Why South Asians may seem apathetic to the Canadian residential school issue

Sabrina Almeida

Discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves on or near former residential schools have shaken the country to the core. Yet many South Asians may seem uncaring about the issue that has made headlines all over the world and even led to calls for Canada Day festivities to be cancelled this year.  

But there’s a reason for this seeming lack of response to a matter that has the potential to polarize the country along cultural, social and religious lines. And it’s not apathy, but ignorance!

It is my observation that many South Asians (and immigrants in general) may not know enough about the subject to express an opinion or take a stand on it. Yes, it’s true that several first generation immigrants are ignorant about the residential school system in Canada and what allegedly went on in these institutions. Perhaps they also haven’t met any Indigenous people and don’t relate to them. So understanding or empathizing with their hardships is a bit of a stretch for them.

I must admit that there was a time when I too didn’t fully comprehend what the Indian residential schools were or the impact they had on Indigenous lives and culture. But some episodes of ‘Anne with an E’ (which is based on the 1908 classic novel ‘Anne of Green Gables’ by Lucy Maud Montgomery) were a chilling eye-opener.

Many of us South Asians equate residential schools with ‘boarding schools’. This may not be a fair comparison but it’s the closest thing we know of.  Yes, there were beatings and cruel physical punishments both in our day and boarding schools… but it made us better, didn’t it? At least that’s how we’ve come to rationalize our experience.

No doubt, our own colonial history has exposed us to the horrors of White supremacy and the brutal acculturation and indoctrination process. But because we were so grateful for the educational institutions set up by the colonizers, we chose to look past it. We reasoned that since good came out of the bad, we must be thankful and that means sucking it up without complaining. So we pushed the pain and humiliation of the verbal and physical abuse to the back of our minds. And believe it was not a big deal, if we survived others will too!  

But the backlash a Catholic priest in Mississauga recently received for his misspoken words on the issue during a sermon may have helped to jolt many out of oblivion. As his resignation and vandalization of the church he served shook the community, some made the effort to educate themselves about the burning issue.  

The logical ones apologized for any uninformed opinions they previously shared on social media. They also expressed regret, sorrow and solidarity with the Indigenous people.

But there are others who still see it as an attack against the Church. (We have our prime minister and irresponsible media to thank for shoveling all the blame in that direction.) And there may be some who are using this to push their own agenda. 

I am curious about why a clip of the priest’s controversial statement was shared on Reddit. Perhaps the individual/s had a religious axe to grind?  There are a variety of ways to deal with the matter which don’t involve inciting public furor.  This leads me to think the intentions could have been self-serving and certainly not with any form of reconciliation in mind.

The religious angle may also result in some non-Christian South Asians and immigrants being far removed from the issue and therefore disinterested in it. Which is why including the history of the Indigenous people in the study for the Canadian citizenship exam, and acknowledging their rights in the citizenship oath are excellent ways to reconcile and move forward together.





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