Protesters in downtown Toronto in early June toppled a statue of Egerton Ryerson, one of the colonists who helped devise the Canadian “residential school” system. The protest and defacing of the statue came after the discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
Written at the base of the toppled statue, in blood red paint, was “dig them up”. The words are a demand for the Canadian state to confront its barbaric history of colonialism and the way in which it has shaped Indigenous oppression today.
As in Australia, colonists waged vicious wars to force the Indigenous people from their lands in North America. To legitimise the genocide, they basically claimed that the land was unoccupied. “The Doctrine of Discovery” was to Canada what “Terra Nullius” was to Australia. Both were lies.
Alongside the violent appropriation of the land, the colonists developed other strategies to prevent resistance and to facilitate capitalist development. Residential schools were built to turn Indigenous children into wage labourers for Canadian capitalism. Their languages and traditions were suppressed. Physical and sexual abuse were rampant. Children were returned to their families broken, or were not returned at all.
In the 1950s and 1960s the schools began closing, but a new policy was implemented, referred to as the “Sixties Scoop”. Not unlike the Stolen Generations in Australia, the policy of taking Indigenous children from their families and communities and placing them in foster homes was in many ways a continuation of the assimilation policies of the residential schools but with slightly less barbaric cover.
While many may be “reminded” of these horrors, for Indigenous people they continue today, but in different forms. People are right to criticise Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for a tweet describing the residential schools as “that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history” when, according to Statistics Canada, more than 80 percent of Indigenous reserves in the country have a median income below the poverty line and Indigenous Services Canada reports that 52 reserves continue to suffer from contaminated water.
In Neskatanga, a reserve in northern Ontario, people have been forced to boil their water before drinking it since 1993. Trudeau’s government promised to address these issues by this year. While the target will be missed, he has not delayed in signing off on gas pipelines that will continue to poison water and destabilise communities. No amount of lip service or crocodile tears will obscure this reality.
Despite their oppression, Indigenous people in Canada have been resisting in heroic ways since the time of invasion. There was the Kanehsatake resistance of 1990, a historic confrontation during which the Canadian army was mobilised against Mohawk protesters in Quebec who were being evicted from their land to make way for a golf course. Last year, there was the Wet’suwet’en protests against the Coastal GasLink Pipeline, which resulted in railways and ports being blocked and barricaded in a wave of solidarity actions across the country.
Government-led “reconciliation” and the empty promises of Trudeau and politicians the world over have done nothing to significantly combat Indigenous oppression. To win, we have to organise independently from the states that continue to exploit workers and marginalise the oppressed. From Canada to Australia, the struggle against Indigenous oppression is bound up in the struggle against the capitalist system.