The trauma story of Canadian identity

Take a moment to pause and reflect. Take a deep breath, go inside, close your eyes and really feel your eyelashes against your eyes. This is a time of reflection; it’s time to open our eyes and see.

Our collective reality and identity has been shaken with the announcement of the finding of the remains of the unmarked graves of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential school. The announcement shook this country to the core, and while absolutely disturbing in nature, it has awakened the requirement to look at the origins of this country and what it was built on.  

As individuals, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, so many are searching for words and meaning, grappling with a national history that has built the fragile foundation of the story of Canada’s beginnings. This country has been shaken to the core. 

Our collective attention is focusing on the visceral response to the traumatic and violent deaths of over 215 children at the hands of the government and Catholic church. With this story comes the realization and horror of the likelihood of so many more Indigenous children’s deaths across the hundreds of residential schools that operated for over 130 years, with the last one closing in 1996. 

This story has shaken up reality as we know it, right down to our cellular level. The response to this story has been widespread with feelings of overwhelming grief, dismay, pain, anger and  sadness dominating our experiences. The neural networks of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are firing the neural sequencing of trauma. The residential school survivors, closest in proximity to this trauma, are coping with the triggers surfacing with memories and flashbacks triggering the trauma story that has founded and shaped Canada itself. 

Canada was built on this trauma story. Canada was built through the lens of the Indian problem of Indigenous existence. Indigenous existence was a problem to be solved. The original response to the Indian Problem was the grand design of the destruction of the Indigenous population through the Indian Act, residential schools and policy. The story of residential schools is one of design. The gruesome and inhumane finding this week has unveiled the true nature of the destructive intentions of this design. Today, Canada still faces a design issue and an accountability question in response to this. Make no mistake; this was and always has been a policy issue and was always definitively economic in nature.

In the quest to establish Canada itself was the parallel process of addressing the Indian problem. The first residential school opened the same year as the formation of Canada in 1867; the two are inseparable. This process was cemented into three intentions that served to actualize the economic, religious and political agenda. The first intention was severance, essentially purposefully cutting the ties of identity across generations through the removal of  Indigenous children into the residential schools. 

This is reflected in a quote from then-Catholic Bishop Grandin in 1875 who describes this intention: “We will instill in them a pronounced distaste for the native life so that they will be humiliated when reminded of their origin. When they graduate from our institutions, the children will have lost everything Native except their blood.” 

The second intention was the displacement of the Indigenous populations through the establishment of the reserve systems. 

The third intention was economic disorientation, seen through the development of the Indian Act and the oversight of the segregation of the Indigenous population. This over time continuously reinforced the transformation of the Indian problem into a new form: the ‘socio-economic gap’ or the Indigenous cost or burden to the national financial system. 

With the truth out in the open for the whole world to see, we are now at the intersection where the cost of doing nothing is in direct opposition to building a future for this country that addresses the violence of this atrocity that makes up Canada’s trauma story. With this coming into our national awareness right now, it has served to highlight the invisibility of the Indian Residential school experience and brings into sharp focus the systems and structure of genocide in this country’s development and the need for an appropriate response today. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action were shaped from the stories of the lived reality of the trauma of those who made it out of the residential schools: the survivors. These children who did not make it out alive are revealing the uncomfortable truth today. This story has laid bare the bones of the broken truths of the founding story of Canada itself. The visibility of the unmarked graves of 215 children has served to cement the word ‘genocide’ into the story of the establishment of Canada. The cold dark realities of the structures of genocide are now entrenched within Canadian identity, no longer deniable nor invisible. 

In the pointed words of Commissioner Murray Sinclair upon the release of the Truth and Reconciliation report, he says, “We have described for you a mountain. We have shown you a path to the top. We call upon you to do the climbing.” The recommendations serve as a call to action not only for the government but for all Canadian citizens. The only appropriate response is for the federal and provincial governments to take real concrete steps to implement the 94 Calls to Action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in particular Calls to Action 71-76. ‘We have shown for you the pathway- the work has already been done.’ 

Every child matters; the size and strength of the national response to this story will determine if this is true for Indigenous children as well. 

Let’s take the concept: every child matters. The Truth and Reconciliation report was released in 2015 and identified within it the collective experience and witnessing of children dying at the residential schools. No action was taken. What has happened this week is this truth has been brought out into the open through the national and global media with the world watching and wondering: what action will be taken?

Canada has spent millions to date fighting St. Anne’s Residential school survivors in court. These same survivors who were strapped to electrical chairs as children are still in court today dealing with both national and provincial governments denying the truths of the residential school experience. This is unacceptable.  

I am the first generation out of the residential school system; this is both my responsibility and an inspiration. My parents and grandparents were residential school survivors, coming out to live tortured, broken pathways of destruction, loss and trauma. The trauma was articulated through alcoholism, violence and separation and further expressed itself across generations. 

I am frequently asked what inspires me in my work as the founder of the concept of Indigenomics. Indigenomics is about re-imagining another possible future. It is a response: to choice; to see resilience and strength. Indigenomics in action is choosing to see Indigenous peoples as powerful and coming out from under the Indian Act and the structure of its dependencies. Indigenomics and the 100 billion dollar Indigenous economy is definitely personal. It is my response: my response to being the first generation out of residential school, it is my response to the 60s scoop that separated me from my family and it is my response to return to my home community to 90% unemployment rate.  

The Indigenomics Institute unleashed the 100 billion dollar national Indigenous economic target in December 2019 at the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs meeting in Ottawa. The final sentence of this presentation contained insight into the power and expression of Indigenous resilience: ‘Every time we say 100 billion dollar Indigenous economy, it reawakens the Indian in the child that John A. MacDonald tried to kill.’ Is Canada ready for this sentence? It does not matter if Canada is ready for this sentence because it is time to get ready. This isn’t something to ‘get over.’ This isn’t just a dark chapter in Canadian history; this is about the grand design of our collective past and of our national response today. We all need to heal this trauma story that ties all the chapters of Canada’s history together. We need leadership in our individual conversations, at the dinner table, at our offices, the boardrooms and the policies tables of this country. It is time to elevate our leadership and begin positive action to begin to heal this collective trauma story. Let’s have the courage to do this together. 

Carol Anne Hilton, from Hesquiaht First Nation, is founder and CEO of the Indigenomics Institute.