Sunday, June 06, 2021

215 Children


A nun shaves a child's head on arrival at a Residential School:
Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan

The discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of 215 First Nations children at the former Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia has shocked many people, both in Canada and elsewhere. Today, 6th June, there is a gathering outside Canada House in London to commemorate these children, some of whom seem to have been as young as three. At our online event on Thursday, with two First Nations poets, we observed a minute of silence. This horrific discovery may at last serve to draw attention to the true horror of the Residential School system. I hope so. But the grave has come as no surprise to First Nations people themselves.  Richard Jock, CEO of the First Nations Health Authority, acknowledged that the discovery was deeply distressing for Indigenous people, but at the same time pointed out: "That this situation exists is sadly not a surprise and illustrates the damaging and lasting impacts that the residential school system continues to have on First Nations people, their families and communities.''  There has been a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Residential School system, led by the Indigenous Justice Murray Sinclair (who spoke at ORIGINS 2013), which reported in 2015. There have also been numerous autobiographies, novels and films. In London, we have screened WE WERE CHILDREN and INDIAN HORSE. Yet, in spite of this, people still seem astonished. The crime against humanity is systematically ignored. Why?

I suspect it has something to do with the acknowledgment of responsibility, and the need for reparation that is consequent upon it.

I'd like to explore this in reference to a similar, though not of course identical, case in Ireland: the Report of the Commission of Investigation into the Mother and Baby Homes, published last October. Here too, there was a mass grave of children whose burials went unrecorded, at the home in Tuam, operated by the Sisters of Bon Secours. Like First Nations children in Canada, the children of unmarried mothers in Ireland were placed in the "care" of Catholic orders, where many were abused, where many died, and where few or none were deemed worthy of a recorded or humane burial. They lived and died beyond the gaze of society.  

When the commission's report was discussed in the Dáil, Catherine Connolly (who Chairs the house), quote Hannah Arendt's important aphorism in relation to German guilt for the Shoah: "Where all are guilty, none is." Connolly was objecting to the idea that "society" should be blamed for Tuam, since the guilty individuals were clearly the nuns charged with running the home. If, Arendt argues, everyone is regarded as guilty then there is no risk attached to acknowledging guilt, and injustice comes to appear inevitable. It can actually become very convenient, even narcissistic, to declare guilt, and we could perhaps read some public apologies by contemporary political leaders for historical wrongs in this way.

Connolly, however, continued to argue: "You're saying here today that we are all responsible. I am not responsible, my family was not responsible, the people I know were not responsible."  This is where she parts company with Arendt, who was very careful to differentiate between responsibility and guilt.  Without asking anyone to acknowledge a guilt or blame which is clearly not theirs, Arendt still insisted that we can and should be held politically responsible for the actions committed by the states of which we are citizens, not least because we have inherited whatever may have been gained through those actions.  It is only by an acknowledgment of that collective responsibility, and meaningful action to redress the harm done, that we can truly be reconciled to historical injustice.  

This is what makes attempts to shift all the blame for Tuam or Kamloops onto the Catholic Church disingenuous, and what renders expressions of disbelief and sorrow from Canada's settler populations and (yes) the UK woefully inadequate.  In the same way that much of Britain's modern wealth is founded on slavery, it is also drawn from the systematic plundering of Indigenous lands and resources, and a key element of that was the campaign to destroy Indigenous culture and de-humanise Indigenous people, of which the Residential Schools formed a significant part. 

If we are genuinely shocked by the discovery at Kamloops, then let us be shocked into a recognition of the need for a genuine reparative justice. Let us explore how sovereignty over unceded territory might be returned. Let us look at who decides what happens to natural resources. Let us consider what should happen to the vast wealth that corporations and individuals have amassed through ongoing processes of colonisation. This call resonates with the recent words of the Indigenous Australian artist Richard Bell: “We need a new constitution for a new republic... There’s got to be a day of reckoning. There has to be exchanges of money and land. That cannot be avoided. Until then, we’re never going to say that you [non-Indigenous people] belong here. You won’t be able to say that until we say you can.”