Opinion

Chief Henry Prince had a question for treaty commissioners during the final days of Treaty 1 negotiations in Manitoba.

Chief Henry Prince had a question for treaty commissioners during the final days of Treaty 1 negotiations in Manitoba.

The chief of the St. Peters band wanted to know about the future of Indigenous children if First Nations signed a pact with the Crown.

"How are we to be treated?" asked Prince, the day before he and other chiefs signed the first treaty between First Nations and the new Dominion of Canada in 1871 at Lower Fort Garry.

"The land cannot speak for itself, we have to speak for it and want to know fully how you are going to treat our children."

It was, perhaps, a more important question than Prince could have imagined.

The federal government would pass the Indian Act five years later — the main instrument used to rip Indigenous children from their homes and place them in residential schools, sometimes never to be seen again by their families.

"The land cannot speak for itself, we have to speak for it and want to know fully how you are going to treat our children." ‐ Henry Prince, St. Peters band chief, in 1871

Adams Archibald, Manitoba’s first lieutenant governor and the Queen’s representative at Treaty 1 talks, assured Prince government would treat First Nations on equal footing with "whites."

In addition to setting aside reserve lands, providing them with annuities and farm implements, Ottawa would give First Nations a school and a schoolmaster for each reserve.

Nobody said anything about a residential school system, especially ones designed to beat Indigenous culture, language and identity out of First Nations children; nor about subjecting them to physical and sexual abuse and forcing them to live in unsafe, unsanitary conditions away from their homes.

There was no mention during treaty talks at the "Stone Fort" (just north of Winnipeg) that if an Indigenous child died while attending a residential school, they would be buried unceremoniously nearby.

Sadly, that is how Canadian history unfolded.

It was not just a "dark chapter" of Canada’s past, as it’s often described. In all its ugliness, inhumanity and naked racism, it is the story of our country, which has endured into modern-day Canada.

The discovery last week of an unmarked grave near a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., where 215 Indigenous children were buried, has struck a chord with Canadians.

It is not the first known burial site used by residential schools. At least 4,117 Indigenous children (likely far more) are known to have died while attending the institutions, which were run more like jails than schools.

Many — if not most — were buried in such graves, often without the knowledge of their families, the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada found.

Among the great tragedies of this story, children's names were not even recorded in almost two–thirds of the deaths.

As awareness grows around the atrocities facing Indigenous people, news of the unmarked grave is piercing the consciousness of Canadians in a way not seen before.

It's serving as a wake-up call, perhaps a more poignant one than in years past, about the wretched impacts of colonial rule. There is a true feeling of national mourning.

TRC research found residential school children died at between two to five times the rate of children in the general population, from 1921 and 1950 (there was little comparative data prior to that).

They died mostly of tuberculosis and other diseases. There were also suicides, accidental deaths and other causes not documented. Among the great tragedies of this story, children's names were not even recorded in almost two-thirds of the deaths.

The main reason residential schools buried deceased students in nearby graves was to save money, records show. It was cheaper than to transport the bodies to home communities.

"It is not the practice of the department to send bodies of Indians by rail excepting under very exceptional circumstances," the Department of Indian Affairs wrote in a 1938 letter to a grieving Indigenous mother, who requested the body of her son.

This was not the future promised to Indigenous leaders 150 years ago at the Stone Fort.

This is not the future Henry Prince envisioned when he asked how Indigenous children would be treated under the new Dominion of Canada.

But it's the Canada we have all inherited.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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