Opinion

On this Orange Shirt Day, don’t nitpick the facts. Accept the outrage and anger.

Is it not famously known that history is written by the victors? Ignoring or hiding evidence of atrocities is a fundamental part of those atrocities. Nitpicking facts and terminology, whether intentional gaslighting or not, contributes to the status quo of denial that so many in Canada are fighting against.

Last year, after I penned an op/ed in the Toronto Star for Orange Shirt Day, an editor reached out with reader concerns. But the concerns weren’t about the horrors of the Indian Residential School System (IRSS), nor the associated medical violence inflicted on hundreds of thousands of Indigenous families. The concerns were about the stated estimates of children killed in the IRSS. The sentence “… death rates were 24–69 per cent, and school graveyards were as common as school playgrounds” was challenged as factually inaccurate. 

The reader pointed out that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had identified around 3,200 children who died in the IRSS, and this would “only be 2 per cent” of the 150,000 students forced to attend. Apparently, this reader was unaware that records relating to the abuse, terror and deaths of Indigenous children in residential schools were not made available to the TRC. 

Through extensive and frequently horrifying interviews, the TRC was able to gather the names of 3,200 little ones killed in the schools, and it quickly became clear that this element of the inquiry likely would require a criminal investigation and was beyond the scope and capability of the TRC. In 2009, Senator Murray Sinclair urged the government to take seriously and further investigate these extremely concerning reports by putting $1.5 million into the search for burial sites of the missing children. This request was denied. Senator Sinclair feared the true number of children who died in the IRSS was 25 times more than the names the commission was able to gather. Furthermore, there was an entire section in the TRC Final Report calling for action regarding the graves survivors knew existed. Communities had maps, landmarks, identifiers and oral histories of where the bodies of the little ones would be found. Ground-penetrating radar has since confirmed survivors’ testimony.

Peter Henderson Bryce, a physician and trailblazer in public health, was also ridiculed and ostracized for ringing the alarm on the astonishing rate of preventable deaths in the IRSS. As early as 1907, he was reporting on these death rates – observed to be 24-69 per cent. Seven years later, Duncan Scott Campbell, superintendent of Indian Affairs, stated in Parliament: “It is quite within the mark to say that 50 per cent of the children who passed through these doors did not live to benefit from the education they received therein.” Nothing was done to ameliorate the catastrophe and the schools would continue operating for another 90 years.  

The TRC covered only 139 residential schools – ones that received federal funding. In total, there were more than 1,300 residential schools across the country, run by churches and other levels of government. In the search of 11 schools thus far, more than 5,000 unmarked little graves have been located. It would seem that Bryce’s estimate was, indeed, factually accurate. 

Ignoring or hiding evidence of atrocities is a fundamental part of those atrocities.

When the final report for the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was released in May 2019, there was more outrage about the use of the word “genocide” than there was about the actual genocidal findings. This ongoing denial is killing Indigenous peoples to this day.  

When the priest from Mississauga lamented the fact that “all the good done” in the residential school system was being ignored, the outcry was swift and fierce and he was forced to resign from his pulpit. However, his sentiment – that the system was “not all bad” or that it was “actually disease” that killed the children in the schools “and not priests and nuns”– is a brutal, persistent and pervasive opinion that many in Canada still hold. 

Denying all harm is in itself incredibly harmful. It is rooted in a deep history of racism – and always implicates Indigenous people as being responsible for their own “misfortunes.” Could there have been some moments of kindness in the residential school system? It’s possible. But the system was rooted in genocidal ideation, with the goal of killing the Indian in the child, destroying communities and erasing culture. 

Did disease play a significant role in the suffering, morbidity and premature deaths for children in the residential schools? Absolutely. However, these children did not succumb to illness because of an inferior biological or genetic makeup but because of conditions designed to put their lives at risk. Medical neglect, intentional medical violence, experimentation, forced labour, starvation, malnutrition, beatings and physical, emotional, sexual and spiritual abuse created the “vulnerability” to disease. Conditions were designed for mass infection propagation – with overcrowding, denial of treatment and failure to identify and isolate infected children from the rest of the population.  

As long as we fail to see the system for the evil that it was, in all its entirety, we will never, ever make progress in reconciliation. Bias against Indigenous people and a deeply rooted belief in our “inferiority” will persist. 

Indigenous people are still facing the catastrophe of racism that impacts every aspect of our lives. As women, we are 12-19 times more likely to be murdered or missing than any other person in Canada. As parents, we are losing our children to the child welfare system at rates even higher than when we lost them to residential schools. We are still seeing communities deprived of basic infrastructure – lacking clean water, proper housing and fundamental access to health, safety and educational resources.

As a country, we have repeatedly shown that when there is a resource to be extracted, we are more than capable of rapidly building complex infrastructure, no matter how remote the location – yet for Indigenous communities, geography suddenly becomes challenging. In Toronto alone, almost 90 per cent of Indigenous adults live below the low income cut off, while 72 per cent of those interviewed said that experiences of racism from health-care providers have stopped, delayed or prevented them from seeking care. Racism is still killing Indigenous people. 

Insidiously, Indigenous people are often pitted against “taxpaying Canadians,” with the implication of freeloading, entitled, lazy communities expecting handouts. Those with privilege are blind to the trillions and trillions of dollars in infrastructure that permeate every aspect of their lives, from our world-class universities to our hospitals and our high-speed internet. All of our wealth has come from resource extraction in the land that we promised to share and care for in treaties with Indigenous people. Sharing and caring did not happen – instead the collective resources of the land were converted to wealth that was then concentrated in non-Indigenous communities. 

If one subscribes to the belief that the IRSS was somehow “good” for Indigenous children, it indicates they hold a bias deeply rooted in racism. It then would make it easier to believe that alarming gaps in wellbeing are the fault of Indigenous people themselves, and not the structures, systems, laws, and policies of this land. It would ease the conscience, and excuse one from honest reflection on the damage that our current way of life inflicts.

It took centuries of devaluing and dehumanizing Indigenous people to get to the point we are at today. And yet – despite the odds – there is a renaissance of Indigeneity occurring right here on Turtle Island. Indigenous languages, cultures and customs are thriving as intergenerational survivors are bursting with pride in themselves, their ancestors and their children. We are embracing our diversity, beauty, resilience and strength. We are coming to terms with our trauma and bringing down the curtains of shame to let the light shine upon us. We are flourishing in so many ways. 

Our voices are beginning to matter. The truths we’ve always known are beginning to be seen as facts. Indigenous voices are strengthening and being heard.

On this Orange Shirt Day, take your time to accept the outrage. Accept the anger. Do not be tempted to assuage these emotions by nitpicking facts, debating terminology or looking for a silver lining. We must drop the disingenuous arguments and accept our collective history and our present. It has been toxic; it does not have to continue to be so. We will continue to thrive; we will continue to exist. We have so much beauty, wisdom, knowledge and hope to give. Just open your heart and accept. 

To make donations please consider:

  • Toronto Council Fire
  • Call Auntie Network, Seventh Generation Midwives of Toronto 
  • Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction
  • Thunder Women’s Healing Lodge 
  • Native Women’s Cultural Centre
  • Nameres
  • Auduzhe Mino Nesewinong
  • Well Living House

 

In describing the art she created for Dr. Suzanne Shoush, Lisa Boivin writes:

“I wanted to highlight the heart and lung areas with pink to honour your life force. This is how I see you. You are very powerful and alive. You are loving and kind. And so gentle with your words even when you speak hard truths. I hope I have captured you in a way that you feel honoured. I am grateful for all you do in our community.” 

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Authors

Suzanne Shoush

Contributor

Suzanne Shoush is a family doctor, an Indigenous and Black mother and an equity advocate. She is the Indigenous Health Faculty Lead for the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the UofT, and a co-founder of Doctors for Defunding Police and Call Auntie.

Illustrator

Lisa Boivin

Artist

Lisa Boivin is a member of the Deninu Kue First Nation in Northwest Territories, Canada. She is a bioethicist and a Doctoral Candidate at University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine. She uses digital images as a pedagogical tool to confront colonial barriers Indigenous patients navigate in the healthcare system and offers Indigenous teachings to resolve them. Lisa strives to humanize clinical medicine as she situates her arts-based practice in the Indigenous continuum of passing knowledge through images.

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