OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized to the Cowessess First Nation Friday after news that 751 unmarked graves had been discovered at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.
The shocking discovery revealed Thursday was only the latest reminder of Canada's historic mistreatment of Indigenous people — a deadly history and enduring legacy that a federal inquiry called a genocide in 2019.
“Canadians are horrified and ashamed of how our country behaved, about a policy that ripped kids from their homes, from their communities, from their culture and their language and forced assimilation upon them,” Trudeau said Friday outside his home at Rideau Cottage.
“This is a piece of our past that resonates and echoes and continues to be a lived reality of consequences for many, many Canadians today,” Trudeau said.
The prime minister wouldn't commit to an independent inquiry with the power to investigate potential criminal action — though he didn't rule it out. “We will keep putting Indigenous peoples and their wishes at the center of everything we do,” he said. “We are there to be a partner in whatever is needed to find the full truth and ensure reconciliation is possible.”
For a prime minister who has promised Indigenous people in Canada “a new relationship” on the road to reconciliation, the latest headlines underline the tension between Trudeau's lofty ambition and his country's ugly, violent history.
Soaring rhetoric has never been Trudeau's weakness. But after six years of Liberal government, Indigenous people are still overrepresented in Canada's prisons. The Liberals have ended 108 long-term drinking water advisories, but 51 remain in 32 communities that still don't have clean drinking water.
Bobby Cameron, the chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, said Thursday that the 751 flags marking buried bodies at the former Marieval Indian Residential School are proof of a “crime against humanity.”
Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, told POLITICO that Canadians must confront the disturbing truth that is unfolding in front of their eyes.
“We all have to come to grips with what a crime against humanity means, what its historic consequences were, and what other forms of accountability flow from that,” Rae said Thursday after the news came to light.
Two weeks ago, more than 200 graves were identified at another former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. There are certain to be more revelations. The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement pegged the number of church-run, federally funded institutions in Canada at 139. They first opened in the 1870s, and the last school closed in 1997. More than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend them, and more than 6,000 are estimated to have died as a result of disease, malnourishment and suicide, among other causes. The children often faced physical and sexual abuse.
In 2008, then-prime minister Stephen Harper formally apologized for the government's role in residential schools. Harper's government launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by a justice named Murray Sinclair, to fully document the history of the system and hear from survivors.
Much of what Canadians are now learning was published six years ago in the TRC's multivolume final report — including details about the residential school at Marieval.
On Thursday, Cowessess First Nation chief Cadmus Delorme said local oral histories had passed down stories of children buried in unmarked graves. The ground-penetrating radar now being used to locate the bodies only confirms what they knew to be true.
When the Trudeau government came to power, the prime minister promised to implement every call to action in the TRC's report. The government has pledged progress on most of them, but critics say the Liberals are nowhere close to completing the work.
The recent discoveries have made global headlines, and a Chinese government constantly at odds with Canada took notice. On Tuesday, only hours after Canada led a multilateral statement at the U.N. Human Rights Council that was heavily critical of China’s treatment of minority groups including Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson flipped the script.
Hua Chunying tweeted an infographic that shamed Canada’s record on residential schools and disproportionately poor education and employment outcomes for Indigenous people.
Trudeau insisted, in response, that Canada is owning up to its past.
“Where is China’s truth and reconciliation commission? Where is their truth?” he said. “Where is the openness that Canada has always shown and the responsibility that Canada has taken for the terrible mistakes of the past and, indeed, many of which continue into the present?”
The revelations have also made waves in Washington. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said earlier this week that she was “deeply impacted” by the discovery of unmarked graves in Canada. She announced the U.S. federal government will launch a review of American boarding schools that, like Canada’s residential school system, attempted to force cultural assimilation onto Native Americans.
Rae says his message to concerned diplomats around the world will exude transparency. “We have to share with them that we have nothing to hide, there’s nothing to be concealed,” he said. “There’s much to be ashamed of. I don’t think we can expect to avoid international scrutiny. We will face it.”
Canadians were already facing uncomfortable questions about how to celebrate Canada Day, a national holiday on July 1 that marks the country's founding in 1867. Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, played a key role in authorizing the establishment of residential schools.
Statues built in Macdonald's likeness are now coming under increased scrutiny — and, in some cases, being removed from prominent positions in town squares. Activists also recently tore down a statue of Egerton Ryerson, the namesake of a university in Toronto who helped design the residential school system.
Now, a growing number of communities are pausing Canada Day celebrations, including two provincial capitals on opposite sides of the country: Victoria, British Columbia, and Fredericton, New Brunswick.
On Friday, Trudeau encouraged Canadians to reflect on their history. “I think we all need to pledge ourselves 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,” he said.
Two years ago, the Liberal budget pledged C$33.8 million over three years for a residential school death register and another online registry of cemeteries at school sites — part of an effort to implement specific calls to action from the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
On Thursday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller pledged more money, calling the Kamloops and Saskatchewan discoveries the “tip of the iceberg.”
As Canadians learned about the unmarked graves in Saskatchewan, a former Liberal Cabinet minister who now sits as an independent member of Parliament dropped a bombshell. Jody Wilson-Raybould, who was the first Indigenous justice minister, tweeted a screenshot of a text message from Carolyn Bennett, the current minister for Crown-Indigenous Relations.
Bennett's message included a link to a tweet in which Wilson-Raybould called on the prime minister to focus on helping Indigenous kids instead of “jockeying” for an election. Bennett had texted the tweet back to her former colleague with a one-word annotation — “Pension?” — a reference to the fact that Wilson-Raybould will only qualify for a generous parliamentary pension in October.
That pension only kicks in after six years on the job. A trip to the polls earlier than mid-October would threaten the jobs of dozens of MPs who were first elected in 2015, the same year Wilson-Raybould won her Vancouver seat.
Wilson-Raybould called the text racist and misogynist, and accused Bennett of implying she's only concerned with padding her post-parliamentary income. Bennett quickly apologized, expressing deep regret and blaming “interpersonal dynamics.”
The Union of BC Indian Chiefs was one of the most prominent voices to demand the minister's resignation. Trudeau said he was “deeply disappointed” in Bennett's tweet, which he called “wrong” and “hurtful.” But as of Friday, Bennett appeared to face no public consequences for her tweet.
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