Canada’s Indigenous communities have been at the forefront of a global reckoning of the abuse and assimilation brought about by colonialism. Their decades-long movement has received heightened attention in recent years, partly because of grim new discoveries about the extent of violence and discrimination.
Last year, an Indigenous community announced that it had found a suspected mass grave at a former residential school in British Columbia, where it said there was evidence of 215 children having been buried. The church-run school was part of a system designed to assimilate the children, forcibly erasing their Indigenous languages and cultures.
Other discoveries followed. In the province of Saskatchewan, the suspected remains of 751 people, mostly Indigenous children, were found at the site of another former boarding school.
A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in 2008 called the forced removal of children from their families “cultural genocide.” It concluded that at least 4,100 students had died of mistreatment, neglect, disease and accidents at the schools, which operated from around 1883 to 1996. A judge who led the commission said he believed the number was beyond 10,000.
The revelations have led to an increasing focus on the extent of such abuses and the demands of Indigenous communities for redress.
Pope Francis visited Canada in July, making a direct apology for the church-run schools. “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” he told a gathering made up largely of Indigenous people in Alberta near the site of a former school.
While visiting a cemetery where children are believed to have been buried in unmarked graves, the pope said he was “deeply sorry” for the ways in which “many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples.”
The United States, prompted by the Canadian discoveries, said last year that it would search for burial sites at a network of federal boarding schools that forcibly enrolled Native American children for cultural assimilation.
The discovery of the mass graves has added to Indigenous groups’ calls for self-governance and a fuller reclamation of their sovereign statuses.
Canada has taken other steps in what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls a “total renewal” of the country’s relationship with Indigenous people, many of whom reject the idea that they are citizens of Canada. Mr. Trudeau has established a national inquiry into the deaths and disappearances of thousands of Indigenous women, dozens of whom went missing along a single rural highway in British Columbia.
Indigenous groups have also turned to the courts to seek redress after political promises have failed.
The Canadian government announced in January that it would spend $31.5 billion as part of a settlement to repair the country’s child welfare system, which statistically has been far more likely to remove First Nations children from their families. And a Canadian court approved a multibillion-dollar settlement last year to clean up contaminated drinking water on Indigenous reserves and compensate First Nations for a lack of access to safe water.