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Seems to be at peace: Violence in Canada persists

July 28, 2021, by David Cerenzia

While living abroad, I would often find myself engaging in conversations about cultures and life with citizens of other countries. As the discussion would follow its natural path, all too often the focus would shift towards life in Canada - a common perspective that would be shared is the reputation Canada has of being an idyllic country preserving the individual rights and freedoms of those who inhabit it, serving as a shining example of a nation that champions and celebrates its diversity.

Additionally, most who engaged in a conversation of this nature were excited to share their view that Canada has set an example to the world with its reputation of being a peacekeeping nation. After this, a common remark made was how “it must be incredible living in such a peaceful place.” To the confusion of those whose company I shared my response to this question was always “for some, but not all.”

Events occurring in May 2021, and continue to evolve today, have sent ripples through the hearts of many across Canada. However, it would be hard to argue that for members of Indigenous communities living in Canada, the discovery of the remains of 215 children on the grounds of a government Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, are surprising. The absence of direct violence between the Indigenous populations and the Canadian Government today represents a state of “negative peace.” Negative peace refers to the absence of violence. When, for example, a ceasefire is enacted, a negative peace will ensue. It is negative because something undesirable stopped happening (e.g. the violence stopped, the oppression ended). As such this blog post will assert that the often self championed Canadian identity of being a peacekeeping nation is misguided, rather it can be more accurately identified as being a nation that “seems to be at peace.”

First, attention should be paid to the ethnic cleansing and genocide that has been carried out against Indigenous populations in Canada. Between the 1870s and 1997, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were forced to attend church-run, government-funded, residential school systems (RSS). With the 1894 amendment to the Indian Act, attendance at such schools was made compulsory, ultimately leading to children being removed from their families and culture and forced to learn English, embrace Christianity, and adopt the customs of the country's White majority. These calculated and deliberate actions were intended to assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian society to eliminate what state officials at the time described as an “Indian problem.” Children were forcibly separated from their parents and siblings, beaten for speaking their Indigenous languages, and suffered rampant malnutrition, physical violence, forced labour, and sexual abuse.

Effectively, the Residential School System severed the generational ties through which Indigenous cultures are taught and sustained while contributing to a general loss of culture. As heinous of an outcome this may be, the impact of this system amongst the young people forced to endure this atrocity, and who was raised in its shadow, can be viewed as even greater. Many students grew up removed from their families, therefore never having experienced nurturing family life, nor developing the skills required to raise a family of their own. This purposeful attempt of the Canadian Government and the Catholic Church to eradicate all aspects of Indigenous cultures simultaneously robbed victims of their youth, and damned future generations to a similar fate.

This impact can be best understood through the analysis of a study on intergenerational trauma, specifically focusing on the relationship between residential schools and the child welfare system. This study defines intergenerational trauma as widespread trauma endured by a community passed down through multiple generations and indicates that unaddressed childhood trauma often leads to substance use as a coping mechanism. Between 2011 and 2016, researchers spoke to 675 young people who use drugs enrolled in both the At-Risk Youth study and the Vancouver Injection Drug Users Study. Researchers asked about drug use, personal experiences with Child Welfare Services (CWS), and family experiences with the residential school systems.

The results of this study are sobering and profound. Today nearly 50 percent of all young people in the CWS are of First Nation descent. This study found that a close family exposure to RSS (grandparent/parent) and increased risk of CWS involvement among Indigenous youth who use drugs. As well, 70.6 percent of First Nations participants whose parents and/or grandparents were institutionalized in RSS were placed in the CWS. These findings suggest that family exposure to the RSS is a significant contributing factor in the overrepresentation of First Nations children in the CWS today. This demonstrates that the impact made by crimes committed against the youth of the RSS era has permeated through the generations and continues to inflict pain and suffering on First Nations youth today.

The findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) highlighted that the exact number of children who died at these schools may never be known, but the death rates for many schools, particularly during times of epidemic or disease, were very high. To date, the TRC has identified the names of, or information about, more than4,100 children who died of disease or accident while attending a residential school. As a result, it is rational to assert that those who died, and those who were ‘fortunate’ to survive this system would see them be robbed of the formative youthful years of 18-30. With the conclusion of the TRC in 2015, many individuals falling outside these communities would have assumed that the Canadian government had made the strides necessary to make peace with the victims of this horrific public policy. Yet, six years on, the nation is grappling with the heart-wrenching unearthing of the truth.

May of this year has seen Canada struggling to grapple with the unearthing of the remains of 215 children in an unmarked grave at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Many would have hoped that the following months would have offered a time to mourn, digest, and come to grips with what has been discovered. Unfortunately, the situation has only continued to escalate. On June 27th it was reported that ground-penetrating radar revealed a potential 751 unmarked graves on Cowesses First Nation, in Saskatchewan. This moment was described by an elder of the community as a “scab that was healing, slowly being peeled off”.

As the supposed beneficiaries of the TRC continue to unearth the scars and re-open the wounds of the trauma suffered at the hands of the Canadian government and Catholic Church, the risk of further deterioration exists. It is at this point in time that the government must think critically and carefully about the policy decisions they make in order to support the victims and survivors of the genocide carried out within their borders. Failing to do so will only lead to further deterioration and erosion of trust, which currently may not even exist. One can understand and empathize with the view that for members of these communities, Canada is merely a nation that seems to be at peace.


About the author:

David Cerenzia is the holder of a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Edinburgh, and an Honours History degree specializing in Political Science from the University of Guelph. He has worked with refugees and people experiencing homelessness in Canada, social entrepreneurs and innovators in the United Kingdom, and human rights leaders in Norway. He is fascinated by social policy and has recently been focused on creating employment opportunities and affordable housing for vulnerable populations.

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