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2021: The Year Canada Repudiates Its Colonial Past


Unmarked graves

May 2021 was a pivotal moment in Canadian history. It was when stories became truth. The missing are finally recovered. New technology detect burial sites. Former residential school grounds treated like crime scenes. A wave of change has been set in motion.

The Canada Indian Residential Schools were a network of boarding schools for Indigenous peoples. Funded by the Department of Indian Affairs branch of the Canadian government, and administered by Christian churches, the school system was created to remove and isolate Indigenous children from the influence of their own culture and assimilate them into the dominant Canadian culture.

The residential school system harmed Indigenous children significantly by removing them from their families, depriving them of their ancestral languages, and exposing many of them to physical and sexual abuse. Students were also subjected to forced enfranchisement as "assimilated" citizens that removed their legal identity as Indians. Disconnected from their families and culture and forced to speak English or French, students who attended the residential school system often graduated being unable to fit into their communities but remaining subject to racist attitudes in mainstream Canadian society. The system ultimately proved successful in disrupting the transmission of Indigenous practices and beliefs across generations. The legacy of the system has been linked to an increased prevalence of post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, substance abuse, and suicide, which persist within Indigenous communities today.

Over the course of the system's more than hundred-year existence, around 150,000 children were placed in residential schools nationally. By the 1930s about 30 percent of Indigenous children were believed to be attending residential schools. The number of school-related deaths remains unknown due to incomplete records. Estimates range from 3,200 to over 30,000.

Read more about the Canadian Indian residential school system

A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by the Canadian government spent six years hearing from 6,750 witnesses to document the history of the schools. It released a report in 2015. According to the report, when children died at residential schools, their families were often given vague explanations or told that they had simply run away and vanished. When the schools acknowledged the deaths of children, they generally refused, until the 1960s, to return their bodies to their families. Remains were sent back only if it was cheaper than burying them at the schools.



May 27

On May 27, 2021 Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 Chief Rosanne Casimir made a statement to the media. A search using ground-penetrating radar led to the discovery of the remains of 215 children on grounds near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Read more about Kamloops Indian Residential School

June 24

On June 24, 2021 Cadmus Delorme, Chief of the Cowessess First Nation, announced the discovery of 751 unmarked graves of mostly Indigenous children at the cemetery of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in the southeast corner of the Saskatchewan province.

Read more about The Marieval (Cowessess, Grayson) Indian Residential School


June 30

On June 30, 2021 a First Nation in British Columbia's South Interior reported that 182 unmarked grave sites have been discovered near the location of a former residential school. The Lower Kootenay Band said in a news release that it began using ground-penetrating radar last year to search the site close to the former St. Eugene's Mission School, which was operated by the Catholic Church from 1912 until the early 1970s.

Read more about The Kootenay Indian Residential School


July 12

The Penelakut Tribe in British Columbia's Southern Gulf Islands says it has found more than 160 "undocumented and unmarked" graves in the area, which was also once home to the Kuper Island Residential School.

The tribe informed neighbouring First Nations communities of the discovery in a newsletter posted online on July 12.

"We are inviting you to join us in our work to raise awareness of the Kuper Island Industrial School, and confirmation of the 160+ undocumented and unmarked graves in our grounds and foreshore," the notice said.

No further details were provided. The tribe did not say how the graves were found, whether children's remains are suspected of being buried there or whether ground-penetrating radar was used.


No one should be surprised

« Why are so many surprised about the findings at the Kamloops and Marieval Indian Residential Schools? Indigenous folks have been telling us this was happening for the last hundred years. They sent letters to the government of John A. Macdonald and to his deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, about missing children and conditions in the schools, but no one paid any attention.

What’s so troubling is that all the information needed to have made such claims credible and worth investigating is there in the historical record. Start at the top. John A. bragged in Parliament that he was keeping Indians near starvation level to save money. And many of those same Indians died from neglect, lack of food, or food that was rotten.

Go down the chain of command a notch to Scott and you find him ignoring the complaints and dismissing Indians as fat and lazy. When Dr. Peter Bryce was sent out in 1907 to assess the health of students in the residential schools of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, he reported back to Scott that conditions were so appalling the death rate in several schools was in the 40-60-per-cent range. »



Ryerson University name change, removal of statue

On May 11, 2021 Ryerson University’s First Nations-led think tank, the Yellowhead Institute, issued an open letter saying their students and staff will no longer be using the university’s name in their email signatures and social media and will replace it with “X University” instead.

Egerton Ryerson is considered one of the primary architects of Canada's residential school system and in recent years staff and students have been calling for the removal of his statue and for the university to change its name.

On June 2 Indigenous professors at Ryerson University signed a letter asking the school to change its name and remove a statue of Egerton Ryerson from its campus.

On June 6, after the Bring the Children Home rally in Toronto (honouring residential school victims) ended at 6 p.m., a statue of Egerton Ryerson at the university was pulled down by demonstrators.

The university has confirmed that the statue would not be restored or replaced.

The day after, June 7, hundreds of professors and other faculty members signed a letter demanding that the school change its name, saying that "now is the time to stop commemorating Ryerson."

"Today, there remains no cover or excuse to turn away from the truth about the namesake of our university," the faculty letter reads. "Every Indigenous family in this country has been touched by Indian Residential Schools and our namesake's legacy as an architect of the residential school system is the reason we must act now as faculty members at this institution."

On August 26, Ryerson University announced that it has accepted a recommendation to begin the renaming process. The Standing Strong (Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win) Task Force’s final report was presented to Ryerson’s Board of Governors. The Board approved a motion to accept all 22 recommendations, including the recommendation to rename the university.

Read more


Calgary's Langevin School renamed

The Calgary Board of Education has passed a motion to rename Langevin School to Riverside School. The name change is "effective immediately," the CBE said in a release on June 1, 2021. Trustees held a special board meeting on May 31 to approve the change.

Hector-Louis Langevin was one of the Fathers of Confederation and a Conservative cabinet minister, serving as secretary of state for the provinces when the country's residential schools were introduced. He is considered an architect of the residential school system.



Sir John A. Macdonald

On May 31, 2021 Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island city council voted to remove a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, from a downtown corner. By 7 a.m. Tuesday, it was gone.

Council voted unanimously to remove the statue just weeks after voting to accept recommendations from local First Nations people for changes to it.

The statue became the subject of controversy about a year ago because of Macdonald's involvement in setting up the residential school system. That controversy rose following the discovery of remains at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.



After more than four hours of heated discussion, Prince Edward County council voted 13-1 on June 7 to remove a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from downtown Picton, Ontario and place it in storage.

"I can't recall a matter that has come before council that has so polarized our community and stirred such emotional responses," noted Mayor Steve Ferguson during the special council meeting, which was held virtually.



On June 18 a statue of Macdonald was removed from its stone pedestal in his hometown of Kingston, Ontario.

Kingston council voted 12-1 after a long meeting on June 16 to move the 125-year-old statue from the park and place it into storage, then put it up in Cataraqui Cemetery where the Father of Confederation is buried. The statue was erected in 1895.



Hamilton city councillor Nrinder Nann (Ward 3) will move a motion for the city to remove a statue of Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, from Gore Park. The motion is included on the agenda for the July 8, 2021 meeting of the emergency and community services committee.

Earlier in July, the Gore Park statue was covered in red paint, but quickly washed off.

The statue had been previously painted red and also recently spent three days covered with black fabric, wrapped in protest.



Trustees with the Limestone District School Board voted unanimously to initiate a renaming process for École Sir John A. Macdonald Public School.

Sir John A. Macdonald's name will be removed from the school effective June 30, and will be known as École Kingston East Elementary School until a new name is chosen.

The renaming process will begin when the new school year begins in September.


The new sign

The new sign

York Region District School Board (YRDSB) trustees voted to remove Sir John A. Macdonald from the one of its schools in Markham, already taking the first step and removing the name from the signage outside the front of the building.

The YRDSB says it made the decision after presenting a report to rename the school at a special meeting on July 7.

Board chair Cynthia Cordova says the school's community is committed to equity, inclusivity and truth and reconciliation.

The York school board says it will begin the renaming process in the fall, which will include consultation with the Chippewas of Georgina Island and the local school community.


Dundas subway station

Dundas subway station

Rename Dundas Street

After months of consideration, the City of Toronto is officially recommending that Dundas Street be completely renamed.

Mayor John Tory announced on June 28, 2021 that both he and the City Manager are both on board to begin the process in response to a petition to finally omit Henry Dundas and his legacy from the city's infrastructure.

“This is a moment in time when it is important to make a statement to the entire community about including those who have been marginalized and recognizing the significant effect past history can have on present day lives,” Tory said in a press release.

Nearly 14,000 people signed a petition last year asking for the street to be renamed.

The petition states that Scottish politician Henry Dundas, whom Dundas Street is named for, has a “highly problematic” legacy which saw him participate in obstructing the abolition of slavery until the end of his career in 1806.

City staff have also noted Dundas's role in the continued subjugation of Indigenous communities in Canada in his capacity as British Home Secretary.


Reclaiming Indigenous names

The federal government announced on June 14, 2021 that Indigenous people can now apply to reclaim their traditional names on passports and other government ID.

The move comes in response to a call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 that demanded governments allow survivors and their families to restore names changed by the residential school system.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said the announcement goes a step further, as it applies to all individuals of First Nations, Inuit and Metis background, potentially affecting hundreds of thousands of people who aim to reclaim their identity on official documents.


Canada Day 2021 on Parliament Hill, Ottawa

Canada Day 2021 on Parliament Hill, Ottawa

Canada Day 2021

Canada Day has a long history of controversy. Many Indigenous people see it as a celebration of genocide.

This year, Indigenous leaders called for Canada Day to be a day of mourning. Instead of the usual fireworks and celebrations on July 1st, there are calls for a day of mourning, reckoning, and solidarity.

At least 50 municipalities across the country cancelled their Canada Day celebrations this year, according to Indigenous activist group Idle No More.

The Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA) encouraged people to wear their orange shirts. Orange Shirt Day (September 30th) is a day to commemorate the survivors who were sent away to residential schools in Canada. Read more about Orange Shirt Day

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau

On June 25, 2021 Prime Minister Trudeau spoke to reporters about Canada Day this year. He said, “Many, many Canadians will be reflecting on reconciliation, on our relationship with Indigenous Peoples and how it has evolved and how it needs to continue to evolve rapidly. We have so many thing we need to work on together and I think this Canada Day, it will be a time of reflection on what we’ve achieved as a country but on what more we have to do.”

The Prime Minister struck a different tone in his Canada Day statement this year.

In the statement, Trudeau acknowledged that for some, July 1 is “not yet a day of celebration."

“The horrific findings of the remains of hundreds of children at the sites of former residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan have rightfully pressed us to reflect on our country’s historical failures, and the injustices that still exist for Indigenous peoples and many others in Canada. We as Canadians must be honest with ourselves about our past."


Calgary church leaving vandalism untouched

The minister of an inner-city Calgary, Alberta church says he is in no rush to remove evidence of vandalism to the building as the city responds to recent revelations regarding Indigenous residential schools in Canada.

Grace Presbyterian in the southwest community of Connaught was one of at least 10 churches hit July 1, 2021 overnight. Vandals splashed red paint across the front doors.

Minister Jake Van Pernis said he doesn’t consider it a hate crime, instead labeling it an act of protest and grief. He says the church is considering leaving it up in recognition of the lasting trauma of residential schools.

“In grief, there’s anger, frustration, trauma that we need to recognize,” he said. “We need to work with the Indigenous community to start toward healing and work toward reconciliation in ways that are meaningful and good.”

Van Pernis said they’re still developing a full response to the vandalism, but says part of that has to be acknowledging the Presbyterian Church’s role and contributions in the residential school system in a meaningful way.



Canadians want governments working harder on Indigenous reconciliation

A majority of Canadians believe that their governments have not gone far enough in advancing reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, according to the annual Confederation of Tomorrow survey.

The Confederation of Tomorrow study, an annual survey conducted by an association that includes the public policy graduate schools at the University of Regina and the University of Saskatchewan, found that more Canadians feel like they have an individual role to play in reconciliation.

The survey found 70 per cent of Canadians feel they have a role to play in reconciliation, an increase of 15 per cent from 2020.



Prime Ministers Path project stopped

The Prime Ministers Path project in Baden, Ontario was meant to honour 150 years of confederation.

Read more about the Prime Ministers Path project

In 2016 a statue Sir John A. MacDonald was the first to be installed as part of the Prime Ministers Path. The statue, which was on display in front of Castle Kilbride, was put into storage in August 2020 following multiple acts of vandalism.

Three more statues were installed in 2017. They were of Sir Robert Borden, William L. Mackenzie King and Lester B. Pearson. A fourth, a statue of Kim Campbell, was installed in 2018.

Wilmot Township council voted unanimously on July 5, 2021 to remove the remaining Prime Ministers Path statues and stop the project permanently. A presentation was brought forward to council in a special meeting.

Councillor Jen Pfenning said at the meeting, that despite the good intentions of the project it has caused too much pain in the community to continue.

"However, it is clear that the impacts do not match those intentions. When we are faced with negative impacts that are a direct result of a decision we have made, we must take responsibility for those impacts. We cannot absolve ourselves of the need to right the wrong simply because we had good intentions.”

The First Peoples Group, an indigenous advisory firm out of Ottawa, were brought in to hold public consultations and draft a report with recommendations. They looked at the educational value of the prime ministers path project, how the community has been affected, and the lack of community engagement in the process, including the Township's original decision to establish the path at Castle Kilbride.

The report suggested the immediate removal of the four existing statues on the path, saying the program lacks education value and the division it's caused the community outweighs any potential upside.

The decision also included the creation of a working group to restore community cohesion and healing after a difficult year.

The Township will also rethink the community engagement process to better include citizens in decision making going forward.

“We want to reiterate that we recognize that this has been a difficult conversation for the community, however the hard work has only just begun. We hope that courage and kindness guide your future engagements to move forward on these issues and remind you all that Wilmot has the potential to show Canada that healing and reconciliation can be achieved,” said Guy Freedman, president of First Peoples Group in a media release.


First Peoples Group made three recommendations for the Prime Ministers Path project.

"All three recommendations were approved unanimously by our council," Coun. Cheryl Gordijk told CBC K-W's The Morning Edition.

"The statues that are still on the path will be removed and put into storage, which is the first recommendation and the contract with Createscape will be cancelled."

Staff will arrange for the immediate removal and temporary storage of the four remaining statues on the Prime Ministers Path and discontinue any future expansion or investment in the path as it exists today.


The statues of Sir Robert Borden, Kim Campbell, William Lyon Mackenzie King and Lester Pearson were removed as of July 7 morning, the Wilmot township said in a news release.

As well, another statue for the "Unfortunate Four" — Sir John Abbott, Sir Mackenzie Bowell, Sir John Thompson, and Sir Charles Tupper — has remained in storage and was never installed.


The severed head of the Queen Victoria statue was thrown in the Assiniboine River

The severed head of the Queen Victoria statue was thrown in the Assiniboine River

Examining Queen Victoria's legacy

After a statue of Queen Victoria was pulled down on the Manitoba legislative grounds on Canada Day, two professors in the province say they want to set the record straight about the life and legacy of the British monarch.

Victoria reigned over the United Kingdom from 1837 until her death in 1901, a period marked by the unparalleled expansion of the British Empire, including continued expansion across what's now called Canada.

"Queen Victoria presided during some of the most brutal and expansive years of colonial history — when land was stolen the most, when things like the Indian Act [were] put into place," said Niigaan Sinclair, a Native studies professor at the University of Manitoba.

Adele Perry, the director of the Centre for Human Rights Research and a professor in the department of history at the U of M, says Queen Victoria and the British Empire had an "absolutely crucial role" in Canada's negotiation of treaties, residential schools and other systems that dispossessed Indigenous people.

Although she never visited Canada, Victoria reigned during the signing of the five numbered treaties that encompass the majority of Manitoba, wherein First Nations leaders entered into agreements with the Crown.

The treaties are constitutionally recognized agreements that allowed the Canadian government to actively pursue agriculture, settlement, transportation links and resource development in exchange for payment or other promises, the Treaty Commission of Manitoba says.

Many First Nations considered the treaties sacred, living pacts that allowed the land and its bounties to be shared with the newcomers, and allowed for the creation of a shared future.


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.