By Maria Paez Victor – Jul 9, 2021
As I write, it is Canada Day and this beautiful northern country, that has been my home for more than forty years is reeling from the appalling finding of two secret cemeteries containing about a thousand bodies, believed to be of children, on the grounds of former indigenous “residential” schools. This gives evidence to the numerous claims by indigenous communities that many children taken from them by force had disappeared. The residential school system for indigenous children was a formal, legal, Canadian government policy, an unbelievably cruel attempt of forced “assimilation”. They operated for over one hundred years and about 150,000 indigenous children were placed there. The beautiful land has unearthed an ugly secret.
Indigenous children were forcibly separated from their families and communities, placed in badly run schools where they were forbidden to use their own language and subjected to all sorts of physical and mental abuses, as testified by survivors. Thousands went missing, their families given no answers, and survivors left with profound emotional scars.
Another shocking feature of this horrific tale of lost children is that the last school closed only very recently: in 1996. Why didn’t successive government through the many years provide judicial, educational, humane even, oversite? What kind of Christianity did the local Anglican and Catholic teachers practice when sadist, even rapists and pedophiles, perhaps even killers, were allowed near vulnerable children?
The most sinister element of these cemetery findings is that they were hidden, secret; there was not one headstone or cross marking the graves. The cemeteries were discovered not by the government who did not want to fund a search, but on the initiative of the indigenous communities themselves, desperate for answers. The children could have died of disease, of the Spanish Flu, measles, neglect, or worse, could have been killed. It will be hard to ascertain, but what is clear is that they did not receive a proper, humane burial marking which is scandalous and foreboding, and that their families were not informed of their illness or death. They were placed in the earth like a waste, a shame, denied their human dignity, buried secretly. Why were their deaths not properly recorded? Why were they kept secret?
As an immigrant to this country, I was always aware that Canada’s self-identity has been solidified by the story of a bilingual, bi-cultural country where English and French set up its governance. This is a fact as the indigenous peoples were not “partners” in this establishment. They had scarcely any participation in the process of the Canadian Confederation of 1867, with one exception. The only indigenous person involved was the extraordinary Metis leader, the great Louis Riel founder of the province of Manitoba who brought it into Confederation. His role to this day is downplayed. He was eventually and scandalously hung on a public gallows for treason in 1885.
Coming as I do from Latin America, I have observed that a deep Canadian problem of its political life is that it is steeped in Eurocentrism, just like in the other “child” of Europe, the United States of America. Europe has been mostly an indigenous-less land for centuries (except perhaps the Lapps or Roma). It is telling that Canada’s most famous artists, called The Group of Seven, celebrated for their alluring depictions of the northern Ontario landscape from 1920-1933, produced works completely devoid of the indigenous peoples who lived in those very places. They painted an “empty” land.
The international political life of Europe has involved violent colonialism and exploitation of other non-European peoples. Has it been forgotten that the Belgians in 1880’s slaughtered about 11 million Africans and cut off the hands of those not meeting their rubber quotas?  Eurocentrism is lost in the hubris of superiority which has resulted most specifically in ubiquitous racism in the USA against blacks and in Canada against indigenous peoples.
The curse is not Europe per se but Eurocentrism, the belief that only European cultures are civilization. It is an old failing: the Greeks considered barbarians those who could not speak their language and the Romans considered barbarians any group outside their Mediterranean empire. The North American (Canada and USA) culture is firmly rooted in Eurocentrism, everything outside is deemed coarse, unworthy, dangerous even: Muslims, Chinese, Latinos, Black and most grievously, their own original peoples, the indigenous nations of North, Central and South America.
Unlike in Latin America where bloody battles were fought to liberate themselves from the infamous Spanish empire, Canada never rebelled against its British/French ties to assert itself as a different, new entity. Its ruling elites were content just to create a continuation. As George Grant stated in 1965, the Canadian elite wanted the benefits of a junior membership in the British empire.  Canada changed the British Unión Jack for its own flag, as recently as 1965, and it got its own constitution, not tied to the British Parliament, even more recently, in 1982., despite still retaining as Head of State, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. But a quick look at Canada’s foreign policy trajectory gives ample evidence that today’s governing elites do not crave for themselves an idiosyncratic Canadian foreign policy but continue to desire to be junior members of an empire, this time, the USA empire. In Latin America the question of sovereignty is uppermost in the political discourse, whether it be respected or not. It is scarcely mentioned in Canadian political discourse.
Therefore, unfortunately, the colonized state of Canada, in turn, became a colonizing one with respect to the original peoples of this land. Those governing in 1894 who started the infamous indigenous residential schools, were in fact, born Europeans or people that identified more with Britain or France than Canada. Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. McDonald was the founder of the residential school system and was born in Scotland. He stated the purpose of the schools was to separate children from their savage parents:
“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write…. Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence… (to put them) where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
Sir Hector-Louis Langevin, a Francophile, another architects of the residential system in 1883 stated that they had to separate indigenous children from their families so “they acquire…only the good habits and tastes of civilized people.”
And as recently as 1920, the Deputy Minister of the Department of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, said:
” I want to get rid of the Indian problem. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question…”
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2008-2019) was created as a result of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement and was a very positive step that tried to recognize and meet historical debt that is owed to the indigenous peoples of this country. It gathered more than 7,000 statements from Indigenous people and it concluded that this government assimilation policy was a cultural genocide. Now with the discovery of the secret cemeteries, there appears to be objective evidence of a physical genocide also. The Commission’s Report concluded that indigenous people were not believed when they stated that hundreds of children went missing, and” The legacy of the system has been linked to an increased prevalence of post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, substance abuse, and suicide, which persists within Indigenous communities today.”
Prime Minister Pierre Eliot Trudeau was perhaps the most significant Canadian leader to have a sense of “Canadianism”, as he repatriated the Constitution in 1982 and declared Canada to be a multicultural country, the first country to do so, thereby recognizing the ethnic plurality of a nation built on immigrant labour, other than just English/French. Most unfortunately, this did not really include Canada’s original peoples who remained marginalized in a web of legal complications. They are not immigrants, they are the original peoples of this land, and nothing short of that recognition is acceptable to them.
Eurocentrism is not an issue of the past. On July 2013, the presidential plane of the first indigenous president of the Americas, Mr. Evo Morales in violation of international laws, was detained for hours, held against his will by Austria, France, Spain, and Italy, under orders of the USA, suspecting- falsely- that Snowden was aboard. There was not a whisper of concern among politicians or mainstream press and certainly no talk of sanctions. The Morales plane was fair game. But there were howls of outrage and threats against Belarus in May of this year, when a Belarus plane carrying a white opposition blogger was told to return. Without hesitation sanctions were imposed on Belarus. Double standard was the order of the day.
Many Canadians today are now being awakened to the fact that in many ways the nation has been living with its back to its own indigenous peoples and those of the rest of the Americas, all who are alive, living today, neglected today, abused today by corporations and states.
Latin America is a region that has known since the fateful disembarking of Christopher Columbus, that the Europeans – and yes, it is a vast generalization, but it has been Europeans and their Europeanizing influence- that has been responsible for the unspeakable tortures, wholesale robbery of territory, purposeful attempt to invisibilize indigenous cultures, and a ubiquitous historical whitewash of all their misdeeds. The USA replaced the Spanish monarchy, and since the independence of the Latin nations, every single reformer, every progressive measure or government has been actively opposed – harassed, invaded or overthrown, by the hand of the USA. Most recently, the government of Mr. Evo Morales was overthrown by racist elites fully backed by both the USA and Canada. The battle of the indigenous people today is over the land, its exploitation and its environmental destruction and human rights abuses by rapacious multinational corporations, biased international tribunals, foreign powers and wealthy Latin American elites wedded to them.
When North Americans vacation in Mexico, they should forgo the beach resorts and wander to the centre of Mexico City to see the murals of Diego Rivera depicting the Spanish Conquest and Colonization. It is not just the history of Mexico painted by this brilliant artist, but the history of the indigenous peoples of all the Americas, yes, including Canada’s. These terrifying paintings are in the same league, or greater, than Picasso’s Guernica.
Rivera’s images are not the fantasy or exaggeration of the artist. They are factually rooted in historical occurrences as testified in two historical records: the “Brevísima relación de la destrucción de Las Indias” (1552) of Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas who protested the cruelties of the conquerors toward the indigenous peoples, and later also of the black African slaves, and the official archives of the Spanish Crown the “Cronicas de las Indias” (Spanish Archives of the XV and XVI centuries). Both are horrific readings.
Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez renamed Columbus Day, the Day of Indigenous Resistance and Venezuelans pulled down the statue of Columbus in Caracas “…to undo the symbols of our oppressors”. “The tearing down of the Columbus statue was compared with that of the fall of the Saddam Hussein statue in Iraq… ”
To this day there has been no fulsome recognition let alone apology or reparation by the Spanish Crown of the abominations they visited upon three quarters of this continent.
In Canada, the churches directly involved in the schools issued apologies in the 1980 and 1990, and in 2008 and the Canadian government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued apologies.  However, more than apologies are needed today because the life statistics of indigenous Canadians, (education, employment, health, deaths and suicide rates, availability of clean water, poor housing, life expectancy and rate of incarceration) compare very badly to that of other Canadians. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a skillful wordsmith, is keen on apologies, but falls short of objective measures to counter the social, political, and economic debt the Government of Canada owes to indigenous Canadians to improve their life chances today. The Liberal government has spent $100 million in fighting settlements instead of paying reparation to indigenous peoples for the harm it has inflicted on them.
It is very likely that now after this shocking finding of secret children’s graves, Canadians will identify with indigenous peoples of the hemisphere so grievously dispossessed, assaulted, and marginalized by Eurocentrism attitudes of superiority, delusions of grandeur, greed and sheer prejudice.
If Canada is to have roots in this American continent, Canadian elites need to realize that this land is something else other than indigenous-less Europe. The struggle of the indigenous peoples of the Americas for their land, their identity, cultural and political freedom are all one. Not by simple apologies, but by not marginalizing them and recognizing their legitimate position in the affairs of the nation and share in its prosperity, will Canada ever find its self-identity, sovereignty, and peace within itself and with the hemispheric neighbors to the very south of the continent.
 George Grant, Lament for a Nation – the defeat of Canadian nationalism, Carleton University Press, 1965
 This 2007 Settlement Agreement was signed between the Canadian government and legal counsels for former students, the Churches, the Assembly of First Nations, and other Indigenous organizations in order to bring a fair and lasting resolution to the legacy of Indian Residential Schools. It includes payments to former students, abuse assessment process, support for healing, commemorative activities, and the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Featured image: File Photo
Maria Paez Victor
María Páez Victor, Ph.D. is a Venezuelan born sociologist living in Canada.
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