An open letter to Canadians on Canada’s residential schools shame

You now have more than 1,000 little bodies to answer for and you know there are thousands more. We are all watching you.


THIS IS A KWE-KWE/SHÉ:KON WARNING: This article contains details some readers may find distressing.

Kwe-kwe/Shé:kon to my sisters, my brothers, my children, my family, my relatives, my friends and my true accomplices.

“Shame on you, Canada,” was something my Grandma used to say. We called her “Ma.” Everyone I knew called her that; she was everyone’s Ma. She was Mohawk, a Clan-Mother in the Longhouse and was an advocate for justice, respect, kindness, compassion, peace; and a warrior of love. 

She stocked non-perishable goods everywhere in her attic. She knew that there would always be another crisis, another act of oppression, that the hammer of genocide would continue to strike. One of her biggest teachings was to question everything. I have held true to this in my own search for justice.

An undated photo of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
An undated photo of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Entering an emotional vortex

The Kamloops Indian Residential School was run by the Catholic church for 79 years. The remains of 215 Indigenous children are buried there. The remains of 215 Indigenous children, in an unmarked mass grave. Two hundred and fifteen little girls and boys who never made it home. Those repeating thoughts have become an emotional vortex multiplied many times over for my Indigenous kin since the grave was discovered in May. What a shameful piece of your history, Canada. This is a national crime. There is no pharmaceutical pill one can swallow to fix this atrocity. 

I am sending love and condolences to my Sisters and Brothers of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. You have been silenced in this history and memories of your missing children for far too long. You have my highest respect, honour, and again my endless condolences. I will place down seema (tobacco) on the earth and prayers up for you, your children and your Nation.

Sugar-coating the horror

In the early 90s, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) conducted research which culminated in the 1996 final report. 

Much of the commission’s research was led by Indigenous peoples, but the final report had to be approved by the Canadian commissioners. Only a portion of the truth about these horrors experienced in residential schools ever saw the light of day. 

But in all of our Indigenous communities we have the stories, where the little ones never came back from those wretched schools.

RCAP, the Healing Foundation and later the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) were painful times for our Elders and they courageously shared their truth, often reliving their trauma by telling their first-hand stories and exposing the lies. Many were scarred, scared and afraid to talk about their personal histories. It was a rough time, there were many healing circles for reopened old wounds. For many, it was the first time they had spoken about their experiences. They represent bravery in its truest sense. They were true warriors of the people.

It is deeply unjust that their truth did not see the full spectrum of the light of day in those reports. 

I grew up on a Christian rez. As a child, Christianity was forced on me and my entire community. Factions of Christian churches would come to my community and fight over who would save our souls. It was sinful to burn sweetgrass or play the tewegan (drum); too many times I was told that I would “go to hell”. So the guitar became my drum, just like my mentor, the late great renaissance man Willie Dunn. Yet to this day the Catholic church still refuses to apologize for the wrongs committed at their residential schools. This is a heartbreaking devastation. 

The details of heavy trauma and the unimaginable, the stories of the lost and the missing, the enforced starvation, the beatings for speaking our languages, the separation of siblings, the molestation, the electric chair and cattle prod, the pregnancies by clergy, the rape, the killings, making children bury children in the basements and in the fields – this is where the Canadian commissioners stepped in to sugar-coat the report for Canadian consumption. 

On October 6, 2017, the highest court of the land unanimously ruled that all accounts of abuse collected by the government for “independent compensation assessment” should be destroyed. This colonial decision to permanently suppress these documents also came with Canada calling for reconciliation. Oh Canada, our home and Native Land. 

More legacy to unearth

Now Canadians are finally hearing about the Kamloops Indian Residential School, but there are more of these unearthed stories. The stories continue today. Yes. 

There are currently three times more Indigenous children in various Canadian “care systems” than there were children enrolled at the height of residential schools in the 1940s. 

When in this “care” an Indigenous child dies every three days. This is more Canadian history in the making. This is the continuing legacy of Canada’s genocidal policies.

Remembering Oka

In 1990, and in the name of Canada, hollow-tipped “mushroom” bullets were fired against Mohawk children, women and men. More than 4,500 soldiers and 2,000 police officers financed by Canadian taxpayers were deployed all because Club de Golf d’Oka wanted to bulldoze a Mohawk burial ground to expand its nine-hole golf course to 18 holes. 

As a teenager at the time, I had the profound experience of being surrounded by Canadian soldiers and officers from Sûreté du Québec and having a semi-automatic weapon held to my right temple. I was with my family, all six of us had those guns pointed to our heads because of who we were. My youngest sibling was just six years old. 

I was absolutely shattered. What was Canada thinking? Were they thinking? 

Terrified, I had the comfort of my Ma’s teachings from the Longhouse to help me. Her instructions were indeed passed to the next generation. 

During that time in Kahnawà:ke, the government stopped our food and water supply and the police were ramming our boats and tipping them as we tried to get supplies and food from across the rapids of the great St. Lawrence River in Montreal. My Grandma’s attic came in handy and families were appreciative. These memories of Canada’s colonialism continue to this day and we will not be silenced.

Imagine that all the children of a small Canadian town were taken away, and parents who rebelled against this act (which was enforced by an actual law) could be thrown into prison. What would the world do? If these residential schools were still in operation today, I would definitely be sending prison love notes on postcards to my two sons.

Instead, I hold my sons close and I am filled with gratitude. My Ancestors did not have this human right, it was taken away from them. I make music to deal with the racism, oppression, genocide, the shameful histories, the lies and deceit and colonialism. I fight and grieve and I love through nigamowin (my music). I have the tewegan again and my guitar. I burn sweetgrass freely, my hair is long. Consequently, music is my mishkiki (medicine) and it affords me the opportunity to transform the pain into a celebration of being alive, that we are still here, that I am what our Ancestors dreamt about. I am a Onkwehón:we Mohawk and Anishinabe Algonquin person. I create and play music so people can Round Dance, to keep the circle strong, so that life can be experienced as a ceremony. 

Canada’s convenient privilege 

The discovery of graves at the government-funded Kamloops Indian Residential School is bringing up trauma. I am getting calls from cousins saying they are heartbroken. 

I was kicked around by a police officer on my northern reserve at the age of four. I am living proof that hate continues to spawn on this land. 

This country is ill-informed with inaccurate colonial history, and living freely with little knowledge about the issues that continue to affect Indigenous peoples. 

Personally, this is not a convenient privilege that I would ever want to live in; then again, I’m not Canadian – I am classified as an Indian under the Indian Act

The harsh truth is that the Canadian education system has bred racist and bigoted mindsets about Indigenous peoples. Canada, shake off your slumber and rise up to the rich cultures that surround you.

Thinking about Ma

Before any settlers arrived on this land we took our jobs seriously. We have always been the caretakers of ecology, the water, the land, the air, and now, the missing and the murdered.

I live in a 100-year-old house where my basement is stocked with non-perishables just like my Ma taught me, because unspeakable things do happen. 

I still think about my Ma nearly everyday. She lived and died to give me what I have today – my identity and culture, a fierce warrior’s heart, and the ability to carry on with my bloodline. I carry her teachings and her stories. I hear her strong voice as I say “Shame on you, Canada.” It rings loud in my ears like a Gibson Les Paul plugged into a stack of modded Marshall amps cranked to 11.

Caption: Fort Providence. [R.C.] Residential school, children and staff. 1921.

A history of lies

As this goes to print, I receive the unholy news that 751 more children have been found in Saskatchewan. There is also news of 104 potential graves at former residential school sites in Manitoba and another 180 in Ontario. 

In a 2009 speech at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper said “We also have no history of colonialism.” Canada continues to lie to not only its citizens but to the world. The current prime minister was discovered celebrating Brown and Blackface in his youth. 

If I were riding through life as a Canadian, I would seriously question how much the saddle of education is harnessing a system of lies.

As Canada Day arrives, I see no celebratory pride when the artery of genocidal blood runs through this country. On July 1, I will be in the bush lighting a sacred fire, listening to the lapping of the waters as I send seema prayers to the missing and murdered

Before the first colonial footprints were stomped on Turtle Island, this land never witnessed the killing of children. This was not our way. 

Canada, you now have more than 1,000 little bodies to answer for and you are aware there are thousands more. I am watching you, we are all watching you. Your apology is not enough.

Raven Kanatakta Polson-Lahache.

Afterword: A song for the living

I’m not sure what Canadians will choose to do on July 1, but I will leave lyrics from a newly written song: 

Canada Day, Columbus
Day, hip hip hooray /
There’s just no pride in genocide /
We demand Justice,
we demand Peace /
Each Okhí:we
(ceremony in honouring our Ancestors) will
spark and smoulder
in feast.

Raven Kanatakta Polson-Lahache is a member of the Onkwehón:we Mohawk acitc Anishinabe Algonquin Nations and he is Wakeniáhton acitc Makwa dodem. He’s part of the musical duo Digging Roots.

@nowtoronto

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12 responses to “An open letter to Canadians on Canada’s residential schools shame”

  1. I don’t think you actually read the link you supplied regarding “On October 6, 2017, the highest court of the land unanimously ruled that all accounts of abuse collected by the government for “independent compensation assessment” should be destroyed.”

    https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/indian-residential-schools-records-supreme-court-1.4343259

    You incorrectly claim it was a “colonial decision to permanently suppress these documents” when it was exactly the opposite.

    1. A record of abuse will be kept *if the survivor wants it to be kept*. The record was collected with the promise that it would remain confidential, and it is the survivor’s choice to have it preserved. If the record is not explicitly preserved by the survivor, it must be destroyed because that’s what was promised to the survivor when it was collected.

    2. It is out of respect for the privacy of the survivors that the unpreserved records must be destroyed. It is not because some colonial power is trying to hide the truth. It’s exactly the opposite situation: “The federal government had fought to retain the records for historical purposes under the Library and Archives Canada.” And failed.

    This is not a “colonial decision to permanently suppress these documents”. It’s an upholding of survivor rights to privacy.

    • thanks for the input ian… we did read the link you cite… we deferred to the writer’s view and characterization of the issue…

  2. Rather than celebrate Canada Day, I will – as I have for a number of years – acknowledge this day as colonial oppression day. I’m an uninvited guest on this land and I can only express my sorrow at the damage that’s been done its keepers.

  3. Thank you for your article. I’m so glad this has all come to light. I feel shame. Please consider me an ally.

  4. Bullsh*t…the ONLY ones responsible for these atrocities are those who ran the “schools”, and THEY, need to be held accountable, NOT Canada as a whole…calling out all Canadians is akin to blaming all citizens for the murders of a serial killer…lets be real

    • Bullsh*t, take a step back and cast your eye into a wider field of vision. We Canadians have benefitted from colonization and are, de facto, on the hook. We should be calling the government in a united voice to make reparations – where they are needed.

    • How can this be your response to what is being “uncovered” (for some) and what is ongoing in the name of “child protection”, and the many other violations of the human rights of the Indigenous peoples of this land? If we do nothing as this continues, we, as a country, are responsible. The actions of a serial killer are not state sanctioned policy. The apprehension of Indigenous children was, and is, state sanctioned.

  5. These schools were run not only by the Roman Catholic Church but by other churches as well and most, if not all, were authorized by the Canadian government. This was systematic genocide – not some lone psychopath running amok. To keep these brutal institutions going (in some cases) for more than a century, required lots of Canadians working there and surely they and many people living nearby would have known about these deaths over decades. These crimes have been covered over, literally buried, to maintain Settler Canada’s illusions of an innocent “peaceable kingdom” with “no history of colonialism.” Fellow Settlers and descendants of Settlers! It’s well past time to take the rosy blinders off and look at our real history. And then do whatever we can to help set things right! Raven, the author of this open letter, has given us good medicine.

  6. “Canada Day” must be reinvented. Perhaps something like “Canadian Human Rights Day”, or something that conveys that inclusivity could signal a new tone. I remember looking at my Canada Day decal in 2017 that had the number “150” on it and thinking, “What about the thousands of years of indigenous lives that preceded it?” The number “150” seemed so insignificant, (even considering colonialism went back a lot further). The TORONTO sign at City Hall should be an example of how when we think of Canada, we can never just think of the colonial period. The sign has the Medicine Wheel on the left (first) and the maple leaf symbol on the right (second). “Canada Day” can never be the same again.

  7. Excellent article. But why are we so dishonest about what the problem is? Whether it’s the attacks on Muslim women in Alberta, the terrorist attack on a Muslim family in London, the stealing, abuse and killing of Aboriginal children, protests against BLM and Native activists etc the perpetrators are always WHITE CONSERVATIVE MEN – often Christians!!!
    Canadians of all races and religions are upset at all these crimes but the perpetrators are always the same! Let’s stop political correctness and call them out for once! As we see churches burn across Canada and blame Natives, let us remember who started this madness.

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