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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Grave concerns

BY Will Nicholls Aug 17, 2021

Canada’s continuing embarrassment over the discovery of unmarked graves tied to residential schools continues. 

Winnipeg Centre NDP MP Leah Gazan tabled a motion seeking unanimous consent in the House of Commons to have the federal government acknowledge what happened in residential schools as a genocide. It did not receive the unanimous consent she was looking for. 

But other politicians have come forward. Manitoba Minister for Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations Alan Lagimodiere felt that while residential schools might have been created with good intentions, he believes that the Indigenous children who were forced to attend them were a part of genocide. 

“It was genocide. There’s no way we can defend those actions,” Lagimodiere said adding that John A. Macdonald’s strategy was to eliminate the Indigenous population as far as Canada was concerned. 

Over a 120-year period, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from parents and forced into the residential school system.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called this period a “cultural genocide” and recorded a death toll of over 5,000 children in their report. With the unmarked graves that figure is likely to be higher. Since May, over 1,300 unmarked graves have been found at only four of the more than 130 residential schools funded by Canada.

Canada’s first Indigenous forensic pathologist Kona Williams said she and her colleagues had talked about those types of graves “but it was still a shock… some of those children could be my relatives.” She added that it might be hard to determine cause of death as causes such as pneumonia require lungs to establish that, and they may no longer exist. 

The TRC report saw many residential school survivors testify children were beaten to death and evidence of that is more likely to be seen. “That might match with some of the horrible stories that we’ve heard. And that’s going to be a difficult reality for Canadians to have to reconcile,” said Williams. She added there seems to be no plan in place to investigate the remains.

Despite the apologies, Canada has recently refused a request to find more missing graves. Some provinces have stepped up to assist in doing so. 

While the world looks at Canada’s human rights record, many people wonder what else can be done. Afterall Canada’s response to many of its Indigenous problems, concerns and issues is to simply wait until the media gets bored and stops reporting them.

It’s understandable given that many Indigenous peoples come from remote and isolated communities and their voices are not as loud and as prolonged as issues with a rallying cry of “Black Lives Matter.”

Criminal lawyer Andrew Phypers, whose mother attended St. Eugene’s Mission Residential School (just north of Cranbrook, BC) where 182 unmarked graves were found, has a few ideas. He and other lawyers wonder why even though Canada identified more than 5,000 alleged abusers that to this day no individuals or institutions have faced charges. Some of them could be continuing to abuse. Only a small number of priests have be charged with sexual assault, but never investigated for homicide. 

The Native Women’s Association of Canada has been pushing for criminal charges to be laid against Canada, churches and workers who committed crimes in the residential school system.

Phypers, however, has a different idea. He is working with a group of lawyers asking the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into the institutions. Canada enacted a federal Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act in 2000. This act gives the ICC domestic powers to prosecute in Canada and they can request Canadian police to help investigate. It would be an offence for Canada to interfere with the process. The ICC could also demand the documents the Catholic Church has refused to release.

We can all hope Phypers and his team are successful so that the crimes enabled through the residential school system see true justice at last. It is something those children in the unmarked graves deserve so they can be laid to rest at last.

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Will Nicholls is a Cree from Mistissini. He started his career off in radio and is still one of the youngest radio DJ’s in Canadian history, having a regular show on CFS Moosonee at the age of 12. Will was one of the founding members of the Nation, and has been its only Editor-in-Chief.