It was only recently, by mere chance, that Tori Cress found documentation to prove what she had known for a long time: that her mother had been forced to attend a day school in her youth, where she experienced abuse from which she continues to heal today.
Until then, Cress, an Anishnaabe and Pottawatome Kwe from Beausoleil First Nation and the co-founder of Idle No More-Ontario, had been dealing with feelings of “rage and anger” after hearing the devastating news of 215 Indigenous children — some as young as three years old — found in a mass grave in a former residential school. In late May, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation had announced the finding at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, in British Columbia, during a survey of its grounds, according to a CBC report.
Unable to bear the countless stories that people shared of parents who’d fallen victims to Canada's Indian Residential School system and the ongoing trauma that’s part of it, Cress stayed off social media.
“It’s not history. Now, it’s modern child welfare laws. The harm for Indigenous children has only changed form (through) policy. The harms still exist. They haven’t gone anywhere.”-- Tori Cress, Anishnaabe and Pottawatome Kwe First Nations member
But something clicked the day she found her mother’s name in the day school attendance records — “in black and white” — with a note beside it, reading: “disciplined.” Cress says it was then that she overcame her anger as she began to put a lot of things about her “estranged” mother into perspective.
“What they call discipline...I know is abuse,” she said.
“All of these things in my life were making sense to me, and the trauma that (my mother) grew up in. She was born into grief and trauma and mourning, just like I was, and just like her mother was.”
According to University of British Columbia research, “like residential schools, (Indian Day Schools) were places (where) students experienced many types of abuse, including but not limited to physical, verbal, and sexual.” The main difference was that they returned to their homes and communities at night. A Queen’s University Gazette review of a historical biography titled Spirit of the Grassroots People: Seeking Justice for Indigenous Survivors of Canada’s Colonial Education System, estimates there were 200,000 Indigenous children “forced” into these schools from the “mid-1800s until 2000.”
The Kamloops residential school where the children were found operated until 1969, at which time the federal government took it over from the Catholic Church and turned it to a day school until 1978.
Cress says she and her brother are the first generation in their family not to attend residential or day schools or to be apprehended by the 60’s Scoop or the modern Child Support Services (CSS) orphan system.
“So, this so-called dark chapter is not a chapter,” Cress said, referring to people’s reactions at the news of the 215 children found. “Canada’s pride in their history is (the) foundation of the ongoing genocide that still exists today.”
Residential schools weren't just the product of 'a few racist politicians'
People don’t need to be an “engaged journalist or historian of Canada or colonialism or imperialism” to be aware of these historic truths, says University of Toronto History Professor Cecilia Morgan. They just need to pay attention to what Indigenous people have been saying “for a very long time.”
Much of it has been documented at painstaking length in thorough reports, including the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) Report, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) Report, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) Report and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation estimates more than 150,000 children were forced into residential schools. And the TRC itself had requested $1.5 million to uncover more mass graves as early as 2009, which the federal government of Stephen Harper denied.
Morgan says with all this information available, the choice not to know is borne out of “privilege.”
“For a number of Canadians whose lives have not been directly affected by this, they have been privileged enough not to know these things,” Morgan said in a phone interview.
That’s part of...how colonialism and imperialism work: structures of knowledge can be shaped....I’m hoping that just an informed citizen would realize that although you have not dealt with this directly in your own life, this is the context in which you live and in which this country has developed.Cecilia Morgan, History professor, University of Toronto
Academia is not free of this privilege to ignore wider contexts.
According to Morgan, many undergrad and graduate students are “well aware of the history of residential schools.” However, there remains a strong generalized tendency among many to dismiss it as “an awful aberration” rather than to understand it as part of a “larger pattern of structural and systemic colonialism and racism within our history.”
Thinking of residential schools as the “products of a few racist politicians,” she insists, misses the forest for the trees.
“It’s good (that) people are questioning (John A.) MacDonald’s legacy,” she said, referring to the ongoing movement to remove statues of controversial colonial figures, including Canada’s first prime minister.
“But to see it all as emanating from one person doesn’t take into account the fact that there are larger structures and processes that were put in place to dispossess people.”
Canadians don't want to upset the 'multicultural' image
When Cress co-founded Idle No More-Ontario in December 21, 2012, it was “one of the most powerful moments of unity” she’s experienced, she said. More than 5,000 Indigenous people and allies marched together that day in support of Theresa Spence, former chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation, who was fasting to demand action against the poverty and food insecurity issues many Indigenous people face.
But nine years later, while there’s been a “great deal of growth in (ally) support,” as Cress says, Indigenous people continue demanding the same basic rights and fighting for the protection of their lands and the honouring of treaties.
Professor Morgan says she hopes the 215 children’s bodies found at the mass grave might rouse the public out of complacency and privilege by helping to make the “links between the schools, the deaths of these children and the need for Indigenous people to defend their land, to defend their territory, to have control over their own fates and communities.”
“You need to know the history of treaties, a history that goes back further than residential schooling...(which) points to individual agency (and) activism,” she said.
“But it does depend on what...the next news cycle is.”
Cress says the only way for these children’s deaths to bring about concrete change is for Canadians to “lean into their discomfort” of knowing the history of Canada and the ongoing effects of settler-colonialism.
Wilful ignorance, she says, is no excuse.
“Canadians have chosen not to know. They don’t want to upset this image of Canadians being multicultural, and embracing all cultures and races, because it’s just not true...(But) that’s what we need them to do: to lean into it, to learn from it.”-- Tori Cress, co-founder Idle No More-Ontario
'Stop extracting resources, go extract our children from unmarked graves'
After publicly expressing grief and heartbreak at the news just days after the announcement from Kamloops, BC, Federal Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed “concrete action.” He promised “many, many discussions to be had in the coming days and weeks about how we can best support these communities and get to the truth.”
Schools and buildings are likewise flying flags at half-mast, and candlelight vigils are being held. The government has also established a National Indian Residential School Crisis Line for people to call in, and more than 220,000 people are calling on the government to declare a national day of mourning, according to a petition on change.org.
But after being on the frontlines all this time, Cress sees it all as “showmanship, not action.” The conversations and discussions have been had, reports have been produced and calls to action have been made to no avail, she says.
What is needed is action.
“And that equals dollars. That equals resources. Stop...(extracting) our resources and go extract our children from their unmarked graves. That’s the healing we need,” she said.
“We don’t need pipelines or mining projects. We need to put our children to rest properly in their communities, where they were stolen from.”Tori Cress, co-founder Idle No More-Ontario