In 1975, two boys playing in County Galway, Ireland, came across a hole filled with dozens of children’s skeletons. Decades later, the site was revealed to be a mass grave containing 800 children from the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home. In 2010, 222 infant bodies from another home were discovered in a mass grave in Dublin. In 2015, a commission investigation was opened. This year, the investigation concluded that about 9,000 children died in Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland between 1922 and 1998.
Mother and Baby Homes were institutions in which approximately 80,000 unwed mothers gave birth to their children and were separated from them. Many children were then trafficked for adoption or were subject to medical experimentation. These homes were established and overseen by Catholic and protestant orders, and were closely related to the infamous Magdalene Laundries which housed and worked an estimated 30,000 women, largely on the basis of perceived sexual activity or desire. Like Mother and Baby Homes, laundries buried women in mass unmarked graves.
Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse was rampant in these institutions. This was not incidental. Abuse was the basis of their existence. Women lived in forced silence and followed rigid religious codes of behavior. This was intended to establish habits of life that would force penance on “fallen women.” While living at the institutions, women served as cheap labour for the state, the church, and private corporations. Thousands died; an untold number of lives were destroyed.
The discovery of unmarked graves in Ireland was met with a myriad of responses. Some were shocked, many were unsurprised, and the state went on the defensive. Because laundries and homes were run by Christian orders, overseen by nuns and priests, the state shirked responsibility for decades. The institutions were characterized as religious and, therefore, private. In reality, the institutions carried out their duties in collaboration with, and on behalf of, the Irish state.
Since the uncovering of mass graves on sites of residential schools, much discussion has focused upon the church. Trudeau has demanded a papal apology. While the church certainly holds significant blame, the brunt of the blame lies with the Canadian state. The main beneficiary of the residential school system is the state and the settler-colonial system that it upholds. Apologies and promises of funding are insufficient. Canada can, and must, take real responsibility. Flags should not be flying at half-mast. They should be taken down.
There are stark differences between the homes in Ireland and residential schools in Canada. In Canada, residential schools were specifically intended to eradicate Indigenous culture and ways of life. The schools served as part of Canada’s genocidal campaign against Indigenous people. However, as in Ireland, these institutions provided fully immersive environments which could undertake state action in an intensely concentrated manner. They were used to outsource dirty work.
Religion was used to help carry out the colonial project in Canada, as in countless other cases, including in Ireland. Like this continent, Ireland was colonized by the English. It officially secured independence in 1922. This was followed by years of civil war and, eventually, the Troubles. Independence from settler-colonial rule came at the cost of significant bloodshed and an immense loss of culture. Today, Irish society exists on a British model. Though this means the solidification of colonial structures, it also allows Irish people a place in the pan-European sphere of accumulation.
In 1985, representatives from the American Indian Movement travelled to Ireland to commemorate the deaths of Irish hunger strikers in an expression of solidarity with Ireland’s struggle against British colonialism. Today, 4.6 million Canadians claim Irish heritage. Anyone who does so has an obligation to proclaim solidarity with Indigenous peoples, recognize the hypocrisy of their settler-colonial existence, and demand that the Canadian state make every effort to repatriate Indigenous land and life, even if this means the dissolution of state power.
While the commission established to investigate the practices of Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland was an acceptance of state responsibility, it was also too limited to uncover and account for all of the abuses and deaths perpetuated against women and children by the state. In many ways, it failed. Here, there must be a more substantial investigation into the residential school system.
Trudeau has stated that “While we cannot bring back those who were lost, we can – and we will – tell the truth of these injustices, and we will forever honour their memory.” If he is sincere, Canada needs to relinquish authority. The Canadian government cannot be trusted to investigate its own crimes and prescribe a solution. Canada’s responsibility is to support a full external investigation and learn how to decolonize, legitimately.
Luke Beirne is a freelance writer who lives in Saint John.