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Canada confronts its past

Kathy Werner
Posted 11/3/23

One of the most moving experiences I had in Montreal was at the McCord Stewart Museum, which features the history of Canada.   Now on permanent exhibition is “Indigenous Voices of Today: …

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Canada confronts its past


One of the most moving experiences I had in Montreal was at the McCord Stewart Museum, which features the history of Canada.  Now on permanent exhibition is “Indigenous Voices of Today: Knowledge, Trauma, Resilience.” It takes a unblinking look at the history of the Indigenous people of Canada and how they have been treated by the Europeans who colonized them.

Much like the Indigenous people of the United States, the people who first lived in Canada were mistreated, had their lands taken away, and also had their children taken away and forced to attend Christian schools in order to acculturate them. In these schools, many horrors took place, as the children were not allowed to speak their native languages and were given numbers instead of names. In addition, they were often abused physically and sexually and the traumas they endured left a tragic legacy that has been passed down through generations.

According to Wikipedia, “Beginning in 1847 and lasting until 1996, the Canadian government, in partnership with the dominant Christian Churches, ran 130 residential boarding schools across Canada for Aboriginal children, who were forcibly taken from their homes. While the schools provided some education, they were plagued by under-funding, disease, and abuse.” On January 21, 2023, the NY Times reported that “the Canadian government agreed to pay $2.8 billion Canadian to settle the latest in a series of class action lawsuits brought by First Nations to seek reparations for the harm done to Indigenous people through a system of mandatory residential schools that a national commission called ‘cultural genocide.’

.…Thousands of Indigenous students educated at (these) schools … were forbidden, sometimes through coercive violence, from speaking their ancestral languages and practicing their traditions.”

Thus far, the Canadian government has paid $10 billion Canadian in restitution to Indigenous peoples. Much of the money was placed in a trust fund that Indigenous people may use for cultural, language, and educational programs.

The exhibit in the McCord Stewart Museum was powerful, showcasing the lifestyle of Indigenous people with impressive examples of their clothing, jewelry, and ceremonies. There were moving oral testimonies of people who had been impacted by the residential boarding schools as well.

The Canadians have been facing their historic mistakes and attempting to atone for them. This exhibit at the McCord Stewart Museum is now part of its permanent collection. As its website says, “The exhibition ‘Indigenous Voices of Today: Knowledge, Trauma, Resilience’ bears witness to the still unrecognized knowledge of Indigenous peoples in Quebec and Canada as well as the deep wounds they carry and their incredible resilience.”

This is how an honorable nation confronts its flawed past—by facing it head-on and seeking to make amends--not by ignoring it or pretending it didn’t happen because we don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. We must face the past honestly if we hope to build a better future for our children.


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