The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) stands with Indigenous communities across Canada in their outrage and mourning after 751 unmarked graves were located on the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. This follows the June 1 finding of the remains of 215 Indigenous children on the site of a residential school in Kamloops, B.C., and the many hundreds of other missing children currently being investigated.
The OHRC acknowledges the painful and brutal ongoing legacy of colonialism, which has left no Indigenous community unscathed from intergenerational trauma and marginalization that continues to cause harm today.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report catalogued in detail the cultural genocide perpetrated against Canada’s Indigenous peoples for over a century. Canada’s residential school system forcibly separated more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children from their families and communities as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society and eliminate what government officials at the time described as an “Indian problem.” Residential schools were created to address the “Indian question” with the expressed “objective to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada.” At residential schools, children were beaten for speaking their Indigenous languages and suffered malnutrition, forced labour, sexual abuse and, as we now can no longer ignore or deny, even death.
Acknowledging the irreparable damage caused to First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities is a step – but it’s a meaningless step if nothing comes from it. The OHRC has made Indigenous reconciliation a strategic priority in our human rights work and is committed to follow this path with the guidance of our Indigenous Reconciliation Advisory Group. Our research in Interrupted Childhoods found that a disproportionate number of Indigenous children and youth were over-represented in Ontario’s foster care and social services. Modern-day child welfare systems continue to reverberate along the very same racial biases of the residential school systems. Until we dismantle the racism in these systems, they will simply continue to replicate colonial harm.
With every step forward, we are learning how much more work we need to do, and how much more we still need to learn and unlearn. Part of this learning can happen by being witnesses to the events unfolding in unmarked graveyards across Canada, and calling on ourselves, our communities and government to commit to do the work required by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission until no vestiges of colonialism remain.
I call on all Canadians to recognize that Indigenous peoples suffer from historic inhumanities of colonization and continue to experience dispossession and disenfranchisement. The first step is to acknowledge the harmful truths in our national past and our present. We then have to learn from these truths, and take the positive steps to ensure First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples’ inherent dignity and fundamental human rights are recognized and respected.