In 2021, Canada reckoned with its indigenous past and its climate future

Discovery of more than 200 unmarked graves at a residential school shocked the nation while devastating fires and floods forced Canadians to see dangers of climate change

Demonstrators gather for the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Ottawa, Ontario. Bloomberg
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This year, in addition to the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout, Canada confronted myriad challenges, including grappling with its historic mistreatment of indigenous people and battling the devastating effects of climate change.

In May, the grim discovery of more than 200 unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in the Canadian province of British Columbia shocked the world and forced Canada to reckon with its treatment of indigenous communities.

For more than a century, the Canadian government, often with the help of the Catholic Church, operated a large network of schools designed to forcibly assimilate the country's indigenous peoples.

Indigenous children, some as young as three, were taken from their homes without their parents’ permission and left at boarding schools across the country, where they were not allowed to use their native languages, were severely punished for disobedience and often experienced sexual abuse.

The last school was only closed in the mid-1990s.

In August, The National travelled to British Columbia to speak with survivors of the residential school system.

Sam George attended the St Paul Indian Residential School in North Vancouver and described years of abuse at the hands of the nuns there.

“There was a lot of verbal abuse, 'stupid, ugly, savage, dumb Indian', whatever they could think of, all while they were pulling our hair or punching us,” he told The National.

Mr George said one of the nuns sexually assaulted him repeatedly over a two-year period.

“Everything she did to me, or made me do to her, they told us, 'If you do this or do that, you're condemned to hell before you're married', so I was condemned to hell,” he said.

The discovery at the Kamloops Indian Residential School led to similar discoveries across the country.

“When we think of the confirmation of unmarked graves of the Kamloops Indian Residential School children, these are children who were forcefully removed from their families and communities and then never returned home,” said Rosanne Casimir, chief of Tk'emlups te Secwepemc.

“The impacts are deep and heavy for Tk’emlups te Secwepemc but the impacts go far beyond our community, as the Kamloops Indian Residential School was the largest school of the federally mandated system, opening its doors in 1890.”

Following the discovery, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau established a National Day of Truth and Reconciliation to be held every September 30. It is meant to be an opportunity for non-indigenous Canadians to learn about the country’s past and to think about how indigenous people are still treated today.

Chief Casimir said that while she is honoured by the support she has received since May, a lot of work still needs to be done.

“I have also bore witness to some distressing denialism and racism. To those who tell us to 'get over it', it is clear that they do not understand that survivors, intergenerational survivors and indigenous communities continue to feel the repercussions of the Indian residential schools today.”

Fire and floods

As the country struggled with its ugly past, it also wrestled with its climate future.

At the end of June, soaring temperatures the likes of which Canada had never seen before led to a series of devastating wildfires in British Columbia.

The tiny town of Lytton, for example was wiped off the map in the fires.

While wildfires are a yearly occurrence in Canada, the 2021 season was especially bad.

A report commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada in 2019 found the country is warming at twice the global average, leading to intense wildfire seasons and increased flooding.

In November, western Canada registered record rainfall that wiped out motorways and turned fields into lakes, leaving thousands without power and hundreds homeless.

Mr Trudeau formed a federal committee to help the western provinces manage their recovery from the floods, but he expressed hopes the committee will put in place measures that prepare the province for future extreme weather events caused by climate change.

Heading into the new year, Canada will face the choice of making amends for the sordid past and working together to build a safer climate future, or continuing to sweep its problems under the rug.

Updated: December 21st 2021, 4:13 PM