Imagine you’re 5 years old, living with your parents and extended family. Officials come to the door one day. They tell your parents to hand you over. They warn your parents that if they don’t agree, they’ll be thrown into jail. You cry, you fight. They restrain you and put you in a cattle car that’s already crowded with many other Indigenous children.
You travel long distances to a building you’ve never seen before. Your hair is cut off. You’re given a number and a new name. Your clothes are thrown away. You’re forbidden from speaking your language. You’re forced to accept a new religion, a new way of life. Your days are strictly regimented, and there’s abuse. Physical. Mental. Sexual. Spiritual. You’re forced to do child labour and you’re punished harshly and sometimes sadistically for your mistakes. The education is subpar; you’re taught practical skills, instead of the standard public-school curriculum. You live in fear of sexual exploitation by the priests and nuns in power. And there isn’t enough food, so you're malnourished and ill.
You’re cut off from your family, including your brother and sister who attend the same residential school. Your parents are considered privileged if they get you back for the summer holidays.
This was the experience of 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada. There were nearly 130 such schools in Canada. And these terrible injustices didn’t happen long ago. The last residential school closed in 1996, only 25 years ago. 70,000 Indigenous children who attended these schools are still alive today.
Recently, Canadians were horrified to discover that 215 little bodies were buried at just one residential school. These deaths were undocumented. The graves were unmarked and forgotten. A couple of days ago, 751 more unmarked graves were found at another school. Who knows how many other bodies disappeared this way?
Thousands of children, some as young as 3 years old, were kidnapped and sent to school never to return. No one told their parents what had happened. These kids just disappeared, as if their lives had never mattered, as if they had no worth to anyone and wouldn’t be missed. And this wasn’t an isolated case. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was tasked with investigating the legacy of the residential school system. 6 years ago, it documented the deaths of over 6,000 children at residential schools. That means 1 in every 50 children died.
And what of those who returned home? Residential schools taught them to hate everything that they were. To feel inferior. They were stripped of their family relationships, their culture, they were denied love. They returned as adults to their families and communities unable to speak the language, unable to integrate, looking down on their way of life. What’s worse, they didn’t know how to raise children or how to show love. They were accustomed to abuse and they perpetuated it on others. Alcoholism, drug use, unemployment, poverty, depression, suicide…we can’t divorce the challenges that Indigenous communities experience from the way the were treated. Canada wanted to assimilate them, to civilize them to the mainstream white man’s ways. Canada thought they had no worth. They were ignorant, savages, a burden on society. They needed to be taught how to live.
And Canada continues to treat them unfairly. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission released 94 calls to action. 6 years later, only 10 have been implemented. 6 calls to action concerned children who died at residential schools. None of the 6 has been implemented.
Canada continues to separate children from their families to this day. Indigenous children are overrepresented in the child welfare system. Over 52% of Indigenous children are in foster care. They make up only 7.7% of the population.
What’s more, the federal government has spent millions of dollars and many years fighting survivors in court.
And many communities still don’t have clean running water. Canada promised to fix this, but hasn’t yet delivered. Food insecurity, poor housing and inadequate heath care are just some of the challenges Indigenous communities face.
Are you shocked by what I’m telling you? What will you do, now that you know?
As settlers on Turtle Island, as Muslims living in Canada, we have a responsibility to do what we can to try to right these terrible wrongs.
It starts with learning. We’ve got to take time to learn about the Indian residential school system and actively listen to people of First Nations, Inuit and Metis backgrounds. We need to read the ninety-four calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation commission.
And we need to advocate. Raise awareness about what happened and continues to happen. We need to have conversations with our friends and family about it. We need to speak up when we see or hear stereotypes and prejudices being uttered against Indigenous peoples. And we need to ask our elected officials what they’re doing. Are they investigating missing Indigenous children? How are they making things right for the Indigenous families torn apart by their experiences? Are they implementing the calls to action that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended?
We can also support Indigenous individuals and communities. Let’s support them on social media by liking their posts and following them. Let’s donate to support their community organizations. Let’s amplify the voices of trauma survivors and elders. And let’s celebrate indigenous culture and ways of life.
It’s 2021. We can’t erase the past, but we have an obligation to work towards a better future. A future that embraces truth and reconciliation and truly cares about achieving justice for our indigenous brothers and sisters.