Seven of my grandfather’s siblings lay in residential school graves. The 215 children found confirms what Indigenous people have known about Canada

Warning: This story contains details of residential schools and the abuse that took place there.

My mother tells us the story of my grandfather’s childhood.

When he was four years old, the BC government ordered the entire Sen̓áḵw community to gather at the waterfront with their belongings. They were placed on a barge and deported from their land, watching from the water as their entire community was burned to the ground making way for the development of Vancouver’s highly desired Kitsilano neighbourhood.

The forceful removal of ‘Indian’ people from their homes and homelands was completely legal under Canada’s Indian Act. In fact, under said act, any Indian community situated within six miles of a white settlement could be expropriated and its people moved.

When he was six years old, he was taken from his family to the St. Mary’s Residential School in Mission BC. Attendance in Indian Residential School System (IRSS) was mandatory, and the curriculum centred around training Indigenous children to be domestic servants and farm labourers. The same year he started at the school, the Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, declared “It is quite within the mark that 50 per cent of students who passed through these doors do not live to benefit from the education they received therein.” Despite the clear awareness of astronomical rates of preventable deaths, Residential Schools would continue for another 84 years.

My grandfather survived the horrors of the Indian Residential School System and the devaluation and degradation of the Indian Act to go on to fight for Canada in Second World War.

While he joined war efforts, seven of his 9 siblings lay buried in a residential school graveyard.

Like the survivors across Canada, the community speaks of both official cemeteries and unmarked graves sharing the same space. Elders have long held that at least 150 children lie buried under the bushes at St. Mary’s. This “rumor” was bolstered by an accidental unearthing of “little crosses” by a group of Showkale First Nations workers in 2014 at a nearby school in Chilliwack. The horrific confirmation that 215 little ones lay in a mass grave in Kamloops last week confirms what we have always known. Canada has committed genocide, and hidden its history.

The impacts of the IRSS and the Indian Act have ricocheted through generations, contributing to a structure of marginalization that has persisted for more than 150 years.

As a family physician I have traveled throughout Ontario and seen the lasting impacts of the structural violence against Indigenous peoples. Suicide crises, chronic disease burdens, and vulnerability to the COVID pandemic are a part of the legacy. My legacy. Trauma continues to tear families apart. Outside of Kenora I met a father who survived the St. Anne’s Residential School only to become so overcome by pain he could not cope with the memories triggered when his own children reached the age they were themselves when the atrocities began.

Obviously, this is not a “dark chapter” in our history. It continues today. The Indian Act and the Indian Residential School System are absolutely fundamental to the founding of Canada. Bias and prejudices against Indigenous peoples, prevalent at the time of colonization, were used as the philosophical framework in which the Indian Act of 1867 was designed, legalizing race-based oppression within our democratic system. In this way Canada was colonized. This is the way of structural violence.

The RCMP, depicted in a devastating Kent Monkman piece “The Scream”, play an instrumental role in systemic violence against Indigenous peoples: clearing lands for settlers and removing children from communities. We saw the weaponizing of policing systems against Indigenous peoples here in Ontario at the height of the COVID pandemic. The community of Pikangikum expelled the Ontario Provincial Police from the community because of serious allegations of physical and sexual abuse by OPP. In response to this, Indigneous Services Canada pulled medical staff from the community.

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We need healing. The solution to structural violence will never be policing. The solution to structural violence must be structural justice. Healing requires protecting the basic human rights of Indigenous peoples. It requires a society and healthcare system that is safe. Healing requires building privilege for Indigenous people in the same way we build privilege for other Canadians. Defunding the police means not only reallocating resources close massive gaps in basic infrastructure; it means putting an end to funding of systems that simultaneously over and under police us. We see mass incarceration and mass child apprehension happening to the same Indigenous communities that are not protected in the face of astonishing rates of sexual, verbal and physical harm.

Every summer my mother would bring us to visit her family in the graveyard so we would never forget what most of Canada chose not to know. Recently we took my three sons to visit, and found the cemetery surrounded by a locked fence, preserved as a historical site. There was a plaque outside the gate reading “A walk through this lovely cemetery is like a walk through history with the names of bishops, priests, First Nations people, and pioneers all sharing the same resting place”.

I would not call this a “lovely rest”. In fact, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada called this a system of genocide. My grandfather survived the School, but his health was forever ravaged by physical and emotional pain. It’s time to defund structures that perpetuate harm against our communities. May we all find peace, may the little ones all come home.

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of a residential school experience. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419.