In the wake of the horrific yet unsurprising discovery of the bodies of 215 children at a former Kamloops residential school last month, a national shame was exposed that Indigenous people have known about and been traumatized by for generations.
As Canadians grapple with reconciling the image of a country lauded worldwide as a multicultural haven with the brutal, ugly truth of its colonial roots, many have been seeking out resources and information that is woefully absent from the syllabus they were taught in school and the general cultural and political discourse in the country.
What is the On Canada Project?
Toronto-based On Canada Project is a grassroots organization dedicated to providing “credible, compassionate and critical” information about issues impacting Canadians to create “equitable, evidence-informed change.” It focuses on mobilizing millennials and Gen-Z through creative and informative social media content that they hope will lead to a “needed establishment shake-up and a more progressive society.”
The volunteer-based, millennial and POC-led organization first began as the ON COVID-19 Project to “address the gaping inequities around pandemic related communications,” explains founder and executive director Samanta Krishnapillai. She says they soon expanded their scope because those issues pre-date the pandemic and were only further exacerbated by it.
“We realized, in order to really tell the story and explain these inequities and why we all have to care about them, we have to scale back and talk about the pre-existing inequities that occur in our country, because you can’t talk about COVID in isolation,” she told CityNews. “We love this country, we think it’s incredible, we think we’ve been afforded so many privileges … but at the same time we’re well aware that there are deep and systemically rooted issues that have to be addressed.”
The organization primarily uses Instagram as their platform and has amassed more than 86,000 followers since they first launched in June 2020. Their posts cover various issues including anti-black racism, systemic racism in healthcare, Toronto’s encampments and the Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka, to name a few.
“[Our project] is about encouraging the everyday person to stay informed, to take up action and champion change because we think having access to information gives you power and an informed demographic is a mobilized one,” said Krishnapillai.
‘Settlers Take Action’ viral post
Two days after the news from Kamloops broke, the group posted a 10-slide informational pamphlet on their Instagram page explaining to their audience what happened, what residential schools were all about and what they could do next to educate themselves and stand in solidarity with Indigenous people.
The post, titled ‘Settlers Take Action’ went viral and Krishnapillai says it garnered one-million views on their page alone. She estimates it has reached millions more thanks to shares by prominent public figures and other Instagram accounts with massive followings.
“If there was ever something we’ve written that deserved to go viral it was definitely that post. It was so important,” she said.
Krishnapillai said the post focused on emphasizing that residential schools and reconciliation is not just a government affairs and Indigenous issue.
“This is an issue that affects anyone who lives on this land,” she said. “It’s very uncomfortable to think that I have a personal role in reconciliation. What’s easier to wrap our brains round is that the government has a role — and they do, a giant role — but so do we. We are active and equal participants in reconciliation and we have so much work to do because we weren’t taught about these things in school.”
The aim of the post was to invite people to stand in solidarity with Indigenous people and to demand justice, explains Krishnapillai.
“[Indigenous people] have been trying since the white man came to this land to have their rights and their lives valued and it hasn’t worked when they’ve done it alone,” she said. “But why should they have to do it alone? We should stand along side them” because we are all beneficiaries of colonization.
Krishnapillai said since she and many volunteers are students, they reached out to their Indigenous professors to help craft the post. Among their numerous suggestions was learning whose traditional territory you live on.
“It’s not just one giant Indigenous community. There’s so many and they all have rich and unique cultures. Understand where you live and whose land that is. Do your research, not only about the impact that colonialism has had on the people who lived on the land you live on, but also celebrate their culture, community and people.”
In addition, the post encourages everyone to read the Truth and Reconciliation report and write to their elected officials to demand action on all 94 recommendations in the report.
Listening to feedback
The post initially used “settlers” as a blanket term to refer to anyone who is not Indigenous. However community feedback alerted the group to the fact that not all non-Indigenous people can be considered settlers.
“The reality is that there are descendants of slaves that were trafficked and brought here who did not choose to settle in this country. The exact same colonizers who stole this land from Indigenous people also stole Africans from their land and trafficked and brought them here,” explains Krishnapillai, adding that they do not position themselves as experts and are constantly learning from their followers.
“It’s a two-way communication tool and we listen so much on our posts, on our stories … so that we’re able to address things that people are saying and continue that dialogue. I think that’s what makes this project unique — that social listening component.”
Funding and contributing
The project is entirely funded by Krishnapillai and runs on the steam of over 130 unpaid volunteers and 300 ambassadors.
She has taken a leave of absence from her master’s degree to focus on the On Canada Project and the important work they’re doing to help people navigate complex issues in a way that is thorough, yet easy to absorb.
“[We always say] you heard it here second. You watch the news … but something in what was written in the news maybe made it difficult for you to engage with the content, because perhaps there’s a term that doesn’t really make sense or a concept doesn’t make sense,” she explains. “We’re just trying to talk to people, we’re trying to be that informed friend.”
She says they know their work is being used as a learning tools by many, including teachers in schools, but they have been unable to secure funding from government grants and therefore must rely on contributions from their readers.
Apart from funds, people can contribute to the project by volunteering, sharing expertise, collaborating with the team and liking and sharing their posts on Instagram.
For more on the On Canada Project, click here.