If this isn't genocide, what is?
If any other regime drafts policies that end with children in mass graves, we call it genocide. Why would we give ourselves a pass?
A school is no place to bury children.
Prisons have graveyards. Prisoner of war camps do too.
But schools do not. Because if we sent children to a place where they were tortured, starved and slept in such cramped conditions that they contracted tuberculosis by the thousands, we couldn’t in good conscience call that a school.
A crime scene maybe. Or perhaps an internment camp. The kind of place used to house enemy combatants during wartime.
The 215 children whose remains were unearthed from the Kamloops Indian Residential School were not enemy combatants. They were kids. Some as young as three.
News of their discovery last week has reignited a debate about whether we should call the ongoing legacy of residential schools a genocide. There’s a cottage industry of pundits who feel it is their god-given duty to erase that word from the conversation. Politicians even try to redeem those who masterminded the state-sanctioned kidnapping of Indigenous children.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was incensed, not by the discovery of a mass grave, but by the idea that “cancel culture” might come for John A. Macdonald, the architect of Canada’s residential school system.
In the end, residential schools took over 150,000 children from their mothers' arms, subjecting them to torture and sexual violence until they no longer spoke their own language or felt any connection to their families. At least 6,000 of them never came home.
If any other country did this, we would call it genocide.
When Kenney wrote about Macdonald in the National Post this week, he referred to Canada’s first prime minister as “imperfect” but a “great leader.” In Germany, you can go to prison for up to five years if you deny the holocaust. In Canada, denying genocide gets you column inches in a national newspaper.
I say this not because I hate Canada but because I believe in the promise of this country. And the truth is we’ll never live up to our ideals if we aren’t honest about the fact that, as settlers, we all benefited from these policies. The land we live on and the wealth we derive from it are directly tied to the children whose remains were tossed in a cold, wet grave far away from their families.
This is the kind of thing we would expect from totalitarian regimes whose leaders wind up before the International Criminal Court. Instead we build statues for these monsters, we name great structures after them and put their faces on our currency.
In Ancient Rome, the punishment for tyrants who escaped justice was to have their graves dug up and their carcasses tossed into the Tiber with the rest of the garbage. This feels relevant today.
It would be a mistake for us to think of this as just a “dark chapter” in our history, as Justin Trudeau and so many other politicians and pundits described it this week.
There are still thousands of residential school survivors living across Canada today. They carry our atrocities in their bones, they passed them onto their children and grandchildren because that’s how genocide works.
When I had the chance to meet survivors at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission eight years ago, there was a sense of hope that we could begin to heal. Not just the survivors but the perpetrators of these crimes and their descendants.
Elderly people would walk up to a stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel and talk about the things that were done to them. One, in particular, stands out as I type these words. He brandished a grainy photo and said “this is a picture of a child I never knew. This is a picture of me.”
They said they’d never be whole again, that even years after their ordeal they’d wake up screaming in the night. They never knew love and nothing they saw at these child prison camps would prepare them for parenthood.
So they came home not knowing who they were and struggled. Thousands had their kids taken from them by the state because the residential school policy was replaced by the Sixties Scoop. And some version of that policy lives on in jurisdictions across Canada.
There have been more Indigenous children in state care than there ever were in residential school. Thousands of them have died under the supervision of our governments. This is genocide.
When Ottawa finally decided to address the foster care crisis and transfer control of youth protection from the provinces back to First Nations in 2019, Quebec stood up and opposed this measure. The government of François Legault actually fought it in court.
So after Legault did the right thing last week and decided to lower Quebec’s flags to half-mast in memory of the 215 children, I struggled to reconcile that with his government’s actions. Quebec’s lawsuit delayed a transfer that would have helped communities keep their children in a safe environment.
Instead of choosing the path of reconciliation, the government used these children as pawns to show its supporters it would stand up to Ottawa.
On Tuesday, my partner and I found out we’ll be having a daughter. We sat there watching her on a black and white screen, pressing her fingers against the warmth of Marie-Pier's belly before she fell asleep again.
At that moment, I knew for the first time what it is to love something so much I’d die a horrible death to prevent her from suffering.
Those children in British Columbia, they were someone’s baby once. They slept in the soft tissue of their mothers’ wombs, they were born, they nursed, they cried out at night only to be soothed in the arms of a loved one. And then they were taken at gunpoint and never returned.
If that isn’t genocide, I don’t know what is.
I have two articles to tell you about this week. On Tuesday, I wrote about racism in Quebec’s youth protection system. Here’s how that story begins.
“She must have burnt cells from drinking too much.”
This is how a social worker at Batshaw Youth and Family Services referred to an Inuit mother whose child is in state care, according to documents obtained by Ricochet. The Batshaw employee was in charge of helping the mother and her child navigate Quebec’s youth protection system.
And this morning I published a piece on the legacy of residential schools and sanatoriums in Quebec, where hundreds of Innu children were taken — and never heard from again.
“You had parents who, until the day they died, would ask themselves, ‘Where is my child?’ It’s not exactly the same as residential schools but you can see the pattern. People were treated as inferior, their humanity was ignored.”