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Residential Facilities | Chief Hugh Akagi

Chief Hugh AkagiBy: Chief Hugh Akagi

I want to add a different perspective to the public discussion about deaths in residential facilities. I don’t call these schools, although some, or even many may have provided a modicum of education. But too many seemed more like work camps with poor facilities and little food.

My focus was sparked by the finding of 215 bodies of children as young as three years of age on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential facility. There are other horrific findings and numbers. When I think of the number 215 or any other number, I don’t think of bodies. I think of lost voices. If you listen, you can hear the children. You can’t hear a number.

At least one politician has called this “news.” It’s not news to Indigenous people. It’s not news to anyone who has read accounts of life in these institutions or the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Others mourn and honour these deaths in their own way. Some reflect quietly. Some say they are “shocked and saddened.” Others refer to the “unthinkable and unimaginable.” Some refer to “closure.” 

All are entitled to react in their own ways, and so am I.

I want some plain speaking, and it’s about time. I want to hear real words describing real issues. I want the real words to implicate clearly the government of Canada. I don’t want slippery words to deflect the focus from the crimes, or try to blame the victims. There is no defence against child abuse and rape, other than to try to blame the victim. I want a real conversation about truth. I want Canada to recognize its role in these atrocities. I want Canada to recognize that the damage done by these facilities was part of the efforts to extinguish a people.  

The wealth of Canada is founded on the poverty and death of Indigenous people. Official Canadian policy has been to remove Indians who were in the way of what European settlers thought was progress. How is it progress to destroy paradise and murder people in the process? How will money make up for this injustice and destruction? 

One of the purposes of the residential system was to remove Indigenous people from their land and make way for European settlement and the extraction of wealth from resources on that land. Some thoughtful scholars have even suggested that the unpaid expropriation of Indigenous land and resources constitutes an unfair subsidy and should be redressed at the World Trade Organization. More work for lawyers. 

Residential institutions destroyed several generations in one blow. The child lost parents. The parents mourned the loss with alcohol. The grandparents lost their role in the extended family. Then the graduates of the institutions passed on their pain to their children. The destruction of the family system was efficient, complete, and destroyed Indigenous society.      

We need justice, not more laws. There are plenty of laws which applied to residential facility policies—kidnapping, forcible confinement, failure to provide the necessities of life, wrongful arrest of parents trying to protect their children, failure to report the imminent harm to a child, assault, sexual assault, and murder. Had the kidnappers and assailants not been dressed in police uniforms, clerical robes, or collars, they would have been charged. They would have been hunted down by people in police uniforms and denounced from the pulpit by people in clerical robes and collars. It is a crime to remove a headstone or other marker from a grave, yet many unmarked graves show that crime was committed on many occasions as well.   

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has reported that there were at least 3,200 deaths in residential facilities. Commissioner Murray Sinclair has said that the real number is much higher. The names of 32% of the students who died were not even recorded. The gender of the dead was not recorded in 23% of the cases. Even the cause of death was not recorded in about 50% of the cases. An entire chapter of the Commission’s report is on Missing Children and Unmarked Burials. If you were a student in a residential facility, your chance of dying there was four times higher than your chance of dying if you contracted COVID-19. 

This situation is a test. As with Alcoholics Anonymous, those responsible must introduce themselves and say: “We lied, we stole, we murdered, we covered up…” We don’t need more laws—laws did not protect the children. We don’t need another Royal Commission or Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We need Justice. We don’t need more money. We need the truth.

We need proper investigations by coroners, and the use of ground penetrating technology on the sites of residential schools, as well as at day schools which were favoured in New Brunswick. We need proper burials, documentation, headstones, and the notification of families.

It is hard for Canadians to believe that these mass graves and our history are evidence of the kind of atrocities we have read about in Nazi Germany, South Africa, Rwanda, and elsewhere. But Canadians must come to terms with these facts and the genocide that’s in our history.

Genocide is a hateful and shocking word. For many Canadians, the Jewish Holocaust of World War II comes to mind. Some might think of the Armenian genocide of World War I. Plutarch reports that Caesar killed at least a million Gauls, and many may recall the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Too few think of the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada. But the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada should come to mind as a case of genocide. 

Genocide is a relatively new word. It was coined in 1944 by a Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin.1 The Holocaust was the context along with several other historical events.2 It took some time for the word to gain a legal meaning. By 1951 the term was used to denote “an independent crime under international law” requiring signatories to the Genocide Convention to “prevent and to punish.”3 Various international statutes have affirmed this meaning.4 If there’s a crime, there must be a criminal. If there’s a criminal there must be punishment. Where is the punishment?

Fellow author Leslie-Ann Fullerton has documented that forced contraception is a genocidal act. Genocide can be numerous acts “aimed at the destruction of all or part of certain groups of people.”5 The definition includes “bodily or mental harm to members of the group.”6 The International Criminal Court will prosecute acts which include: “[k]illing…serious bodily or mental harm…inflicting…conditions of life calculated to bring about…physical destruction…prevent[ing] births…[and] transferring children of a group to another group.”7 Rape can be a genocidal act.8 If an act was lawful, ordered by a political authority, or ordered by a person up the chain of command in a police or military force, these factors are irrelevant. “[A] superior’s order is not a legitimate defence to genocide.”9 


  1. United Nations Office on Genocide prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, at 1.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Amnesty International, supra note 8.
  6. Amnesty International, supra note 8.
  7. Amnesty International, supra note 8.
  8. Amnesty International, supra note 8.
  9. Amnesty International, supra note 8 at 2.

A chapter written by Chief Hugh Akagi (Peskotomuhkati Nation) for the book, Emergency! Quarantine, Evacuation, and Back Again


More from Chief Hugh Akagi in the book,
Emergency! Quarantine, Evacuation, and Back Again