In 2021, an anthropologist pinpointed the suspected resting place of 215 people in Canada and the country was once again haunted by its past. The unmarked, clandestine graves were identified in the surrounds of a now-closed ‘Residential School’ once attended by indigenous schoolchildren. All circumstances indicate the potential graves to be those of First Nations minors, murdered by those entrusted to care for them.

Finding the Forgotten

Without hesitation, Canadians of all backgrounds began paying homage, both in person and online, to the young lives lost. This was more than a belated funeral and mourning of untimely and preventable deaths. It was a moment to show such abhorrent treatment has no place in modern Canadian values. Yet the most shocking aspect of the presumed find in British Columbia was the promptness with which two more followed elsewhere in Canada, on the sites of former Residential Schools in Brandon (104 estimated graves) and Marieval (up to 751 graves).

By mid-July 2021, the number of suspected victims had increased to over 1,100 in that year alone.

Identifying graves of indigenous schoolchildren in Canada goes back to 1974 when 72 were exhumed at the site of Battleford Industrial School.

Conversion Therapy at Indian Residential Schools

Canadians are currently debating whether to hold a full excavation of the suspected burial sites or to let the bodies rest, undisturbed. Either way, the matter is still taboo and being processed, starting with the reason for the Catholic-run schools’ existence in the first place.

Jacques Gaudert is a French-speaking artist in Montréal. His view is that the Establishment: ‘wanted [indigenous children] to be able to survive in this new country that was invaded by the English and the French. If they stayed in the mind of an indigenous person, they were unable to survive. So they said, “Why don’t we help them become almost white?” And that was wrong to start with, they did not respect what was there.’

The ‘help’ was nothing short of conversion therapy. English and Christian worship was imposed to the exclusion of indigenous languages and religions. Every effort was made to condition the students away from their native identities, divorcing them from the culture of their birth. Since the institutions housed boarding quarters (hence the name ‘residential’), the children were separated from their parents for long periods of time and abuse followed.

Canadian Street entertainer Alex Morin recalls that his friend survived a Residential School in Alberta, where: ‘they took sandpaper to his skin because he was really dark,’ literally eroding the hallmarks of Indian identity to assert white supremacy. ‘When he was cut, he would wet the bed so they would rubberband his [genitals] just so that he would not pee himself ever again.’ If students deviated from the imposed norm in any way, the schools’ regime would ensure conformity through intimidation.

A Culture of Systemic Abuse

On the surface, a common threat of language extinction should in some way connect Montréal Francophones with the First Nations People. But if any common ground is felt, it is in the shared experience of being downgraded by authority, not fighting language death. Jacques points out the need to ‘discover the deeper layers of why this happened.’ We cannot exclude the fact that remarkably similar episodes occurred elsewhere in the Commonwealth. The abuse was allowed to happen in Canada because it was consistent with a culture of abusing the vulnerable.

The Indian Residential schools were in operation between the 1870s and 1990s, with the last one closing in 1996.

Contemporaneously, between 1910 and 1970, Australia ran an Aboriginal adoption programme. This entailed forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their parents and placing them with white families or in institutions. They were subjected to abuse, child labour and the erasure of their Aboriginal identity. The experience of First Nations Australians is strikingly similar to that of their Canadian counterparts. Like the Residential Schools, the shocking tactics of Aboriginal adoption took decades to come to public attention. An enquiry and compensation were granted in 2006 and an apology followed in 2008.

Canada also forcibly adopted First Nations children to white families, in the so-called ‘Sixties Scoop.’ Adopted children lost their birth names under the initiative, just as adopted Aboriginal children were forbidden from saying their birth name. The alarming similarities highlight that Canada’s mistreatment of Indian children was no anomaly but consistent with the Commonwealth’s cruel convention at the time.

Britain is also guilty in this narrative. Aided by Barnardo’s and the Catholic and Anglican churches, some 7,000 underprivileged British children were sent to Australia under the ‘Child Migrant’ scheme between the 1930s and 1970s.

Most of these children being resettled were from deprived and troubled backgrounds and receiving help from social services or charitable organisations. They were taken without parental consent and promised a better life. Many were misinformed that their parents were deceased. The reality they faced in Australia was sexual and physical abuse and forced labour, primarily on farms. This was reported in 2009 when the child migrants’ demand for an apology brought the issue to light. The abuse is now known to have been far more extensive. The programme to resettle British children abroad ran from the 1920s to the 1970s, affecting 130,000 British children who were sent to Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as Australia. One target specified by the Australian Government was to import ‘50,000 children over three years.

It gets worse. In the period between 1930 and 1970, British child migrants were joining half a million Australian children being forcibly relocated to Canberra, where they were abused in state-run orphanages and children’s homes. These children are now known as the ‘Forgotten Australians.’

Notably, much of the recorded abuse ended in the 1970s — the decade that also saw a landmark grave discovery in Canada. Whether this is coincidental or not, we must accept that the issue of institutional abduction and abuse is not unique to Canada. It points to a dark historical chapter that the whole Commonwealth and Anglosphere must confront to ensure it never happens again.

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