I try to be optimistic and embrace the truth that “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.”
When I examine how the Canadian government treats Indigenous children, however, it’s hard not to be cynical.
I began teaching my Social Justice 12 unit on residential schools by watching Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology to the Indigenous peoples of Canada.
An apology is a wonderful thing but it’s empty unless it’s followed by meaningful acts of reparation.
My students then delved into what precisely Harper was apologizing for. As we did, we came across an underlying theme in Canada’s policy toward Indigenous children: the country has never wanted to spend the money needed to support their well-being.
This truth became very clear when we examined the tuberculosis epidemic of the early 20th century. Children in residential schools were dying at a rate far above the national average, and the government knew most of these deaths were preventable. Rather than improve the living conditions, the Department of Indian Affairs decided not to spend the necessary funds and consciously chose to let children die.
As I closed my lesson on Dr. Peter Bryce, the public health specialist who wrote about this chapter of Canada’s wilful neglect in his book The Story of A National Crime, a Canadian court announced a ruling on a case about Indigenous children in the 21st century. The court dismissed an appeal by the federal government to be allowed to withhold funds that would better the lives of Indigenous children.
Many Canadians aren’t aware that the British North America Act stipulates that education is a responsibility of provincial governments, except for Indigenous children living on reserves. The federal government is responsible for the education of these children, and that government continues to spend 30 to 50 per cent less per child than the provinces. The same lack of funding applies to all services these young people receive, and the impact is devastating.
First brought forward by the Canadian Human Rights Commission tribunal in 2007, this issue has been challenged by both the Harper and Trudeau governments, which spent millions of dollars abusing the legal system to avoid paying for the services needed by our Indigenous children.
The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hasn’t announced that it will appeal this decision again, but it hasn’t stated it will honour it either. Instead, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said, “We are moving forward in discussions with the parties involved to make sure that people are properly compensated.”
What does that even mean – particularly since while he said it, his surfer-dude of a prime minister was making plans to skip out of Orange Shirt Day commemoration services and hit the beaches of Tofino, B.C.?
Well, at least Trudeau showed he can follow through on things that are important to him.
I’d like to believe Canada’s 2008 apology to Indigenous people meant something. I’d like to believe the lives of Indigenous children mean more to our government than they did 100 years ago.
But I find myself losing hope and losing credibility with my students.
The truth is that governments operate in their self-interest and won’t do the right thing unless their citizens insist they do so.
The Trudeau government will only provide proper funding to our Indigenous children if we flood the offices of the prime minister, the Indigenous services minister and our local members of Parliament with letters, phone calls and emails insisting it not appeal this court ruling and that it follow the order of the Canadian Human Rights Commission tribunal.
The arc of the moral universe really does bend toward justice – but only because good people push it in that direction.
Troy Media columnist Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. For interview requests, click here.
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