New Democrats are calling on the federal government to recognize the residential schools policy pursued by Canada for over a century as genocide against Indigenous Peoples.
In a motion to be tabled in the House of Commons on Thursday, NDP MP Leah Gazan is asking fellow lawmakers to unanimously acknowledge the institutions’ history as the deliberate, systematic destruction of a cultural group.
“There is no reconciliation without truth. And what happened in residential school was clearly an act of genocide, with impacts that reverberate (in) our families’ community today,” said Gazan, MP for Winnipeg Centre and a member of the Wood Mountain Lakota Nation in Saskatchewan.
“In honour of all the children who never returned home, in honour of all the mothers and fathers and families that were left to suffer in grief, we must end the debate.”
Gazan’s demand comes in response to last month’s news that ground-penetrating radar detected what are believed to be the remains of 215 children at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
The government-sponsored, church-run institutions operated in Canada for more than 110 years and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ruled in 2015 they constituted a “cultural genocide.”
Gazan questioned the sufficiency of the commission’s determination, laid out in a report that followed seven years of hearings and testimony from thousands of witnesses.
“There is no legal definition in international law for cultural genocide. What happened at the residential schools was genocide, full stop,” she said, citing the United Nations convention against genocide.
Genocide comprises any one of the criteria laid out in the 1948 convention’s definition, and Gazan said Canada’s residential schools policy meets all five: killing members of a group, causing them serious physical or mental harm, placing them under conditions to destroy them, imposing measures to prevent births or forcibly transferring children to another group.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said Liberals “will look at the wording of the motion.”
She noted that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week he accepts the conclusion of the 2019 inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women that “what happened amounts to genocide.”
At a news conference with Gazan on Wednesday morning, Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said denying an act of genocide would “belittle the history and the reality” of survivors of schools that continued to open into the 1970s.
“Residential school is not a historic thing that happened hundreds of years ago. It happened just yesterday,” he said. “My younger siblings attended residential school.”
Christian churches and the federal government launched the boarding schools in the 1880s and kept them going for more than a century, seeking to convert and assimilate Indigenous children, who suffered widespread physical and sexual abuse at the institutions. Thousands died in them.
The last one closed in Punnichy, Sask., in 1996.
A third-generation survivor, Dumas said churches also need to atone for their role. “I am very disappointed with the stance of the church for their silence.”
On Sunday in Rome, the Pope expressed his pain over the recent discovery by the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation of the unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. But many Indigenous leaders have stated their disappointment and frustration over Pope Francis’s remarks, saying they fall short of an apology for the Catholic Church’s key part in the policy.
“Old wounds opened up. Our nation woke up,” said Gerry Shingoose, an elder and survivor who attended the Muscowequan Residential School in Saskatchewan for a decade starting in the early 1960s.
“I ask that each one of you bring that love forward to the survivors and their families, because when we were in school we never received that love. We received hate,” she said. “And no child should ever experience that.”
A vote on Gazan’s motion, which requires unanimous consent to pass, is expected Thursday.
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering with trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.
—Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press