On foreign affairs, Canada is as imperialistic as its more aggressive country on the south. The country joined the US on the War on Korea, was part of the coalition that invaded Iraq during the First Gulf War, helped invade Afghanistan (though it did not invade Iraq again) and bomb Libya, and was part of the UN “peace” troops that occupied former Yugoslavia. Huge Canadian corporations, particularly mining companies, exploit semi-colonial countries such as Namibia, Chile, Brazil and the Philippines.
Internally, Canada is also not the utopia that is presented. Higher public education is paid for with a very expensive tuition, and there is an accumulated student debt of more than 15 billion dollars. The official unemployment rate is of 8,1%, and the actual unemployment, at around 20%, is significantly higher, with a serious of temporary, precarious, unprotected types of work. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, around 10% of the population lived below the poverty line, which has certainly increased. Canadian industry is based on extraction, and enormous logging, mining and oil companies deal lots of damage to the environment and the indigenous peoples’ territories.
The official government policy of “multiculturalism”, which attracts hundreds of thousands of migrants each year, is also not quite what it seems. Only around 28% of the immigrants are considered permanent residents, with the same rights as other Canadian citizens; most are “temporary residents”, with no guarantee of long-term stay and a series of restrictions. Immigrants have the most precarious jobs and worst salaries, which is worsened by the fact that the government recognizes almost no foreign certificates, stimulating a sort of “degree industry” in which migrants are forced to retake courses at the local colleges (with an even higher tuition, than the Canadians, naturally) to be able to perform functions for which they already have years of training and experience in their countries of origin. There are several cases of xenophobia against migrants, violent ones even.
In no aspect is the contradiction between the paradisaical image of Canada and its reality is as stark as in the genocidal relationship of the White Canadian state with indigenous people of the country. Indigenous people suffer from disproportionate incarceration rates, live in the most impoverished regions of the country, and their women are the main victims of murder, rape and forced disappearance (and the cases are rarely solved or even properly investigated by the police). First Nations, Inuit or Métis young people (the three largest groups of Canadian natives) are 3 times as likely to commit suicide than young Whites, and their suicide rates are among the highest in the world. And, as the recent discovery at Kamloops shows, this is a structural matter, which is deeply embedded in the country’s history. As many posts on social media have said of late: “Stop saying this is a dark chapter of the history of Canada! The entire plot of Canada has always been indigenous genocide!”
Details are controversial, but most scholars agree that the first humans reached the northern American continent at least 20.000 years ago, descended to what is now Canada around 14.000 years ago, and there built hundreds, maybe thousands of different cultures. There was some contact before, but the first relevant contact with Europeans was the explorer-colonizer wave from the XVth century onward. Although less violent than the relationship between the current US with their own Indians, of the Spanish with the Aztecs, or of the Portuguese with the Brazilian indigenous peoples, it is very telling that, of the around 600 languages which existed in the territory, only some 70 remain, of which just 3 (Cree, Ojibwa and Inuktitut) have enough fluent speakers enough. Similarly, there were between 200.000 and 2.500.000 inhabitants on the country before the Europeans arrived; an estimated 40% to 80% of the indigenous population vanished in the first 100 years. In the 2016 census, there were 1.673.785 self-declared indigenous Canadians, which amounts to just 4,9% of the country’s inhabitants.
This carnage happened in various ways. In addition to repeated outbreaks of European diseases to which the indigenous peoples had not immunity, such as measles and smallpox, there was also a process of enslavement (2/3 of the enslaved in Canada were indigenous peoples) and many wars, be they among the indigenous peoples themselves, against the British, French and Americans, or with one group of colonizers against the other.
And there was also a wide, long process of forced assimilation and cultural genocide, supported by many laws and institutions, of which not always were part of the state. The indigenous peoples had their languages, customs and religions persecuted, their family ties were cut and their traditional livelihood activities made difficult. This led to a gradual absorption by the dominant ethnicity, in a process that greatly resembles the “blanqueamento” (“whitening”) of Brazil and Argentina, what happened to the Ainu of Japan, or the Sápmi on Northern Europe. This process had as its unofficial motto the phrase “kill the Indian in the child” and had many expressions, of which the “residential schools” were not the only, but are certainly the most well-known, and possibly the cruelest.
There were, since the start of European colonization, attempts to “civilize” the indigenous peoples through schools, generally directed by churches, but it was after the War of 1812 that this process accelerated, with a great leap after the approval, in 1876, of the “Indian Act”. This was a very broad law that established the exclusive competence of the federal government of Canada to decide on the natives’ territories, lives, their health and education systems and many other things, as well as deciding who is considered an “Indian”, their rights and obligations. This law remains in force and generates many controversies, such as the fact that it pertains only to the First Nations and excludes the Métis, Inuit and other peoples. However, it was greatly amended and some of the most grotesque sections were removed, such as the requirement, starting in 1894, that all indigenous children attend the “residential schools”.
These places were veritable concentration camps for children, funded by the Canadian government and directed by a series of Christian denominations, especially the Roman Catholic Church. Students suffered all kinds of abuse from directors and staff, from physical violence to sexual aggression, to being used as guinea pigs in “scientific” experiments without being informed, Nazi Germany style. Sanitary and food conditions were terrible, and outbreaks of influenza and tuberculosis were extremely common, with high fatality rates. Since the government funding was very small, many schools depended on the forced (and unpaid) hard labor of students to keep existing. Much of the records have been destroyed by the authorities, but of the 150.000 children who were at the schools, at least 3.201 deaths are confirmed, and the number may reach 6.000 – a death rate of at least 1/50, comparable to that of prisoners of war under the Hitler regime.
As if the physical violence was not enough, the children were also attacked by intense ethnic-cultural violence. They were forbidden from speaking their languages (even outside of the classes), forced to participate in Christian religious ceremonies, and received an education of very low quality which was focused on manual, hard labor. The government imposed all types of obstacles to stop family visitations, and relatives went months and even years without seeing their children and grandchildren. Many were unable to reintegrate to their peoples nor were they able to assimilate into White society, becoming chronically unemployed.
There was always a lot of resistance, with many families refusing to hand over their children (and often being forced to do so by policemen), but the struggle against this genocidal policy grows a lot on the late 1960’s, when several indigenous nations, using radical methods such as pickets, road blockades and occupying land and the schools themselves, managed to take control of them. A few, such as the very first, Blue Quills, became native-controlled universities which exist to this day, but the vast majority were closed; the last one, on Saskatchewan province, closed its doors and was razed only in 1996. In 1969 the government of Pierre Trudeau (father of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) issued a scandalous document, known as the “White Paper”, which proposed to abolish all existing legal documents related to the First Nations and therefore completely assimilate them as “equal” Canadian citizens, thus losing reserve status, converting reserve land into private property, among other things. The Paper sparked enormous outrage and was abandoned in 1972, though the many still feel that the intent of the White Paper and the values of its legislation continue to be held by Canadian government, and that assimilation remains to be the long-goal of the federal government.
On the following years, pressured by the growing struggle of the indigenous peoples, some of the responsible institutions were forced, albeit in a very partial way, to recognize and remedy some of the damage they dealt to the indigenous nations. The most important initiative was likely the Truth and Reconciliation Committee established by the government of Canada, which lasted between 2008 and 2015 and recognized that the Canadian government committed cultural genocide. However, it was “unable” to prove that there was also physical and biological genocide on the part of the government.
The discovery of the 215 unmarked graves at Kamloops in May 28th unmasked this hypocritical discourse and opened the way to many similar discoveries. A mere six days after, in June 4th, researches and the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation announced the discovery of around 100 graves in the Brandon school, in the Manitoba province. In June 25th, the Cowessess found, using the same technology as the Secwépenc, 751 more hidden graves in the Marieval school, in Saskatchewan province. There are at least three more former school grounds being investigated right now, and it seems many more will emerge.
The situation has moved the hearts of the country. There were many demonstrations in Canada, which ranged from placing hundreds of pairs of children’s shows (one for each child found at Kamloops) in front of public buildings and churches, to attacks on monuments honoring architects of the residential school system, such as John McDonald, first Prime Minister of Canada. Egerton Ryerson, another architect of the system, had his statue, which was positioned in front of the university named after him, in Toronto, Ontario, toppled and decapitated; the head was afterwards placed atop of a pike in land which is being disputed by the government and the Six Nations on the Grand River). There was also the removal of names of other members of the system from dozens of monuments in cities across the country, as well as marches and motorcades. And, of course, the church burnings.
Capitalism is incapable of existing without committing genocides. From the Yanomami in Brazil to the Rohingya in Myanmar, from the Uighur in China to the Romany in a huge swath of Europe, from Muslims in India to Palestinians in the Middle East, the bourgeoisie needs, to survive as a class, to exterminate peoples and destroy their languages and cultures in its endless quest for the extraction of more plus-value. In the name of “progress” – in fact, of expropriating natural resources and of dividing the oppressed – veritable massacres were are carried out by the ruling class of every country, if not on their own territory, then in some semi-colonial country they dominate.
Justin Trudeau’s Canada, despite its “peaceful”, “harmless” image, is an integral part of this. There will be no end to the genocide of the First Nations, the Métis and Inuit, whether overt or covert, until this system is abolished across the world by a revolution of working class and its allies, with the oppressed nations on its vanguard, and a new socialist society, controlled by those from below, is erected on its place.