Two months ago I arrived in Canada as a skilled immigrant with solid experience in human rights promotion and protection back in the European region and unequivocal desire to discover the Canadian human rights reality. For human rights and social policy professionals like me, Canada embodies a role model with strong government institutions and empowered civil society, which are sufficiently funded and effectively address a variety of human rights issues. Yet, shortly after my arrival, a different from my initial expectations reality unfolded: despite its global reputation of a country with impressive GDP and human rights records Canada appears to face deep-rooted human rights challenges, particularly relating to Indigenous people.

My eye-opener in the new perception of Canadian human rights situation was “Indian Horse” – a film adaptation of the novel by Ojibway writer Richard Wagamese, which portrays a story of a Canadian First Nations boy, named Saul, who survived in a residential school in the 1960s and 1970s. By depicting an Indigenous boy’s disheartening life journey the movie guides us through the dark pages of the Canadian policy of “cultural genocide”[1], where thousands of Indigenous children were separated from their families and placed in residential schools with an aim to assimilate them with white Canadian culture. To quote Saul: “They called it a school, but it was never that. There were no tests or examinations. The only test was our ability to survive.”

The movie was intense. It was also emotionally demanding and devastating. On top of that, I would catch myself inadvertently counting the types of human rights violations (i.e. child abduction, physical, mental violence, sexual abuse, forced assimilation, forced conversion into other religion, racial discrimination, hate crimes, etc.) portrayed in almost every other episode. They were too many. And sadly, they were not fiction, but a brutal history the Indigenous population across Canada is still struggling with. When the film ended I was speechless in the beginning. It was too much to take in. Then questions inevitably emerged. Questions like: “What was the aftermath?”, “How did residential schools affect the lives of their survivors and lives of their generations?”, “How did Canada address the legacy of residential schools and start the process of reconciliation?”. Then I started looking into answers.

In 2008 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was established aiming to document the history and impacts of the residential schools. Over 6000 witnesses provided statements and the TRC final report exceeds 4000 pages. The findings of the report suggest that there are grounds to believe that the legacy of the residential schools and the historical experience of abuse with the Canadian government largely contributed to the Indigenous peoples becoming one of the most disadvantaged and victimized groups in Canada. United Nations Human Rights committees, in turn, emphasized the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the criminal justice system and foster care, their high dropout rate from the school system, continued high rate of suicidal deaths among youth belonging to the Indigenous community[2], racist hate crimes against Indigenous people[3], etc. Human Rights Watch pointed out a variety of challenges faced by Indigenous populations, such as poverty, housing, water, sanitation, healthcare, and education problems in Indigenous communities, particularly those in remote and rural areas.

What specifically caught my attention is the systemic violence against Indigenous women and girls, particularly the cases of murdered and missing Indigenous women (MMIW). The statistics are dreadful: according to the report of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) 1081 women have been murdered or gone missing in Canada since 1980. Is this issue linked to residential schools? The root causes of this violence seem complex, stemming from historical discrimination, racism against Indigenous peoples and the residential school system. TRC argues that despite the lack of sufficient research the available information indeed indicates “a devastating link between the large numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and the many harmful background factors in their lives”.[4] For now, it appears that the physical, including sexual and psychological abuse suffered by Indigenous girls in residential schools, triggered stigma and created deep trauma, which trapped them as a victimized community in the cycle of violence, experienced up until today. To further examine and unveil systemic, including historical causes behind violence against Indigenous women and girls the Canadian Government launched an independent National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The final findings of the inquiry are to be published in late spring, 2019.

So what comes next? I believe next is learning and understanding the Truth. The Truth as a path to reconciliation and overcoming intergenerational trauma. The Truth as a way to ensure that Indigenous women and girls are never murdered and never go missing again. As a newcomer I want and have to be aware of the dramatic history, which goes beyond the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and other international human rights instruments, affecting the Indigenous population. It’s the least I could do. And in this pursuit of learning and understanding the Truth I call everyone to join the UNA-Canada Calgary Branch on Human Rights Day, December 10th, 2018 and watch “Indian Horse”, preceded by insightful discussions with the invited panelists. The detailed information about the event can be found here.


[1] Honoring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, p. 1

[2] Concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2012

[3] Concluding observations of the Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination, 2017

[4] Honoring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, p. 180

Anush Margaryan About Anush Margaryan
Anush Margaryan is a human rights/social policy professional from Armenia, with an extensive experience within public and non-profit sectors in shaping public policies, affecting human rights. Her specific areas of expertise include anti-discrimination, freedom of religion or belief, rights of children, minorities, refugees, asylum seekers, persons with disabilities, combating hate crimes. Anush holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Law and Master’s degree in Human Rights and Democratization. She is passionate about advancing human rights and developing rights-based policies through regular advocacy efforts, building partnerships and empowering communities.

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