The horrific discovery of 215 bodies in a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., has brought renewed attention to the ongoing struggle of Indigenous peoples in Canada. In the wake of this tragedy, media coverage and political denunciation of the legacy of residential schools has intensified, prompting Canadians to reflect upon this cruel and heart-wrenching chapter in their country’s history.
But it is important to remember that the fight for Indigenous rights is far-reaching and goes well beyond the scope of residential schools. In particular, the struggle for sovereignty and human rights in Indigenous communities has proven to be a long-term and complex issue that struggles to gain recognition from the wider population.
Canadians can do a great deal to become more educated about the issue of Indigenous rights and learn how they can help. Here are five things to consider doing now as an ally.
1. Practice compassion and self-reflection as Indigenous communities mourn and remember.
The recent discovery of human remains at the former Kamloops school is a reminder of how generations of Indigenous people were denied their fundamental human rights and dignity. It also laid bare that violence and trauma are not just historical facts — they’re an ongoing struggle we need to confront.
It’s essential to recognize that Indigenous communities carry painful memories. As an ally, your role is to support and not immediately label Indigenous people’s reactions — which may range from anger to grief — as something you can categorize. Instead, listen to and respect Indigenous communities as they work through their grief about residential schools and other colonial legacies.
2. Educate yourself about residential schools through the stories of survivors.
Beyond the horrors of the Kamloops discovery, the stark reminder of residential school abuses forces us all to take a serious look at how these institutions came into existence in the first place — how they were funded, maintained for decades, and continued by churches and governments long after they were widely known to be breaching human rights laws.
While there is a plethora of books and articles related to residential schools, firsthand accounts from survivors are the one of the best means for understanding Indigenous rights issues. Through listening, you can also begin to learn about some of the underlying causes of these traumas and understand how to fight for change. Interviews by survivors are highly recommended because they provide the most direct accounts of what happened. They also offer a sound historical perspective, as related and witnessed by survivors themselves.
As a starting point, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs recommends watching We Were Children. To learn more about one particular community’s experience, find out which local organization has an archive of archival films and photos of survivors.
You can also visit the stories section of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) website to read powerful firsthand accounts.
3. Read (and re-read) the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The TRC's final report is a painful but necessary read. Published in June 2015, the document reveals the horrific legacy of Canada's residential school system, which operated for almost a century, forcing tens of thousands of First Nations children away from their families and communities.
The document also runs through the lingering effects of residential schools and offers recommendations on moving forward. With a total of 94 calls to action for federal, provincial and territorial governments, organizations, schools, and individuals to engage in, it is one of the most powerful resources meant to educate Canadians and fully delve into the injustices suffered by First Nations communities.
You can read the full report here.
4. Support Indigenous artists, business owners, journalists, and community organizers.
If you want to support the healing process and self-determination of Indigenous communities and learn more about Indigenous rights, you may want to consider helping those who have already been working on these issues for a long time.
This means supporting local arts and culture organizations that create spaces dedicated to showcasing Indigenous creatives, journalists, and artists. It also means empowering Indigenous businesses who provide opportunities for economic development and tangible pathways out of poverty.
If you're able to, consider buying Indigenous-made products. While artisan crafts may be a bit more expensive than their mass-produced counterparts, your dollars will have a bigger impact on the people who sell them.
If you're in a position to be able to offer your time, skills, and knowledge, consider supporting partners of Indigenous creators and businesses. This might include volunteering with a local school, library, or community centre that provides support for Indigenous youth and community members.
5. Donate to Indigenous organizations working at the grassroots level to combat poverty, racism, and colonialism.
Finally, you can donate to Indigenous-led organizations to show support and empower those that feed, shelter, and give legal support to First Nations communities across the country.
The Orange Shirt Society, for instance, is specifically focused on helping Indigenous communities heal from the legacy of residential schools. Its work revolves around the idea that a "new orange shirt" can help people take on the emotional burden that comes from years of systemic oppression. Financial support can go a long way in helping the organization carry on its mission through resource-sharing.
You can also consider donating to the Indian Residential School Survivors Society. This organization gives survivors of the residential school system an official platform to share their stories. Not only does this help educate Canadians about the extent of oppression Indigenous communities have suffered, but it also provides financial support to those who have directly been affected.
Other initiatives to support include the Legacy of Hope Foundation, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, as well First Nations’ language revitalization, cultural, and land-based programs. For a more comprehensive overview, check out this list from IndigiNews.