On July 1, 149 years ago, Canada became a country.
To believe the history books I read when growing up, this process was filled with a lot of British-born people fighting with French-born people, who eventually worked everything out and settled in to invent basketball, play hockey, set up a universal health care system, and listen to a lot of Celine Dion while eating poutine.
It’s not even close to the whole story.
I love my country and the land and water she occupies. But, there are dark places in Canada’s colonial past, particularly surrounding the treatment of indigenous Canadians.
Starting in the late 1800s, Canada’s federal government worked with Christian churches to take indigenous children out of their homes and force them into residential schools.
Before residential schools, indigenous Canadians lived their lives as they had since time immemorial. That was a problem for Christian churches and the Canadian government, who wanted them to assimilate completely with western culture. Residential schools were designed to “break” indigenous children of their traditional identities and beliefs. They reportedly used horrific methods to do so. Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse were common. Over the 13 decades they were in operation, Canada’s residential schools took in 150,000 children, or about 30% of the native children in the country. More than 6,000 died while in attendance.
Residential schools are a black mark on Canada’s history, and one we didn’t talk about for far too long. Finally, that’s changing.
Historica Canada has been making short videos about Canadian history since 1991. They’re usually fairly lighthearted or inspirational — talking about feminist leaders, military innovations, or the bear that inspired A.A. Milne to write about Winnie-the-Pooh.
This latest video is different. It’s a short, moving story of what life in a residential school was like, told by a survivor.
The one-minute film tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, as narrated by his sister Pearl. Both Pearl and her brother were forced into residential schools as children. They were made to cut their long hair, to wear western clothes, to learn Christian teachings, and to forget the culture of their birth.
By 1966, 12-year-old Chanie was desperate to return home and ran away from school. He was found in the woods a week later, dead of exposure.
Chanie’s death sparked the first inquest into the treatment of indigenous children at these schools — a cascade that ended with their closure, a government apology, and a national movement toward reconciliation that continues today.
Shortly after taking office last fall, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to residential school survivors and their families and said it was time to do more.
In a speech marking the completion of work by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, he told a tearful story of his own experience in school where Canada’s indigenous history was cast aside.
“I remember one moment in Canadian history class where we got to the chapter in the textbook on indigenous Canadians. Good school, good teacher. Good textbook, I suppose. And the teacher shrugged and said ‘This chapter is not very interesting and not very important so we’re going to skip it.’ … Let me tell you, that the work you’ve done and that all of you have been a part of will ensure that never again, in the future of Canada, will students be told that this is not an integral part of everything we are as a country, of everything we are as Canadians.” — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Canada is not alone. Nearly every colonized nation in the world has a story like this.
These stories — the ones we gloss over in our history books or only talk about when we’re shamed into it — are as much a part of our shared history as the moments we celebrate. Ignoring or minimizing them is dishonest and disrespectful. Confronting and talking about the ugly parts of history with clear eyes and open hearts is essential. It won’t heal historic wounds alone, but it does remind us they are there, and why, so we and future generations do not open them again.