Graves of Indigenous youth provoke outrage in Canada

By John Steele
June 21, 2021

MONTREAL — The discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children in an unmarked mass grave on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, confirmed May 27, has provoked outrage among working people across Canada.

Vigils to mark the deaths have been held by Indigenous people and supporters. Pairs of children’s shoes have been placed symbolically in front of government buildings, churches and former residential school sites. Indigenous organizations and the Alberta Federation of Labor have called on the government to make funds available to search for mass graves at all 130 former residential schools.

Under a policy of forced assimilation, some 150,000 children of Indigenous people were seized from their parents and placed in residential “schools” from the 1870s to 1996. Many were subjected to malnutrition, forced labor and sexual abuse. More than 4,000 “students” died or disappeared. Today there are about 80,000 living survivors.

“They would just start beating you and lose control and hurl you against the wall,” Geraldine Bob told the government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015, recalling her experience at the Kamloops school.

The revelations helped spur protests by Indigenous groups on other abuses. Some 1,000 Indigenous people and supporters marched in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, June 2 to protest the death of Joyce Echaquan, a member of the Atikamekw nation in a Joliette, Quebec, hospital last year. An hour before she died, Echaquan recorded hospital staff yelling racist abuse at her while she was appealing for her family to take her home because she was not getting the care she needed.

Oppression of Indigenous peoples

Totaling 1.6 million, Indigenous people compose 4.9 percent of Canada’s population of 38 million. But they are about one-third of the federal prison population. Twenty-three percent live in poverty, twice as high as the rest of the population. Many still do not have access to clean water on reservations.

Following the discovery of the graves, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for “reconciliation” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The deaths of children at the institutions “is the fault of Canada,” he said.

“Trudeau’s attempts to blame ‘all Canadians’ for the oppression and discrimination of Indigenous people is designed to cover up the reality that it is the capitalist system and its governments that are the root cause,” Philippe Tessier, Communist League candidate for mayor of the Montreal borough of Ville St-Laurent, told the Militant June 3.

The rulers seek to profit, Tessier said, by fostering “divisions among working people and undermining working-class solidarity.”

“Workers and our unions need to fight for a government-funded public works program,” the CL candidate said, “to generate millions of jobs — building houses and hospitals and providing services working people, especially Indigenous people, need. We need to fight for affirmative action measures for Indigenous people in all union contracts to ensure they have access to union-scale jobs.”