The history that classes omitted

Kelly Spencer

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I was an adult when I learned about Canadian history. I mean, the real history.

There was the version that I was taught in school, then I learned about the history that most school history classes omitted. As an adult I learned beyond the school history class PG version, and was heartbrokenly in awe of the restricted and censored history of the slavery, genocide and segregation of First Nation people in our country.

The Indigenous and white man history in Canada and North America is vast and gut-wrenching and the awareness painfully low. And while I will attempt to be succinct, I do so acknowledge that my words will not give justice to the colossal and endless complexity of the matter.

Its only been a few years since the education in school systems has embraced teaching the whole truth. Many adults are still unaware of the history because the country’s shameful elephant in the room was often ignored and unspoken.

We must not ignore injustice any longer.

North American Indian genocide is sometimes referred to as the North American Indian holocaust or the ‘500-year War,’ claiming the lives of millions and millions of Native Indians. Massacres by European settlers in North American, some say claimed up to 100 million lives and 90% of Indigenous population was wiped out through small pox or killed by Europeans immigration through slavery, rape and war.

For perspective, the German holocaust which many of us did learn about in school in much more depth and detail, had Nazi soldiers claiming the lives of six million Jewish people. And while many of us grew up playing cowboys and Indians, looking back it is as wrong as playing, a “fun” game of Nazis and Jews.

Of those that survived the white man invasion of the native lands, many were taken to ‘reserved’ land and their children were plucked from their families to be made ‘civilized.’ In operation from 1880s to the 1960s, roughly 150,000 Canadian Native children were placed in residential schools organized by government and administered by churches. Of these, at least 6,000 students died while in under the supervision of white men to be more ‘civilized.’

The Canadian government developed a policy called ‘aggressive assimilation’ to be taught at church-run, government-funded industrial schools, later called residential schools. The government felt children were easier to mold than adults, and the concept of a boarding school was the best way to prepare them for life in mainstream society.

Their sacred long hair of spiritual significance was cut short to assimilate with white culture. The system forcibly separated children from their families for extended periods of time and forbade them to acknowledge their Aboriginal heritage and culture or to speak their own languages. Children were severely punished if these, among other, strict rules were broken. And despite being forced to assimilate to the Euro-Canadian way of life, the residential school curriculum provided an inferior education, often only up to Grade 5, that focused on training students for manual labour in agriculture, light industry such as woodworking, and domestic work such as laundry work and sewing.

The system has been described as cultural genocide and the executive summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that physical genocide, biological genocide, and cultural genocide all occurred: physical, through all kinds of abuse including sexual; biological, through the disruption of reproductive capacity; and cultural, through forced cultural assimilation.

Inmates of the residential schools, the Indigenous youth, were victims of rape, torture, medical experiments and murder. A prevalent reality for many residential school inmates was also forced or coerced sterilization.

In British Columbia, the Act allowed school principals in residential schools to carry out the sterilizations, and as their legal guardian could have any Indigenous child under their charge sterilized. Often, sterilization procedures were carried out on whole groups of Indigenous children once they reached puberty.

Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act was under legislation for nearly 50 years, repealed only in 1972 with the newly elected government of Peter Lougheed in place. Before the Act was repealed, an astounding 2,800 sterilization procedures were performed in the province of Alberta. Many individuals who were sterilized were not told they were undergoing a sterilization procedure, and remained unaware until many years later.

These surgeries were often passed off as other surgeries and given without consent.

Whether students returned to the reserve with their families or placed in adoptive homes, they often found they didn’t belong. They didn’t have the skills to help their parents, and became ashamed of their Native heritage. The shame felt within the child coupled with the judgment and mistreatment from many created a grip of dysfunction, difficult to release from.

After reviewing the file of every Native child who had been adopted by an out-of-province family in 1981, Judge Kimelman stated in the Kimelman Report, ‘unequivocally that cultural genocide has been taking place in a systematic, routine manner.’

The missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic currently affects Indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States, including the First Nations, Inuit, Métis, and Native American communities.

This is not part of history. This is what is happening today.

It has been described as a Canadian national crisis and a Canadian genocide. A corresponding mass movement in the U.S. and Canada works to raise awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls through organized marches, community meetings, the building of databases, local city council meetings, tribal council meetings and domestic violence trainings for police.

Responding to repeated calls from Indigenous groups, other activists, and non-governmental organizations, the Government of Canada under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau established the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in September 2016. According to the April 22, 2016 background of the inquiry, between the years 1980 and 2012, Indigenous women and girls represented 16% of all female homicides in Canada, while constituting only 4% of the female population in Canada. A 2011 Statistics Canada report estimated that between 1997 and 2000, the rate of homicides for Aboriginal women and girls was almost seven times higher than that for other females. Compared to non-Indigenous women and girls, they were also “disproportionately affected by all forms of violence.”

In the United States, Native American women are more than twice as likely to experience violence than any other demographic. One in three Native women is sexually assaulted during her life, and 67% of these assaults are perpetrated by non-Natives.

Lisa Brunner, executive director of Sacred Spirits First National Coalition states, “What’s happened through US Federal law and policy is they created lands of impunity where this is like a playground for serial rapists, batterers, killers, whoever, and our children aren’t protected at all.”

The federal Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized in 2013, which for the first time gave tribes jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute felony domestic violence offenses involving both Native American and non-Native offenders on reservations.

In 2019 the Democratic House passed H.R. 1585 (Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019) by a vote of 263-158, which increases tribes’ prosecution rights much further. However, in the Republican Senate, its progress has stalled. Law enforcement, journalists, and activists in Indigenous communities – in both the US and Canada – have fought to bring awareness to this connection between sex trafficking, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and the indigenous women who go missing and are murdered.

The RCMP’s 2014 report Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview found that more than 1,000 Indigenous women were murdered over a span of 30 years. While homicides for non-Indigenous women declined between 1980 and 2015, the number of Indigenous women who were victims of homicide increased from 9% of all female homicide victims in 1980 to 24% in 2015.

Indigenous women’s groups, however, document the number of missing and murdered to be over 4,000 -5,000. The confusion about the numbers has to do with the under-reporting of violence against Indigenous women and girls and the lack of an effective database, as well as the failure to identify such cases by ethnicity.

Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) found more murder cases in Ontario than the national average from gathered information about 70 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Ontario. This accounts for 12% of cases in NWAC’s database. The large number of cases in Ontario illustrates that the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls is not just a ‘western problem,’ but rather a national concern impacting central Canada. 80% of cases in Ontario are murder cases, which is considerably higher than the national average (67%) and the percentage of missing cases of Indigenous women and girls is lower – 14%, versus 20% nationally.

Just try to imagine for a second if white women and girls were being taken, raped and murdered at alarming numbers. Would we be more likely to be involved, enraged, and demanding justice?

The role of racism and misogyny in perpetuating violence against Indigenous women is not history but a current reality. The effects of history and systemic racism on all the first nation people must include the discussion of the past, the social-economic opportunities provided or not provided, and addiction and mental health healing. We must acknowledge the sharp disparities in the fulfilment of Indigenous people’s economic, social, political and cultural rights as well understand the continued disruption of Indigenous societies caused by the historic and ongoing mass removal of children from Indigenous families and communities.

This is on all of us to become our own history teachers and as well educate ourselves on the current realities of many of our fellow Canadians. This is only a small part. There is so much more to learn and understand. We should start with the understanding and acknowledgment of the privilege it is to learn and educate and understand, rather than experiencing this ongoing actuality.

(Happy Healthy YOU is a wellness column by Kelly Spencer: writer, life coach, yoga & meditation teacher, holistic healer and a mindful life enthusiast! If you would like to see an article on a specific topic, please