Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.
The discovery of 215 children’s bodies on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School has created shock waves right across the country. Speaking on behalf of the Ukrainian community, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) condemned this atrocity and joined the Secwépemc people, Indian Residential School Survivors, their families, and their communities, the First Nations of Canada and all Canadians in mourning the memory of those Indigenous children whose remains were discovered.
As the UCC noted, many Indigenous children who were sent to residential schools never returned to their home communities. Some ran away and others died at the schools. The students who did not return have come to be known as the Missing Children. The Missing Children Project documents the deaths and the burial places of children who died while attending the schools. To date, more than 4,100 children who died while attending a residential school have been identified. Although the exact number is not known, it is estimated that over 6,000 children died in residential schools, from a number of causes – disease, neglect and even beatings.
“These innocent lives were taken as a result of a racist and discriminatory policy of removing Indigenous children from their homes and forcing them into Residential Schools. Many of us are parents. All of us are someone’s children. It is impossible to comprehend the pain and suffering that was endured by thousands of children, parents, and grandparents who had their families torn apart by the callousness and cruelty of this government policy,” stated the UCC.
It was indeed a racist policy, rooted in the concept that Indigenous people were primitive savages who had to be stripped of their culture and heritage and assimilated into white Canadian society. There they were forbidden to speak their own language, practice their own culture and subjected to all sorts of physical and even sexual abuse. The last residential school closed in 1996. It remains a shameful episode of our history and one that deserves to be acknowledged, studied, and commemorated.
One of the repercussions of this discovery has been a re-examination of the historical legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald, who was responsible for creating residential schools as a government policy. Already certain monuments to Macdonald have been removed and schools’ names changed, with more of this expected in the future. This movement is not without controversy. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has waded into the debate. “John Macdonald was an imperfect man but was still a great leader. If we want to get into cancelling every figure in our history who took positions on issues at the time that we now judge harshly, and rightly, in historical retrospect, then I think almost the entire founding leadership of our country gets cancelled,” he said.
Indeed Macdonald was imperfect. One could say even more than imperfect. He was a drunkard, he was corrupt, he was unscrupulous, but he was also the principal architect of Confederation and of establishing Canada as a nation from sea-to-sea-to-sea. And let’s face it. The nineteenth century was a much different era than today. Racism was not only prevalent — it was deeply ingrained within the psyche of Europeans and white North Americans. Slavery was abolished in the United States only in 1865. The latter half of the century witnessed a massive scramble to colonize the “Dark Continent” (Africa) and most of Asia. This was all justified as the “White Man’s Burden” – bringing “civilization” to “backward peoples” all over the globe.
So, when Kenney says almost the entire founding leadership of our country gets cancelled, he is absolutely right. While it is important to know our true history – warts and all, whether we need to go so far as to remove statues of the Fathers of Confederation is another question.
Nevertheless, if we are to start changing school names, dismantling monuments and revising the current historic assessments of our prime ministers, then Sir Robert Borden, whose face adorns our $100 bill, should certainly be on that list. Borden was the one who initiated Canada’s First National Internment Operation. A total of 8,579 males and some women and children were interned by the Canadian Government, including 5,954 Austro-Hungarians, most of whom were ethnic Ukrainians. Ukrainians were singled out because they were considered the lowest of the white ethnocultural groups. Significantly, the government of Canada carried out the internment operations aimed at “enemy aliens” against the advice of the British government, which urged Canada not to act indiscriminately against subject nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who were, in fact, friendly to the British Empire. This is remarkable because, at that time, Canada was not yet an independent nation, but still subject to the United Kingdom. Therefore, Canada was at war as soon as it was declared by Britain and Canadian troops served under British command.
Then there was the conscription crisis of 1917 when Borden’s government imposed compulsory military service. Though popular in English Canada, it was bitterly opposed in Quebec. This was to have a lasting effect on the Francophone population and sowed the seeds of what was to become the Quebec separatist movement.
But what about residential schools? Here Borden deserves even more condemnation than Macdonald. Because while Macdonald initiated the program, Borden went a step further and made it compulsory under a 1920 amendment to the Indian Act. As a result, children were forcibly taken away from their parents’ homes.
So, if Canadians decide to continue this campaign to re-examine our historic leaders and start taking down monuments, changing school and park names, then Sir Robert Borden deserves to be very prominent among those leaders whose historic roles are to be re-examined.