Gneg wetagutijig – Grieving for my Relatives-in-Spirit

Trigger warning: This article deals with Residential Schools and anti-Indigenous violence. Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools.  The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line can be contacted toll-free at 1-866-925-4419.

By Deborah Richardson
Deputy Solicitor General

Today, the flags at all Government of Ontario buildings will fly at half-mast.

I have asked that the flags at all Ontario government buildings and establishments across the province be flown at half-mast in memory of the 215 Indigenous children whose lives were tragically lost at the former Kamloops Residential School.

Doug Ford, Premier of Ontario

There are so many people that take pride in their Canadian heritage, and the many proud moments in this nation’s history.  But this is not one of those moments.  For Indigenous people across Canada, along with many like-hearted Canadians, we are grieving yet again.  It’s the latest example of how the Residentials School experience, and their victims, have quite literally, been buried only to be forgotten.

But this episode provides us a stark reminder that these were children.  The loss of life should be incomprehensible for any Canadian.  It something that cannot be forgotten.

It is a sombre and tragic affirmation that the Residential School experience was all too real, and it was horrific.  It is also a realization that there is still so much work to do to on the long journey of Reconciliation in Canada.

As an Indigenous woman, I wept to learn that my relatives lay forgotten in a mass grave on the other side of the country.  They are not my blood relatives – but my relatives in spirit.  I grieve them like I have a lost a sister, a nephew, a cousin or a friend.  In my language, the Mi’gmaq language, we would call them “gneg wetagutijig” (my distant relatives).

It is a great time to reflect on our respective roles in Reconciliation, in allyship, and understanding the truth about Residential Schools.

As public servants, we also need to examine, from both a contemporary and historical lens, how governments and their officials contributed to the many forms of racism experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada.

We may not like to admit it but it was the public service who created and instituted the Indian Act, the oldest piece of legislation in Canada.  It is a colonial piece of legislation that continues its role in assimilation and inequity today.  It was the education provisions of that same Indian Act that enabled the creation of Residential Schools and required mandatory attendance of children beginning at the age of five.  This led to wide-sweeping forced and systematic removal of children from their parents and their communities.

It should have been the role of governments and the public service to look after the best interests of children.  That is arguably the greatest failure of all.

According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, at least 4,200 children died in the care of the government-run, church-operated schools.  Of those, we can only identify 2,800 names.  Those names are immortalized by a 50-metre long, red cloth memorial kept by the Centre.

Children died from wide-spread disease, especially tuberculosis.  They died from violence and abuse at the hands of their captors.  Many more died trying to escape from the schools.  

The story of 12-year old Chanie Wenjack came to national prominence when Time Magazine published the story of his tragic death in 1967.  He froze to death at the side of a railway trying to escape the Cecilia Jeffrey Residential School in Kenora the year prior.

Government could have done something about the conditions at the Residential Schools and prevented this loss of life.  In 1907, Dr. Peter Henderson-Bryce, a respected physician and public servant wrote his “Report on the Indian Schools of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories”.  He used a survey to gather statistical information and found that 25 per cent of the 1,537 students that were part of his study had died.  Another school reported that a full 69 per cent of former students had died from tuberculosis.

In his report, Dr. Bryce outlined clear recommendations to improve health and safety conditions and prevent the unnecessary deaths of students.  Despite this damning evidence, government did little to implement his recommendations to protect children and prevent this loss of life.

There are lessons in these stories for all of us.  We owe it to Black, Indigenous, and racialized peoples to begin to explore the truth of racism in the public service.  That racism is not only overt, or historic, like during the Residential School era – but it is also systemic and continues to this day.  Racism can still be found in policies, regulations, and yes, even in legislation. It appears in our biases and our interpretation of policy.

It is my belief, that public servants are the purveyors of the public good.  We serve at the pleasure of government, to bring all Ontarians, all Canadians, policy, programs and services that will improve their lives and enable, safe, healthy and equitable communities.  But truth also requires us to look back on our mistakes and learn from them. We cannot have reconciliation without truth. That will be the toughest lesson of all.

In response, many of my colleagues and even you, the reader, will say: “that was not my fault” or “that happened so long ago.”

But it is our responsibility as Canadians to remember Residential Schools.  We can choose to hear and embrace truth. We can learn much from the perspectives of Indigenous families who have lost their children. We can grieve with them and console them.

Through our personal, sustained actions, we can do so much to remember the lives of those 215 young ones – my relatives – who have passed on and died at the Kamloops Residential School.  

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