Rebraiding Frayed Sweetgrass: The Spectacle of Residential School Exhumations and Invisible Anti-Indigenous Atrocity Violence in Canada 

“Every Child Matters” mural on Commercial Street, Vancouver, Canada (Photo: Jeff Cutler)

Alyssa Couchie and Randle DeFalco join JiC for this guest post on atrocity violence against Indigenous people and communities in Canada. Alyssa is a JD Candidate at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa William S. Richardson School of Law and proud member of the Nbisiing Anishnaabeg (Nipissing First Nation). Randle is Assistant Professor of Law, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa William S. Richardson School of Law. He was born and raised on the traditional territories of the Mississauga and Haudenosaunee nations in Ontario, Canada. The authors would like to note that the term Indigenous is used throughout this post to encompass First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples that reside within the territory known as Canada. While we use this term for clarity and brevity, it is important to acknowledge the many complexities and power dynamics tied into such nomenclature. See here for more on this topic.

Sweetgrass or wiingaashk, the hair of Mother Earth, is a sacred medicine to many Indigenous peoples of North America. Sweetgrass is traditionally divided into three sections and woven into a braid creating strength. Indigenous peoples are much like the sweetgrass braid where individual, family, and community are the three strands. All three were once woven together, united and strong. Generations of violence perpetrated against Indigenous children through their forcible transfer to Indian Residential Schools (IRSs) and exposure to other oppressive systems, such as Canada’s child welfare system, has left this communal braid frayed and in danger of coming apart. While Canada’s setter-colonial government and peoples have begun to recognize this violence, in this post we share our concerns that this recognition continues to be too limited and too narrow in scope to foster the sustained, large-scale regenerative steps necessary to repair Indigenous communities.

The Horror of Mass Grave Exhumations

On 1 June 2021, the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc community confirmed that they had located the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops IRS in British Columbia by using ground penetrating radar. Many other Indigenous communities throughout Canada have since made similar announcements. Others are in the process of locating and exhuming numerous mass graves on or very close to former IRS sites across the country.

These exhumations have forced a greater acknowledgement of the harms committed against Indigenous communities perpetrated by the Canadian government and the various religious organizations, such as the Catholic Church, that ran the day-to-day operations of IRSs. The horrific nature of these mapping and exhumation efforts almost immediately led to discussions oriented around the idea that Canada faced (yet another) “reckoning” for its “long-hidden brutal history” in relation to the treatment of Indigenous peoples. To some extent, this forecasting of a new reckoning has proven true. A few days after the announcement of finding remains at the Kamloops IRS, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly accepted the 2019 finding of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls(National Inquiry) that “what happened amounts to genocide.” Then, in early 2022 the Canadian government announced that a forty billion dollar settlement had been reached–the largest in Canadian history–with various Indigenous organizations. The settlement stemmed from numerous anti-Indigenous abuses, including the discriminatory treatment of Indigenous children residing on reserve by government-affiliated child welfare programs for decades.

The Limitations of Horrific Spectacles in the Recognition of Atrocity Violence

The horrific aesthetic spectacle of these recent mappings and exhumations have both forced greater acknowledgement of atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples in Canada, and continued to limit the scope of such recognition to focus myopically on the IRS system. In some respects, the recent settlement and other forms of official acknowledgment of the harms suffered by Indigenous communities, such as Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the National Inquiry, represent a step forward in recognizing and addressing the harms caused to Indigenous peoples through the settler-colonial process. This recognition, however, remains focused on a narrow, highly visible subset of harms and forms of violence, especially those committed at residential schools. Other, less obvious forms of settler-colonial atrocity violence remain largely overlooked, even when intimately connected to the IRS experience. As discussed below, we believe the harms occasioned against Indigenous peoples through Canada’s child welfare system represents one such unspectacular and overlooked form of atrocity that in actuality, is inextricably intertwined with the worst abuses of the IRS system.

This selective recognition of atrocity violence is mediated by power politics and, as Randle argues in his recent book, Invisible Atrocities, aesthetic biases in favor of spectacularly horrific forms of violence. These dynamics may obscure critically important components of massive, multigenerational atrocity processes failing to conform to this dominant aesthetic model of horrific spectacle. Through this process, our collective notion of what “counts” as atrocity violence may be unduly narrowed from the outset.

The large-scale mapping and exhumation of the bodies of Indigenous children fit neatly within the dominant aesthetic model of atrocities as horrific spectacles of violence. We can intuit that what happened to these children is an atrocity without context or a deeper understanding of the dynamics that converged to result in their killing and abandonment in unmarked graves. In the words of former Canadian Supreme Court Justice Gérard La Forest, in the seminal R. v. Fintacase, images of atrocity now routinely “assault our eyes” when we watch television or read the news.

The power of such horrific spectacles cannot be understated. As Susan Sontag claims in Regarding the Pain of Others, we are drawn to the drama and spectacle of images of atrocity, and this may be at least partially a result of their “voyeuristic lure.” Images and graphic descriptions, such as those emanating from the Kamloops mapping and exhumation project, demand our attention by eliciting a visceral emotional response. The ability to capture attention this way is critically important given our contemporary attention economy, and especially in light of phenomena such as compassion fatigueand what Paul Slovic refers to as the “psychic numbing” effect. According to Slovic, we struggle to relate to “statistics of mass murder or genocide, no matter how large the numbers” in comparison to simpler, more personal stories or representations of individualized victims. Thus, we may overlook less obvious forms of violence, even when massive in favor of focusing on more easily understood harms caused by familiar forms of violence and affecting easily identifiable individual victims.

What’s Left Behind? Slower, Less Spectacular Mass Violence

In light of these twin realities–that it is easier to garner both recognition of, and redress for spectacular forms of atrocity violence–it is tempting to make affirmative efforts to highlight the more spectacularly horrific components of atrocities such as those committed against Indigenous peoples in Canada. Conforming to, or even embracing the dominant atrocity aesthetic of horrific spectacle, is not however, without costs.

Victims of atrocities, especially those of the scale and sustained nature experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada, should not have to dramatize and spectacularize their victimhood and experiences to have them recognized. Again, the recent exhumations are instructive in this regard. Valuable as they are, what the mapping efforts have provided has been primarily details and specificity in relation to facts and information that have already been readily available to anyone interested. The fact that many, many children died at residential schools due to varying combinations of active abuse and passive neglect has been relatively well-established for some time. For instance, that deaths at residential schools were systematically underreported and even for the deaths that were reported, causes were often vague or simply not given in official records. Moreover, the fact that Indigenous children suffered and sometimes were killed at residential schools is well-known among survivor populations and within affected communities. Canada has not been lacking for available survivors and witnesses. Thus, mapping efforts have operated less to provide new information and arguably more so to drive the horror of the abuses that occurred within the IRS system home to settler communities in a more dramatic, visceral manner than previously available sources of information. Victims should not have to repackage and market their own suffering to prove themselves worthy of caring and redress.

More broadly however, we are concerned about the ways in which narrow conceptualizations of atrocity, grounded in an underlying assumption that all forms of atrocity violence will demand our attention by “assaulting” our eyes, may strip away context by continuing to obscure unspectacular forms of atrocity violence. If some forms of atrocity are easy to see and recognize, and others are less visible, requiring a contextualized understanding in order to become recognizable as forms of atrocity, we risk overlooking the latter altogether. By falling back on a “know it when you see it” approach to identifying potential forms of atrocity violence, we risk a perpetuation of erasure amidst selective recognition. This compounds the effects of the ignored violence by denying it’s very existence in the first place.

Some may contend that a limited degree of recognition and redress is better than none. Indeed, this is often the refrain in response to frustrations expressed at the extremely limited nature of Canada’s recognition of and actions in response to its long history of anti-Indigenous atrocities. The risk with such a compromise position is that it not only misses components of a given experience of atrocity, but also contributes to proposed remedies that fail to recognize the extent and interconnectedness of relevant harms. This is a recipe for insufficiency and ultimate failure.

Interconnected Mass Violence: Residential Schools and Child Welfare Systems

One alternative to imagining atrocities as eruptions of spectacular violence is a process-based understanding of atrocity violence. This approach, which views atrocities as complex processes of mass harm causation that may unfold slowly over time, helps render less spectacular harms, especially those brought about attritively, visible.

A process-based understanding of atrocity violence helps us to see how the less spectacular harms and effects of the IRS system have been both reproduced and exacerbated by Canada’s discriminatory child welfare system, beginning with the “Sixties Scoop” and continuing into present day with the “Millennium Scoop.” These less spectacular harms include, but are not limited to a devaluing of Indigenous knowledge, loss of culture, loss of identity and sense of self, and loss of parenting skills and the Indigenous family unit, all resulting in the perpetuation of intergenerational trauma and a multitude of other harms. It was the same racist assimilationist thinking that underpinned the IRS system that also underpinned the child welfare system’s application to Indigenous children and communities until at least the end of the “Sixties Scoop” era in the mid 1980s. The “Millennium Scoop” era, which remains ongoing, continues to perpetuate the harms and devastating impacts of both the IRS system and the “Sixties Scoop,” even though the Canadian government now explicitly disavows the racist assimilationist rationales embraced in previous eras. 

Beyond simple recognition, rendering these interconnected forms of abuse visible as components of Indigenous experiences of atrocity is critical in terms of reframing what forms redress can and should take. If we view atrocities as complex long-term processes, so too should we view efforts at redress and reconciliation as complex long-term processes. It is reasonable to surmise that a braid that has been systematically frayed over generations may take sustained efforts by many hands to repair over time. 

Only limited and sporadic efforts however, have been undertaken to reform Indigenous child welfare laws and policies over the past forty years. Recent efforts have largely focused on responding to a 2016 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) ruling finding that the Canadian government had discriminated against Indigenous children and families residing on reserve by failing to provide equitable funding and appropriate culturally-based child welfare services. Framing Indigenous child welfare practices as discriminatory or problematic is not new. However, such limited acknowledgment has failed to meaningfully reduce the numbers of Indigenous children that are forcibly removed from their homes and communities.

Sustained, Multifaceted Remedies for Sustained, Multifaceted Atrocity Processes

Process-based reforms to Indigenous child welfare practices should be reframed and take into account the fact that we have arrived at this crisis due to centuries of interconnected sets of atrocity processes. We must focus on the discriminatory processes, and the mutually reinforcing assimilationist policies that devalued Indigenous knowledge and child rearing practices to enable healing and a metaphorical re-braiding of the sweetgrass braid. So long as Canada’s settler-colonial government and residents continue to refuse to acknowledge that issues such as current child welfare challenges facing Indigenous communities are interwoven with longstanding anti-Indigenous atrocity processes, including those occurring at residential schools, there can be no understanding of what is at stake for affected communities and no development of appropriate remedies. So long as those affected by atrocity violence in Canada and elsewhere are required to spectacularize their own suffering, the full array of harms will remain obscured and efforts at redress will remain overly narrow.


About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
This entry was posted in Canada, Human Rights, Indigenous Peoples, International Criminal Justice, Residential Schools, Transitional Justice and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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