Canada’s government needs to face up to its role in Indigenous children’s deaths

Ground-penetrating radar found the children’s bodies that the survivors of Canada’s “residential schools” always knew were there. For more than a century, these schools functioned as re-education camps run by the Canadian government and Catholic church to assimilate Indigenous children. Children were raped, locked in chicken coops, shocked in an electric chair, subject to medical experiments, confined by electric fences and all too often dug the graves of other children who were buried in unmarked graves. This happened under the cover of the Bible, while the Canadian government promoted itself as a bastion of human rights.

More than 1,000 unmarked children’s graves have been discovered at former residential schools. Why was the truth buried for so long? The answer lies in the weaponisation of history. In his presidential address to the Royal Society of Canada in 1922, Duncan Campbell Scott, the Canadian civil servant who ran the residential schools at their peak between 1913 and 1932, noted that historians had a “duty and obligation to accept no statement without documentary evidence”. For years, the Canadian government mounted a potent colonial propaganda campaign that was abetted by the churches to cover up wrongdoing. Leading perpetrators in the residential school scandal were exalted in history books while statues of them were erected in prominent places. Meanwhile, Indigenous peoples were dehumanised, ensuring that any leaked reports or evidence of wrongdoing would receive little attention.

For years, the Canadian government promoted the myth that “people back then did not know better”. Yet there were whistleblowers who had attempted to raise the alarm. In the same year that Scott gave his address to the Royal Society of Canada, the public health physician Peter Bryce published The Story of A National Crime, a report detailing Scott’s stonewalling of public health measures in residential schools, where child death rates were 25% a year. Bryce had been raising the alarm since 1907, when his first report linking inequalities in Indian public health and terrible health practices in residential schools to prolific death rates was leaked to the newspapers.

Bryce refused to stay silent, despite the efforts of the church and the Canadian government to discredit him. So the government erased Bryce and others like him from history, ensuring there was no mention of Bryce or his report in school curriculum. He was buried in Canada’s national Beechwood cemetery; for decades, only his family visited his grave.

Bryce was not the only whistleblower. Children in the “schools” pleaded for help too. A 1923 letter written by little Edward B to his parents said the boys in the schools were so hungry that they were eating cats and wheat. His letter found its way to Scott, who responded that “99% of the children in the schools were too fat anyway”.

Scott was initially acclaimed by the government of Canada as a loyal public servant and confederate poet. But as the children who survived the residential schools summoned the strength to tell their truths, Bryce’s report resurfaced alongside the reports of hundreds of other whistleblowers. Scott’s image was slowly tarnished, but the rust only set in when the children’s bodies were found. In fact, until just a few weeks ago, the government of Canada website listed Scott as a “Person of National Significance” for being an “advocate for education”. This is despite the fact that Scott himself admitted that “50% of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education which they had received therein”.

As historians try to educate Canadians and peel back the colonial propaganda that allowed the truth of Canada’s residential schools to go unexamined for so long, others are taking matters into their own hands by burning churches and removing colonial statues. In 2015, after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report documenting the horrors of the “schools,” a plaque was unveiled beside Bryce’s gravesite in Beechwood Cemetery. Duncan Campbell Scott is buried there too; a year later a historical plaque with the phrases “confederate poet” and “cultural genocide” was revealed. The aim of these plaques is to give proper weight to the historical legacies of these individuals. The historical research behind the plaques informed the school curriculum, and now Bryce’s grave is one of the most visited in Beechwood.

In 2013, Bryce was mentioned in legal proceedings against the Canadian government for discriminatory underfunding of First Nations children’s public services. In 2016, a legal ruling was issued ordering the government to cease its discriminatory conduct Government ministers welcomed the decision but have done little to fix the problem. It has taken 19 further orders and counting to get Canada closer to ending the inequities in First Nations children’s public services that Bryce pointed to 114 years ago. But the people who were unheard are now coming forward. It’s long past time to listen, make reparations and end the injustices and propaganda that led to the deaths of so many young children.

Cindy Blackstock, a member of the Gitxsan First Nation, is the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and professor at McGill University. Pamela Palmater, a member of Ugpi’ganjig (Eel River Bar First Nation), is professor and chair in indigenous governance at Ryerson University

• This article was amended on 14 July 2021. A reference to “ground-penetrating sonar” was corrected to “ground-penetrating radar”.