Attention across the country has rightly been dominated for several days now by the news that a mass grave with the remains of 215 children was uncovered at the grounds of a former residential school near Kamloops.
Canada’s extreme brutality and injustice towards the FIrst Nations is one of those open secrets everyone knows but not many want to acknowledge. The documentation is all there—not that you should need it. In most cities in Canada all it takes is a walk downtown to see, very obviously, the marginal position that Indigenous people have been forced into in this country. Very few if any figures of authority in Canada are not complicit in the colonial project in some way. But on somber occasions like these, Albertans get the particular dissonance of hearing our official statements of grief and reconciliation come from the right flank of Canada’s conservatives—a political movement that seems to go especially out of its way to be awful about the whole thing.
130 residential schools operated in Canada; you can view their locations using this interactive map produced by the CBC.
On social media over the weekend, Premier Jason Kenney posted that we grieve with the First Nations whose children were torn away. Certainly many of us do, but it’s a statement at odds with the Premier and his movement’s record.
You don’t have to go very far back—as recently as last fall, Kenney and his UCP blocked amendments that would have recognized Canada’s crimes against Indigenous people during Alberta’s new “Genocide Remembrance, Condemnation and Prevention Month.” Premier Kenney repeatedly refused to fire Paul Bunner, a speechwriter of his who argued that residential schools were just a “bogus genocide story.” The UCP’s new curriculum has been widely panned for its poor treatment of Indigenous issues; on the day that the news of the Kamloops mass grave broke, the Dorchester Review—edited by Chris Champion, one of the advisors shaping that curriculum—spent the day trolling people online and minimizing the tragedy.
And those are just the surface-level, symbolic red flags. I would characterize a number of policy moves by the UCP as inarguably anti-Indigenous. Their continued effort to deny people access to overdose prevention sites, for example, given that the demographics of the opioid overdose epidemic are staggeringly weighted towards Indigenous people, are by definition systemic racism.
Even if we narrow the focus to very specifically just mass graves at residential schools our Premier’s record is gross. While he was Stephen Harper’s right-hand man in federal government, Kenney and his caucus colleagues repeatedly fought to prevent the release of information about residential schools. Jason Kenney was the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism in 2009, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission urged the federal government to fund a search for unmarked graves just like the ones found in Kamloops; Harper, Kenney, and the conservatives refused to provide any funding to search for these graves.
Many facilities and neighborhoods across the province are named for key architects of the residential school program, and while leaders struggle with the enormity of addressing colonial injustice against the First Nations one of the things being proposed is to stop honoring the worst-of-the-worst colonizers. Mayor Nenshi in Calgary for example is calling on the Calgary Board of Education to rename the Langevin and Bishop Grandin School, and there are similar calls from the community in Edmonton to rename the Grandin neighborhood. Vitor Grandin was a Catholic bishop who oversaw and advocated for residential schools in Alberta; the historical record suggests he was very successful in convincing the federal government to render Indigenous children to the church. “We instill in them a pronounced disgust for the native life so that they will be humiliated of their origin,” wrote Grandin in 1875. “When they graduate from our institutions, the children have lost everything native except their blood.” Statues, plaques, and buildings lionizing this man are scattered across the province.
The health ministry appears to have tried to sneak a damning report past the press: on Monday, Minister Shandro held a press conference to announce the completion of the government’s review of continuing care facilities. Normally before important policies or reports are released like this, governments hold technical briefings for reporters so that they can be informed enough to ask useful questions at the presser, but Shandro’s ministry gave no information to the reporters at all, leaving them unable to ask about anything of substance. It’s not surprising that Shandro tried to hide this one under the rug. Journalists reviewing the report later found that it paints a grim picture of Alberta’s continuing care system, especially the privately-operated part, and urges the government to massively increase the hiring of care workers.
Last fall the Premier told us that Alberta’s COVID contact tracing system was well-staffed and robust. And shortly thereafter the system got overwhelmed and completely collapsed. In case you needed proof now that Premier Kenney was lying to us back then, documents acquired by a Global News investigation very clearly explain that the system was constantly understaffed and desperate for funding and workers.
- The closure of the Sheldon Chumir overdose prevention site in Calgary is the latest step in the UCP project to dismantle harm reduction services in Alberta. “Imagine closing or relocating emergency departments at the height of the third pandemic wave,” posted Dr. Elaine Hyshka, one of Canada’s leading researchers on harm reduction, over the weekend. “That’s what Alberta is doing to one of the only proven strategies we have to prevent overdose death, during the worst wave of drug poisoning we have ever seen.” The UCP claim that alternative sites will be opened to replace the Sheldon Chumir, but won’t tell us where or when.
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