In November 1989 and March 1990, Inuit MLA Peter Irniq stood in the NWT legislative assembly to speak of the damage residential schools and their all-powerful staff, good and bad, had inflicted on the Inuit, Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit for many decades.
Other Indigenous MLAs remained silent. The atrocities Irniq was talking about they knew. They also knew the non-Indigenous people did not know so they chose not to reveal their pain. The residential school history slipped back into the shadows, even as the embedded negative effects of the schools carried on assaulting Northern families through the ’90s to today and tomorrow.
Almost 20 years later, in 2008, came the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with the mission to document the deeply disturbing facts of Canada’s history, laying out a path for moving forward to right the wrongs. Many Canadians listened, learned and accepted bad things had happened.
Now the mass grave in Kamloops has shown us more darkness but not how deep it goes. That illumination has yet to come under the fields surrounding other former residential school sites.
It’s important we non-Indigenous people understand the search for truth is not about blame. Those who insist residential school abuse and crimes came at the hands of people in a different time, by people other than their ancestors, are correct. It’s not about blame, it’s about injustice, the scope of which is only truly known by the Indigenous people of Canada, past generations and present, north and south.
The hundreds of people who joined the march In Yellowknife to mourn the discovery of 215 buried children in Kamloops is but a reflection of the thousands who have learned the legacy of residential schools is not an excuse, it’s a Holocaust, made so by the shared experience of a people treated less than humans with rights, families and sovereign identity, their children’s bodies discarded en masse in unmarked graves.
For those civil servants in the GNWT, either elected or employed, looking for a real role in reconciliation, there are several options.
The needle on education, employment and economic health has risen much more slowly for the Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit than the non-Indigenous families who prosper year after year, amassing equity in their homes, educating their children, retiring to an enviable existence in warmer, friendlier, familiar family climates.
To bring the Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit population up to equal standards, the civil service must make a change.
COVID was seen to be such an immediate threat, our MLAs mobilized and quickly approved the unprecedented creation of a secretariat along an $80-million war chest. How well the secretariat did its job has yet to be assessed but its swift creation proves the legislative assembly and civil service can respond when needed.
It is needed now. When COVID has subsided, convert the secretariat into a reconciliation secretariat. Ensure every new position or vacated position in the GNWT is examined for a training opportunity for the people who used the land we now all enjoy and who are prospering less. Budget training dollars to be delivered through Aurora College.
Reinstate the teaching and social work diploma programs in Aurora College, providing a clear path to full degree credentials, using a significant practicum component (on-the-job learning) to relieve the abysmal absence of Indigenous teachers in our community schools.
Rather than encourage students not meeting grading standards to progress deeper into failure by moving into a higher grade without catch-up support, give them the support. Children have time to learn. Give them time. In-class learning lost to COVID makes this case. Don’t fault Indigenous students because they don’t meet a time frame set in the non-Indigenous south.
Perhaps we non-Indigenous cannot accept the blame for what happened in residential schools, yet how can we not feel ashamed because our governments have been so slow to admit those injustices? And our governments, federal, territorial, and our fellow non-Indigenous Canadians, will inherit the blame if we do not do our best to make it right.
There’s no escaping that guilt by association because we, especially in the North, have the resources to make things right. What’s stopping us?