Canada’s Dirty Secret

Residential schools & ethnic cleansing

30 June 2021

Since the horrific discovery of the remains of more than 1,000 children at just a few “residential” schools for Indigenous youth, local governments across Canada have faced calls to cancel Canada Day celebrations set for 1 July. Federal Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole denounced “a small group of activist voices” for advocating the cancellation of “our day of celebration,” while Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered a typically weaselly “pledge … to doing what we can to continue that effort to make Canada better, all the while respecting and listening to those for whom it’s not yet a day of celebration” (Guardian, 30 June 2021). There has never been, nor will there ever be, a good reason to celebrate a country built on the ethnic cleansing of its Indigenous peoples—a country forged in empire.

While the sickening discoveries in British Columbia and Saskatchewan have drawn the attention of the world to Canada’s dirty secret, the horrors of the ethnic cleansing of Indigenous (First Nations, Inuit and Métis) peoples have been well documented and are known, at least in broad outline, to many Canadians. The driving motivation of the English and French colonial administrators from the 16th and 17th centuries onward was to appropriate the land and resources of the Indigenous peoples and use them to enrich a small layer of wealthy elites in the context of mercantile and (later) industrial capitalism. While much land was simply seized, in many cases the Crown signed treaties offering battered Indigenous peoples parcels of land and provision of services in exchange for sovereignty over large swathes of territory. Even where treaties exist, the colonial administration and its legal heir, the Canadian government, have effectively stolen the land by failing to hold up their end of the bargain. For instance, housing on reserves today is often dilapidated and overcrowded, with many under “long-term drinking water advisories,” i.e., without access to safe, clean drinking water.

Probably the most perverse example of the failure of the Canadian government to make good on the deal struck in dozens of treaties is the residential school system. Many treaties signed in the second half of the 19th century required the government to pay for schooling—Indigneous leaders had hoped their children would receive an education that would allow them to successfully navigate the emerging industrial and commercial society established by the settlers. Instead, government officials expanded the practice of residential schools that had existed since the 1830s—state-funded boarding schools run by religious organizations (mostly the Catholic Church) in which Indigenous children, in many cases separated from their parents against their will, were sent to faraway “schools” where they were prevented from speaking their language and practicing their religion and were taught about the “savagery” of Indigenous cultures. Under a regime of sadistic terror, children were routinely neglected, tortured, raped and murdered by “civilized” priests and nuns.

The residential school system, which lasted until the 1990s, was codified in the apartheid-like Indian Act (1876) and the Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds (1879), aka the Davin Report. The latter noted:

“Little can be done with him [the adult 'Indian’]. He can be taught to do a little at farming, and at stock-raising, and to dress in a more civilized manner, but that is all. The child, again, who goes to a day school learns little, and what little he learns is soon forgotten, while his tastes are fashioned at home, and his inherited aversion to toil is in no way combated.”

In 1920, Duncan Campbell Scott, head of the Department of Indian Affairs, argued:

“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone.… Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department.”

The residential school system uprooted an estimated 150,000 Indigenous youth from their communities with the sole purpose of getting rid of “the Indian problem,” i.e., eradicating the Indigenous population through forced assimilation and murder. The New York Times (28 June 2021) reports that former Canadian senator Murray Sinclair of the Ojibway people estimates the number of children who died in the residential schools as “well beyond 10,000” and observes that “Several Indigenous leaders now put the figure at three to five times Mr. Sinclair’s estimate.”

The impact of the residential school system and the wider program of ethnic cleansing on Canada’s current 1.7 million Indigenous residents has been profound: their life expectancy is 15 years less than the national average; infant mortality rates are two to three times that of non-Indigenous people; child poverty rates approach 50 percent, two-and-a-half times the national rate; and a third of federal prisoners are Indigenous, though they represent less than 5 percent of the Canadian population. Indigenous people, grappling with generations of trauma, also suffer from higher rates of drug and alcohol addiction for which, in an additional act of humiliation, they are often personally blamed and stigmatized. The suicide rate of Indigenous Canadians is three times higher than it is for the non-Indigenous population.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established to document the impact of the residential school system and active from 2008 to 2015, concluded that residential schools amounted to “cultural genocide,” but the Canadian government has done nothing to address the ongoing oppression of its Indigenous peoples: only eight of the TRC’s 94 “Calls to Action” to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance reconciliation have been implemented. The government’s response to the latest discoveries is largely designed to tamp down the current outrage while once again sweeping the oppression of Canada’s Indigenous population under the rug.

Marxists denounce the systemic and ongoing racism of the imperialist Canadian state against its Indigenous peoples, and we defend their right to sovereignty and self-governance if they so choose. Indigenous people and other oppressed sectors of Canadian society are vital to the project of building a revolutionary workers’ party that will overthrow Canadian capitalism. Only the institution of workers’ power across North America can establish the material foundations for realizing the genuine liberation of Indigenous peoples and all the oppressed.