From the Editor: It's time for Canada to commit to actions, not words, in addressing the needs of Indigenous people

Kwantlen Polytechnic University lowered the flags at all campuses until further notice in honour of every child found buried at Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Facebook/ KPU)

On May 27, Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, along with the help of a ground-penetrating radar specialist, confirmed the presence of the remains of the 215 children at an unmarked burial site in a former residential school in Kamloops. Many of them were presumed missing by family members and friends.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation lists 18 residential schools that once operated in B.C., and so far they have registered 415 deceased children between 1891 and 1981.

The government of Canada needs to improve the lives of Indigenous Peoples, starting by giving comfort to those who thought their family members and friends were missing. The country needs to prepare a nationwide search for unmarked graves at all 139 residential school sites.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has identified more than 4,100 children who died of disease or accident while attending a residential school. However, that number could be as high as 15,000, according to Indigenous leaders.

Despite this, and the fact that the TRC final report and calls to action were released six years ago, the Canadian government still chooses to spend resources on unfairly policing Indigenous people, and letting the ongoing effects of colonialism continue.

In 2020, The Tyee sent a Freedom of Information request to the RCMP, requesting information on how much money they had spent on past unresolved investigations of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

They still have not heard a response, even though the RCMP states that they will “support any action that will: benefit Indigenous communities [and] address the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.”

The Tyee also investigated the amount of money the RCMP had put towards policing the Coastal GasLink construction, which revealed the police spent upwards of $13 million on policing the road leading to the site.

Imagine if that money had instead been spent on educational programs to help people begin to understand some of the history, culture, and traditions of Indigenous people. This could include education for newcomers to the country, who are given a brief summary of Canadian history in the government-issued citizenship study guide.

The guide, which was created in 2009, has not been updated since 2012. However, after the recent findings of the 215 children’s bodies, the ministry of immigration is now updating the guide.

The manual has 68 pages but only 558 words that talk about Indigenous peoples. Out of the 558 words, 57 of those are used to address the history of residential schools and the trauma that many Indigenous people went through and are still going through today.

One of the passages says, “Large numbers of Aboriginals died of European diseases to which they lacked immunity. However, Aboriginals and Europeans formed strong economic, religious and military bonds in the first 200 years of coexistence which laid the foundations of Canada.”

The guide doesn’t educate newcomers on the history of Indigenous people in Canada or what Turtle Island was like before colonialism. The manual acts like a promotional pamphlet that excites newcomers into immigrating to a “perfect” country, glossing over the crimes perpetrated by the government and Catholic church.

The Canadian citizenship oath will also be changed in response to calls to action 93 and 94 from the TRC report.

“We call upon the Government of Canada to replace the Oath of Citizenship with the following: I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada including Treaties with Indigenous Peoples, and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen.”

Keeping Queen Elizabeth II as part of the oath is still such a symbolic commitment to maintaining colonial norms, even though the monarchy doesn’t live in or take any part in making real decisions for Canada.

The government could also make it mandatory for all post-secondary institutions to teach an Indigenous studies course in all their programs. B.C. Premier John Horgan said that he never learned about residential schools at university. Indigenous education can foster more understanding and interests in Canadians when it comes to Indigenous issues.

Moving forward, Canada can improve the lives of Indigenous people by providing them with basic needs like drinking water and better access to health care. It took 16 years for the Semiahmoo First Nation to be given the resources they needed to lift their boil water advisory.

“Indigenous peoples do not have equitable access to health services compared to the general Canadian population due to geography, health system deficiencies, and inadequate health human resources,” reads a report by The National Collaborating Centre for Indigenous Health.

Last year, Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous woman, was insulted and sworn at by hospital staff before her death at Joliette Hospital in Montreal.

Alexia Nequado, another Indigenous woman, was admitted to Joliette Hospital for stomach pain. A nurse injected her with a syringe of morphine, even though Nequado was wearing a bracelet that indicated she was allergic. After she lost consciousness and woke up, the nurse called her an “idiot” for not telling her.

In the Canadian health care system, Indigenous people “experience multiple and intersecting challenges in accessing urban health care services, including racism and discrimination, long wait lists, and culturally unsafe care,” says the report.

It goes on to suggest that health care services should be free from bias, discrimination, and racism. And that respect for Indigenous people is guaranteed.

The Canadian government talks a lot about reconciliation and decolonization, addressing these problems that so many have pointed out for years is the least they could do to translate their empty words into action.

We are mourning the death of the 215 children and the many that weren’t counted for.