On September 30, Canada observed its first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which honors the children, survivors, families and communities affected by residential schools.
From 1894 until 1997, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly placed in these boarding schools. The federal and provincial governments provided buildings, maintenance and grants to these facilities, while the Catholic Church ran them.
Tuberculous, beatings and rape were commonplace. Indigenous languages were prohibited, and instruction was religious. The curriculums were pitiful - hardly any literature, sciences or life skills were taught.
In 1883, as he guided the government in setting up the residential school system, John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, stated the following in Parliament:
“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, [his] training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that the Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
The Canadian government and the Catholic Church engaged in acts of genocide during this period of more than 100 years. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police took a leading role in forcing families to give up their children. It is estimated that up to 30,000 children died in these institutions. Many of their bodies were discovered in mass graves earlier this year.
Pierre Trudeau served as Minister of Justice from 1967-68, and as Prime Minister from 1968-79, and 1980-84. During his tenure, in partnership with several provincial governments, a series of policies were enacted that enabled child welfare authorities to take Indigenous children away from their families and communities and place them in white homes.
Approximately 20,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and adopted out to white middle-class families throughout the 1960s. Thousands more died on PM Trudeau’s watch.
On the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Pierre Trudeau’s son, Justin Trudeau, who just won re-election last month, skipped meetings with residential school survivors to fly to a luxury resort in Tofino, British Columbia, where he hit the beach.
This callousness is not uncommon in Canada. Last year, Erin O’Toole, the head of Canada’s Conservative Party and Leader of the Official Opposition, falsely claimed that residential schools were intended to “provide education.” And, on September 30, the bars in Ottawa were packed - there wasn’t much reflection going on during this federal holiday.
Truth and reconciliation in Canada has also been a challenge for those who regularly defend ethnic cleansing in other parts of the world. The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) - the principal lobbying arm for Israel in Canada - B’nai Brith Canada, and the Embassy of Israel in Ottawa all put out statements of solidarity on September 30 that omitted the word “Indigenous.” Directly acknowledging Indigenous peoples would undermine the propaganda that Israel proponents have been putting out since 1948, which aims to erase the rights of displaced Palestinians.
These three groups - who spend the majority of their time and ample resources slandering young students who advocate for Palestine on university campuses - used last week to feign sympathy for the victims of racist Canadian policies. As Israel’s lobbyists become more and more desperate, it is unsurprising that they are trying to shamelessly attach themselves to any event that will deflect attention from the apartheid state they represent. With only 17 percent of Canadian millennials viewing Israel’s government in a positive light, it shouldn’t be long before their dwindling social media accounts won’t be worth keeping.
It’s baffling that Canada-based proponents of Israel even bothered to say anything about Truth and Reconciliation Day. The residential school system had similar characteristics to apartheid South Africa, a key model for the Israeli colonial project. In her book, Ambiguous Champion, Carleton University historian Linda Freeman documented these ties:
“South African officials regularly came to Canada to examine reserves set aside for First Nations, following colleagues who had studied residential schools in earlier parts of the century.”
The Israeli government mimics the segregationist methods that Canada’s government applied for more than a century after Confederation. Israeli Occupation Forces regularly separate children from their families, keeping them in horrific conditions. The Israeli Ministry of Education erases Palestinian history and the Arabic language in schools. Land is stolen, ghettos are created, and trauma is passed down from generation to generation. The parallels between cultural genocide in Canada and Occupied Palestine are glaring.
The practices that took place in Canada for so long, like the practices that continue in Occupied Palestine, are snapshots of the worst behaviors in history: the failure to acknowledge the humanity of others. The insistence that children must obey their occupier. The policy of force to brutalize people and their culture.
Canada claims to be committed to reconciliation - but thousands of Indigenous people do not have access to clean water in a G-7 country. One in 15 Indigenous citizens live on the streets of our cities. 30 percent of Canadian inmates are Indigenous. That’s what a legacy of institutionalized abuse does to a people. And, while the Prime Minister of Canada uses the rhetoric of reconciliation to win votes from progressives, his government sells weapons and technology to prop up a colonial project in Occupied Palestine. All of Canada’s political parties refuse to recognize Israeli apartheid; they give free pass and tax credits to groups that fund the bulldozing of Palestinian homes... groups that carefully avoid the word “Indigenous” when they post thoughts and prayers about murdered children on Twitter.
The Indigenous peoples of this land have been promised so much by Trudeau and his predecessors. But how can Canada be trusted on Indigenous issues, when it stands by Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians? How can Canadians meaningfully address issues of truth and reconciliation at home, when their government is complicit in wiping out Indigenous populations abroad?
Israel’s representatives in Canada erased the word “Indigenous” from their statements on September 30 in an attempt to avoid alluding to the systematic oppression and extermination of those who are indigenous to Occupied Palestine. They tried to wash their hands of blood - something that Canada has always been good at doing.