KINSELLA: Canada learning that history catches up to you

Canada is re-learning an important history lesson with residential school horrors

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The thing about history is that it doesn’t stay history. It catches up to you.

That doctor’s appointment you put off when you knew you shouldn’t. That claim on your C.V. that wasn’t quite true. That story you told your spouse that wasn’t true at all.

History doesn’t remain in the past. It lives, vividly, in the present. It comes back, sometimes with a vengeance.

Canada is re-learning an important history lesson, painfully, in recent weeks. In recent weeks, hundreds of unmarked graves have been found behind what we called “residential schools.” Graves filled with the little bodies of Indigenous children and babies.

There’s a history lesson in what we all call those places, isn’t there? There were 139 of them, and they sure as Hell weren’t “schools.” They were prisons for 150,000 Indigenous children, where as many as 30,000 died or were killed.

The Nazis did something similar, for similar reasons, but on a massive scale. They tried to evade history. They called their concentration camps “protective custody,” when in reality they were extermination centres.


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So, right off the top, we all need to stop playing semantic games. What we had on Canadian soil wasn’t “residential schools.” They were prisons for the innocent and the powerless, where Indigenous children lost their parents, their families, their language, their culture, their hope — and where they were beaten, and raped, and sometimes killed.

Trying to thwart history, some readers protest that. They insist many Indigenous children were felled by tuberculosis and influenza and the like. They claim it’s unfair to judge Sir John A. Macdonald by the standards of today.

Maybe. Perhaps. But those graves are unmarked for a reason. The religious orders that ran those prisons for children — like my own Catholic Church, more on them in a moment — were trying to hide something. They were trying to erase history. Erase those children.


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They didn’t dump tiny bodies in unmarked graves because they had done nothing wrong.

So, too, Sir John. A. He helped create Canada, yes. But he also created these prisons for children — who he regularly referred to as “savages.” And, on the floor of the House of Commons, called for the protection of “Aryan culture” in Canada. That’s a quote, yes. He said that.

This writer is a church-going Joe Biden-style Roman Catholic. I pray every night. And I worked for the Rt. Hon. Jean Chretien, too. Who, like me, adopted an Indigenous child.

Do I need to atone for taking the sacraments in a place that abused and murdered Indigenous children? I think I do. If I’m a true Christian, I don’t have any choice. History demands it.

Do I need to atone for being a Chief of Staff in a government and not knowing anything — not a damn thing — about “residential schools?” Even if we presided over the closure of the last one, in Saskatchewan in 1996? I think so. I need to atone. History demands that, too.


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Jean Chretien, who is kind of my political father, helped author a white paper in 1969 that called for the rights of Indigenous people to determine how their children are educated. That recommended big changes, to “enable the Indian people to be free.”

Those changes never really happened. History continued its grim march, and the prisons for Indigenous children continued for another generation.

The discovery of the bodies of babies and children is just getting started, folks. This is going to go on for months, years. It is not stopping. It is going to force a national reckoning — and, hopefully, real change.

History is back. But history never really left us, did it?

Kinsella was special assistant to Jean Chretien.


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