Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is apologizing for the “incredibly harmful” government policies after an estimated 751 unmarked graves were found at a former Saskatchewan residential school site.
The discovery came just weeks after 215 unmarked burial sites were found at another former residential school site in Kamloops, sending shockwaves through the country and prompting renewed calls for action.
Speaking Friday, Trudeau promised to take that action.
“Specifically to the members of the Cowessess community and Treaty Four communities, we are sorry. It was something that we cannot undo in the past, but we can pledge ourselves every day to fix in the present and into the future,” he said.
“That means recognizing the harms, the impacts, the inter-generational trauma, the cycles of challenges that far too many Indigenous peoples face in this country because of actions that the federal government and other partners deliberately and willingly undertook.”
Trudeau added that Canadians are “horrified and ashamed” of how Canada behaved.
But as Trudeau promises action to make things right, advocates are speaking out about what that accountability actually looks like – and it’s about more than just an apology, they say.
Holding the government accountable
Apologies are meaningful for many people, according to Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer, professor and activist. But they lose meaning unless they’re coupled with action, she said.
“It goes beyond apologies. Apologies are important for those who need healing or closure,” Palmater said.
“But it’s also about providing whatever financial supports, human resources, equipment, and inter-jurisdictional cooperation that will be needed to identify, locate, assess and return these children home.”
After the remains of 215 children were found at a former B.C. residential school site, the government made $27 million available to Indigenous communities to find the loved ones who died at these institutions.
But the resources needed to find all these missing children goes beyond that lone dollar figure, Palmater said. She explained that any documents that can help find where these lost children have been buried must be made public.
“Every single document has to be accessible in order to properly identify children, know where they went, because not all graves are going to be known. There’s going to be some unknown locations known only to churches or government, for example,” she said.
Finding the missing children is just one part of the redress advocates say is required for achieving accountability for the wrongs of residential schools.
While the doors of the last residential school closed in 1996, the impacts continue to be felt in a number of ways — from the internalized shame taught in school and passed down to younger generations, to the ongoing separation of families in the foster care system, according to advocates.
Over half of the children in foster care are Indigenous, according to figures from the federal government. That’s despite Indigenous people making up just over seven per cent of the under-14 population in Canada.
“We know what happens when children go into foster care. We know that statistically they’re more likely to end up in youth corrections. They’re more likely to end up living on the streets. They’re more likely to end up murdered and missing. They’re less likely to get an education. They’re more likely to suffer violence,” said Palmater.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Ontario Human Rights Commission have both issued reports validating Palmater’s assertions.
“Compared to youth from the general population, youth from the child welfare system are also at much greater risk for becoming involved with the juvenile criminal justice system, a process referred to as the “child-welfare-to-prison pipeline,” the commission wrote.
“Because of racial disparities in the child welfare system, Indigenous and Black children may be disproportionately likely to experience these negative effects.”
Stopping this cycle would be one form of accountability, Palmater said.
“Why on earth would we continue residential schools in modern day practices while at the same time apologizing for residential schools? We actually have to stop the practice,” she said.
The “paternalistic” attitude the government takes towards Indigenous people is another legacy of these residential schools that must be quashed, advocates say. The government has a tendency to drown Indigenous communities in paperwork when it comes to managing their own finances, according to the former Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, Sheila North.
“It’s very degrading, now that I think about it, that process of Indigenous governments and leaders going to government. Every time they need something, they have to apply through a program. And then it’s still up to the government to say yes or no,” North said.
Even accountants advertising their services to Indigenous communities acknowledge the unique complexity of navigating all the hoops Indigenous governance bodies have to jump through.
“Complex tax regulations, financial ecosystem and legislation create a challenging operating environment with a wide range of obstacles that are unique to the different industries in which Indigenous entities operate,” read a post on accounting giant BDO Canada’s website.
North said it’s time for a reset of this financial relationship.
“I think that has to change going forward. Indigenous people know how to take care of their people. They know how to take care of themselves,” she said.
“We have to reset that relationship going forward.”
Holding the Church accountable
The federal government isn’t the only organization tasked with making amends for the legacies of abuse, mistreatment and cultural genocide of residential schools. The Catholic Church had a large role to play in the running of these schools — and the Pope has yet to issue an official apology for the system.
“There’s a concerted effort to try and convince the Pope to make an apology, and I think that would mean a lot to a lot of people,” North said.
“A lot of people will still be incensed and not accept the apology. And that’s fine because that’s how they feel.”
North added that the perpetrators of the violence of residential schools should also be held to account by the legal system for crimes committed over the years.
“I think they should be compelled and brought to court for their role in what happened to our loved ones,” North said.
“These places, now, are our crime scenes. And I think they should be treated that way. And if churches are implicated, then so be it.”
Palmater added that the churches can also take greater strides to assist with the search for answers, and in many cases, remains of loved ones who were sent to residential schools and never seen again.
The Church should release “all of the documents” related to residential schools, including “the names of all of the known perpetrators, the ones that they knew were committing these crimes,” as well as “other information related to what happened in those schools.”
The healing process from all this trauma is also likely to be costly, Palmater said.
The Church can help to alleviate that financial burden by committing “to their share of whatever resources are needed to locate the children, and provide all of the healing supports that are needed.”
“There needs to be reparations by both the government and also by all of these churches that were involved, primarily the Roman Catholic Church. But other churches were involved, too,” Palmater said.
Speaking to Global News in an interview, Archbishop Richard Gagnon of the Canadian Conference of Canadian Bishops would not make any firm commitments to the calls for action. However, he said the Pope plans to meet with a delegation of Indigenous people to discuss the issue this fall.
“That’s a very important step in this process of reconciliation, what he will say to the Indigenous people,” Gagnon said.
“The pope has set aside this extraordinary amount of time — three days in Rome. When heads of state only have 15 minutes or half an hour, the Pope has dedicated one hour for each one of those Indigenous realities, plus a time for coming together all together — another hour top of that,” Gagnon said.
Gagnon stopped short of promising any other firm action, including an apology from the Pope.
“I’m not going to tell the Pope what to say,” Gagnon said.
“We don’t have to tell the pope how to how to approach that. That’s up to Pope Francis. He knows what he needs to do and he will certainly do the right thing and he wants to do the right thing.”
What can you do?
As Canadians grapple with the renewed spotlight on the country’s dark history and its present-day legacies, some might find themselves asking what they can do to help.
According to Palmater, there’s quite a few things an average Canadian can do to make a difference.
“All of these governments and institutions and churches are like immovable barriers without the power of the people to push them. It’s going to take all of us working together — and Canadians actually have the numbers,” she said.
She said Canadians can sign petitions or write to their local politicians to tell them about the change they’d like to see. They can also fund organizations that are working to help Indigenous families.
One of the biggest things Canadians can do, Palmater added, is carry themselves through their daily lives with an awareness of these harms — and a willingness to fix them.
“Think about who works in churches and governments and institutions like health care and social work and education. It’s Canadians. So even in their own jobs, in their own lives, they have a huge degree of influence and they can start saying, no, absolutely not, we are not going forward in this way,” Palmater said.
North echoed the sentiment.
“There’s many, many people that look up to us individually, and we have the ability to influence them, to face the truth, learn the truth, and find your place on where you could help,” she said.
“Maybe you’re in a position that you’re able to hire people and start to include people that you don’t normally hire, including Indigenous people. And in any place you have an opportunity to be inclusive, do it.”
She said that at the end of the day, it comes down to one thing: kindness.
“I just encourage people to be patient and to show kindness, because all of the negativity and the hate is what brought us here,” North said.
“And we have to find a way out.”