The Shared Struggle of Residential School Survivors and the ‘Comfort Women’ Against Denialism

Denialism—the refusal to acknowledge historical facts – is an issue that undermines justice and healing for victims worldwide. In Canada, denialism minimizes the horrors faced by Indigenous children in residential schools, who were forcibly removed from their families and often never returned. Similarly, denialism obscures the suffering of the ‘comfort women’ – women from Korea, China, Indonesia, and other nations forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. Despite overwhelming evidence and survivor testimonies, denialists reject or downplay these atrocities, perpetuating the injustice suffered by these women. Continue reading

Remembering as an Act of Citizenship

Three years ago this week, the discovery of children’s graves at Kamloops prompted an unprecedented response from non-Indigenous Canadians. For many of us, it was the first time that the reality of residential schools sunk in. The first time we let the truth in. On this anniversary of the event that first inspired the Remembering Project, I want to share some thoughts on the power of truth in what some call the “post-truth era” of contemporary politics. Continue reading

Reflections on Resilience: Our Visit to Six Nations and the Legacy of Deskaheh

Last week, I had the honour of attending the "100 Years of Hodinohsho:ni Leadership in Global Indigenous Rights" event at the Woodland Cultural Centre. The event commemorated a century of dedication to the perseverance of Indigenous national identity, inspired by a historic act of advocacy before the League of Nations. A hundred years ago, a Cayuga leader named Chief Deskaheh travelled to Geneva to assert Indigenous sovereignty. Although he was prevented from speaking to the League—the predecessor of the United Nations—his visit is now recognised by the UN as the genesis of what would become the UN Declaration for Indigenous Peoples. Continue reading

The Power of Shared Grief

U.S. civil rights lawyer and activist Valarie Kaur once observed, "When people who have no obvious reason to love each other come together to grieve, they can give birth to new relationships.” When members of the Remembering Project gather this week to visit the Mohawk Institute, we will come face to face with an institution that harmed thousands of children. We will meet survivors who still carry the pain of that place. We will pay our respects at the memorial for the 100 or more children who died there. Continue reading

The Mission Survivors Set for Us All

On June 11, Canada will be called to action by survivors. Ever since the evidence of children’s graves discovered in Kamloops BC shocked the nation, survivors from residential schools from coast to coast to coast have been gathering to support one another and settle on a course of action. An Independent Special Interlocutor named Kimberly Murray has convened these gatherings.  I attended the 6th National Gathering, where she offered the following clues about the Final Report she will offer at the final Gathering in June. She revealed she will issue a challenge to Canada to help find every single one of the missing children. Continue reading

Survivors Lead the Way

Confronting the legacy of residential schools can be just as inspiring as it is sobering. Starting out on this path, I’m not sure I realized just how much of the national discussion of reconciliation has been driven by survivors themselves. It was, after all, a class-action lawsuit by thousands of survivors that forced Prime Minister Harper to apologize for schools in 2008.  And that led directly to the Truth and Reconciliation process, from 2008 to 2015. The 94 Calls to Action, the acknowledgement by Parliament that Canada had committed genocide, and the new statutory holiday added to the calendars of Canadians, all occurred because former students of residential schools got the ball rolling in the first place. Continue reading

Celebrating continuity

As a proud Canadian, it has been painful to learn how leaders of my country made deliberate decisions to eliminate First Nations through policies of family separation. But as we begin to learn more about the story of Canada, it creates space to learn the story of other nations that have lived on this same land throughout. Take the history of the Haudenosaunee, the people the French referred to as Iroquois. They have had a remarkably durable form of government that has met consistently for somewhere between 600 and 900 years. Right here, on either side of Lake Ontario. The government is called the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a coalition of six component nations. The name derives from the traditional homes the people of the Six Nations share, as you can see in the picture here with the purple and white Hiawatha belt that serves as a national flag. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy relocated to Southwest Ontario after the defeat of their British allies in the American war of independence.  That government has operated there ever since.  Continue reading

The place where the fire beneath the melting pot was lit

  How did Canada set up a system of schools that caused the deaths of so many thousands of children? It’s a question that has haunted me since the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation demonstrated conclusively that the intent behind our system of residential schools met the internationally accepted definition of genocide.   This winter, the question led me to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. That is the town where the infamous quote came from, uttered by the founding principal of the Carlisle Industrial Indian School, Richard Henry Pratt: “Kill the Indian and save the man.”   It’s a quote often misattributed to Sir John A MacDonald.  MacDonald’s sin wasn’t to pronounce the words, though.  It was to embrace the method Pratt extolled in that infamous speech.   Continue reading

Forgetting and Remembering

Our research has uncovered two remarkable documents, both from 1906. One is an Annual Report by Principal of the Shingwauk Institute which sheds light on the thinking that went into the attempt to eliminate First Nations.  The other is a transcription of the oral traditions by which Anishnaabe culture did, in fact, survive.  Deprived of the children to whom to recount the rich and intricate Creation myths in which parables and other lessons for new generations are related, elders related their stories to an American ethnographer. These records are now the basis for cultural revitalization efforts across Northern Ontario. Children played the central role - both the process of transmitting the culture and the attempt to eradicate it.  It's appropriate that they are the focus of the Remembering Project as well. Continue reading

Our Responsibility to History

Chief Deskaheh laid the wampum belt across the lectern. "We are a nation in the world" he told the audience gathered at the grand hall on Sussex Drive.  This past July, on behalf of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy he represents, "we presented a belt similar to this in Geneva to seek ... relationship with other countries." The work we are doing confronting the legacy of residential schools raises some awkward questions about Canada’s history. How did we not know such systematic abuses were being committed right up to the 1990s? What else from Canada’s history has been forgotten, intentionally or otherwise?  The nations that were here before are still here. The process by which we came to forget them is bound up with the process by which we became a nation. As we set out to remember, it raises awkward questions for the country we hold dear. What responsibility do we have to history, when it challenges us? The event our organization hosted with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to bring Chief Deskaheh to Ottawa offers some answers. Continue reading