Photo courtesy of Reuters.

Genocide and Reconciliation: Behind Canada’s “Nice” Reputation

All around the globe, Canada is stereotyped as being a “nice country” — unproblematic and full of polite people. Much of this stereotype is farce and it’s high time Canada acknowledged its dark past of genocide and colonization.

Sep 26, 2021

Trigger Warning: This piece includes descriptions of genocide, Indian Residential Schools, bodily harm and death.
On a frigid October morning of 1966, the corpse of a 12-year-old boy was found on the trans-Canada railway tracks. The bruises on his thin body allowed those who found him to imagine how he stumbled and fell before eventually dying of hunger, cold and exhaustion. The boy’s name was Chanie Wenjack. He was found dead a week after his escape from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School.
The residential school system was one of the most potent tools in Canada’s colonial arsenal. Over the course of 160 years, an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were stolen from their families and locked away in re-education camps disguised as Christian schools. The mission was to “kill the Indian, save the child.” Emotional, physical and sexual violence were commonplace within these schools, with some estimating a horrifying 60% mortality rate.
Often, when I tell people on campus about this dark chapter in Canada’s history, I watch their eyes widen in shock. Many have a hard time imagining Canadians being capable of such systemic violence. Around the world, Canada enjoys a squeaky-clean reputation, one I argue that we don’t deserve. We boast of our polite national identity and avoid difficult conversations about our violent and deeply racist roots. It’s high time Canada let the world in on our imperfect reality.
When little Chanie first arrived at Cecilia Jeffrey School, 600 km away from his home, his hair was shaved and his name was changed to “Charlie.” He was forced to adopt a new, more “civilized,” English-speaking, Christian way of life. The system was designed to break ancient lineages of history, tradition and language, leaving communities with their children taken away and their elders traumatized. It’s hard to know how many children died the way Chanie did, but his death sparked a movement to gradually close schools like the one he was forced to attend. And though this calling was undoubtedly significant in Canadian history, progress has been slow. The last residential school in Canada only closed in 1996, meaning thousands of Indigenous survivors as well as their abusers are still alive today.
What happened in those schools is so recent, it can hardly be called history. Just this summer, Canada ground to a halt when the remains of 215 children were found buried in the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. It was later confirmed that the youngest child buried at that site was only three years old. The discovery led to the exhumation of similar gravesites at residential schools across the country, sparking a very painful national conversation.
Next week, on Sept. 30, Canada will recognize its first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. Canadians will wear orange to honor those who survived the residential school system and those who did not. Ceremonies, protests and other events will be organized across the nation.
Though this will certainly be a week of mourning, Indigenous Canadians are an incredibly resilient group of people who’ve been guided by visionary leadership. Some of my own personal heroes include singer Buffy Saint-Marie, painter and drag artist Kent Monkman, prolific novelist Thomas King and TikToker James Jones. This week, I invite you to explore the rich cultural world that Indigenous Canadian creatives have built.
Thursday will be a historic day for my country. I felt inspired to write about it here, on the other side of the world, because I believe it’s an important day for the rest of the world to acknowledge as well — especially for those of us at a place like NYU Abu Dhabi.
We’re a part of an institution that prides itself on its postcolonial education. No matter the discipline, classroom conversations regularly reckon with the world’s colonial history. Canada’s history should be a part of that conversation too. Canadians live a postcolonial experience that is unique in many ways. We live in a nation where the colonizers never left and we must find ways to coexist. I invite professors to use Canada as a case study when it’s relevant. There is much to learn from where Canada has been and where it is going.
Cassandra Mitchell is a contributing writer. Email her at
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