Canada’s residential school system is, without a doubt, one of the most shameful chapters of the country’s history. In recent months, numerous mass and unmarked grave sites containing the bodies of hundreds of children have been discovered on the sites of the former establishments in which over 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forcibly placed from the 1870s until as recently as 1996. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Funded by the Canadian government and run by the Catholic Church, the schools were a brutal method of forced assimilation, and children who attended them were forbidden from speaking their native languages or practicing cultural traditions. They were subject to horrible abuse and neglect and — as evidenced by these graves — many never made it home.
In 2015, a report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the system a form of “cultural genocide,” but much of Canada and the world continued to turn a blind eye to the reality of what was — and continues to be — done to Indigenous peoples in this country.
Now, as more information about what Indigenous communities in Canada have been forced to endure continues to emerge with each passing day, many non-Indigenous Canadians are finally starting to acknowledge the cruelty and violence on which our country was founded. Some vowed to refrain from participating in Canada Day celebrations in early July as a result, instead using the day to self-educate and donate to Indigenous-led organizations, and several municipalities cancelled all activities associated with the holiday.
The horrific details of what was done to the communities from which this land was stolen are impossible to ignore and are sure to outrage anyone with a sense of compassion. But for Jews, a people that just barely survived our own genocide less than a century ago, the residential school specifics hit even closer to home.
It was recently revealed that children who attended these establishments — which, in my opinion, have no business even being called “schools” (did your school have a mass burial site out back?) — were used as test subjects for highly unethical science experiments between 1942 and 1952. Any Jew knows this detail is eerily reminiscent of the atrocities of the Holocaust, and that is far from the only parallel. A residential school survivor from Alberta recently told reporters how he was forced to bury the body of another child at the age of 15 — an occurrence he said was anything but rare.
It is difficult, and wholly unnecessary, to outright compare the Holocaust with Canada’s residential school system. These atrocities took place in different settings, time periods and contexts, and emphasizing the horribleness of one is by no means intended to discount the suffering incurred by the other. But the similarities between some of the methods used to oppress, dehumanize and brutalize Indigenous peoples in Canada and Jewish communities in Europe are uncanny, and one would think that drawing these obvious parallels would automatically move Canadian Jews to action.
So why is it that I have yet to see most of my Canadian Jewish community standing up and speaking out on behalf of our Indigenous brothers and sisters?
When it is antisemitism making headlines, or news about Israel-Palestine, Jewish people are the first to post on social media, to share resources, to take a stand. Of course, the strong sense of tribalism that is present in the community makes standing up for one’s own people second nature, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But when Indigenous oppression is suddenly thrust into the spotlight? Radio silence. And I am struggling to understand why.
No doubt there is a sort of resentment present in Jewish communities over the fact that we are often on our own when it comes to keeping the memories of the Holocaust alive or speaking up about modern-day antisemitism. Canadian Jews are constantly asking for more allies, and rightfully so, but it is also on us to be allies to other marginalized communities — especially when we know better than most what they’ve been through.
Is tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase that loosely translates to “repair the world,” not one of the most vital of Jewish values? For me, it is one of the parts of Judaism that resonates the most, and it is why I feel my Jewish identity aligns so well with my desire to be an advocate for society’s most vulnerable.
It can certainly be challenging to swallow our pride and take a stand on behalf of another community when it feels as though no one has done the same for us. But the alternative is simply not a valid option. Staying silent will not result in more allies for the Jews, and speaking up will not dissuade others from standing by our side when we need them most — quite the opposite.
So to my fellow Jews, I say this: I know you are hurt by the lack of support from other communities. I know you may be tired of feeling like you are standing alone. But isn’t that all the more reason to ensure other communities never feel that way? Don’t we know better than most what it’s like to face prejudice with deadly consequences while no one speaks up? Shouldn’t we, then, be leading the charge in calling for accountability, reparations, decolonization and justice for our Indigenous neighbors who, to this day, continue to be persecuted by the country we so proudly call home?
We can start by reading the Truth and Reconciliation report and the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. We can donate money to Indigenous-led organizations and have meaningful conversations with loved ones about what we as settlers can do to effect change. We can and must hold our governments accountable when they make empty promises about reconciliation while continuing to fight legal battles against residential school survivors and First Nations children. We can advocate for survivors to be compensated fairly and we can support Land Back — a movement to return a meaningful amount of land to Indigenous communities so they can begin to repair all that has been lost.
Because when we say “never again,” as we so often do, should it not apply to everyone?
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience. Call 1-866-925-4419 for support.