A commentary by a past-president of the Victoria Holocaust Remembrance and Education Society and a member of the Victoria Shoah Project.
Above my desk hangs a black-and-white photo of my paternal grandmother’s family in Amsterdam: of the 17 people in the photo, only one survived the Nazi genocide. The three children in the picture were reduced to ashes.
My mother and two of her cousins were hidden: one of them, 10 years old at the time, was caught by police in northern Holland and sent to a concentration camp. The other was shot running away from police and also ended up in a camp.
Unmarked graves. Children captured. Families hiding. The Kamloops Indian Residential School.
I can’t help but seeing the commonalities and parallels.
Civil officials acting with the authority of the state, ripping children from their parents, transporting them to distant destinations where they experienced immense losses.
Children abandoned to sadists with no one to save them, no one to comfort them. Families trying to hide their children, protect their children, moving around underground, scared, aware of the price their children would pay were they to be discovered.
Medical experiments carried out on children by people who had taken the Hippocratic oath to do no harm. Laws authorizing horrific treatment of children created by men with doctoral degrees and purportedly committed to ideals of justice. Architects and engineers designing facilities for incarceration and destruction. Religious leaders and clergy allowing or at least failing to stop a range of cruelties.
The blatant racism, the averted eyes turned away from the suffering of others, the blaming of the victims, the deafening silence.
The treatment of First Nations in Canada; the treatment of Jews in Nazi Europe. Both groups were dispossessed; concentrated into reserves/ghettos; children removed from parents and traumatized, ill-treated, killed.
There were no gas chambers in Canada, no public floggings, intentional starvation or hangings. But children were ripped away from their families and communities and incarcerated for virtually their entire childhood, against their will and the will of their parents. That happened in Canada.
As in the camps, where children were used for medical experiments, medical experiments were done on First Nations children in the Canadian residential school system. As in the camps, sadists brutalized First Nations children. As in the camps, it seems little mercy was shown.
And like for many survivors of the camps, the trauma of the experience of First Nations children in the Canadian residential school system lives on and on, through generations to the present.
After the camps were liberated, some criminals paid for their crimes: not all, but some. After the camps were liberated, the West German government recognized the responsibility of all Germans, whether they were complicit or not, in what befell the Jews, the Roma, the homosexuals and lesbians, the Poles, the Russians and more, and tried to make amends.
The government ensured that their children learned about the deeds of their countrymen and women, not to induce guilt or shame, but to show that acts of hatred must be countered and condemned, to make clear that while the children of today are not complicit in the actions now receding into the past, they are responsible for remembering and acting.
It is hard and painful for me to say that the discovery of the graves of the children in Kamloops may be Canada’s Holocaust moment.
The children in those graves say to us that even though we may not be individually complicit, we are collectively responsible. It was our government that created this system that did so much damage; it was our civil authorities that maintained that system; it was our religious leaders who seemingly closed their eyes to what was being done in their name.
We can learn from the German response to the Holocaust. They undertook a serious effort, only partly successful perhaps, to reconcile with the Jewish people.
They paid reparations to individuals and the nascent State of Israel. Educational curricula were created and then mandated to be taught. Museums were constructed which told the story, in unflinching detail, of the Nazi genocide. More could have been done, but actions, important actions, were undertaken.
The Holocaust was a moral catastrophe for Germany. Five years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report, the graves of the children in Kamloops are revealing to Canadians the moral catastrophe the residential schools are for Canada.
And with that revelation, it is time Canada, Canadians and our various institutions took real action, asking for forgiveness from the victim and their families, and coming to terms with Canada’s moral catastrophe.