AFTER decades of dragging its feet, Canada is about to take a close look at what one aboriginal leader calls “the single most disgraceful, harmful and racist act in our history”.
From the 1870s to the 1970s, some 150,000 native Indian children were forcibly removed from their parents and sent to distant residential schools. Many say they were abused mentally, physically and sexually.
Conditions in the schools – run by various churches on behalf of the government – were sometimes dire. Contemporary accounts suggest up to half the children in some institutions died of tuberculosis.
One prominent academic calls what happened a genocide, yet for many years, few Canadians knew what had happened. Now, for the first time, the mainstream population is to learn a lot more about what was done in its name.
As part of a C$1.9 billion (£975 million) settlement between Ottawa and the 90,000 school survivors that ended years of law suits, a truth and reconciliation commission is to start work next week. It will travel across Canada to hold hearings on the abuses.
Chuck Strahl, Canada’s minister for Indian affairs, said: “You have to get the truth out…it seems impossible today, but it’s real, it happened.”
Native leaders hope the commission – to be headed by an aboriginal judge, Harry LaForme – will help improve ties between their largely marginalised community of 1.1 million and the rest of the 32 million population.
Mr LaForme said: “I don’t say this is going to be a magic wand and everybody is going to feel good when this is over. But we do know there is a healing component to that sort of process.”
In decades past, government officials said the residential schools were supposed to educate native children. The other aim was to assimilate aboriginal peoples and crush their cultures. Duncan Campbell Scott, a senior government bureaucrat dealing with aboriginal matters, declared in 1920: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem.” He went on: “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.”
Children in the schools were called pigs and dogs. Teachers beat them if they used their own languages and told them they would go to hell unless they converted to Christianity. Many parents never saw their sons and daughters again. Survivors often took to drugs and alcohol to dim the pain.
Critics, noting the commission will not have subpoena powers, say it will not make much of a difference.
Roland Chrisjohn, of the University of St Thomas in New Brunswick, said Ottawa must first admit that taking children from their parents and giving them to outsiders constituted an act of genocide. “Residential schools were about destroying our political systems, our religious systems, our communities, our cultures, our livelihood. They largely succeeded,” he said.
The churches are suitably contrite. Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said the religious authorities had tried to “socialise and Christianise” aboriginal peoples. “We failed them, we failed ourselves, we failed God. We failed because of our racism and because of the belief that white ways were superior to aboriginal ways,” he said.
Ted Quewezance, director of the National Residential School Survivors’ Society, is confident the commission will help reconciliation efforts. He was abused physically and sexually during seven years at a school, and when asked how he coped with the memories, he replied: “You just live with it, that’s all.”
The scandal has strong parallels with what happened at the same time in Australia, where at least 100,000 aboriginal children were removed from their parents for a variety of reasons. Kevin Rudd, the prime minister, apologised to the “Stolen Generations” in February.
Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, will meet a key aboriginal demand on 11 June, when he formally apologises too.
No-one knows whether Canadians will pay much attention to the hearings.
Tribal chief Robert Joseph said: “If they don’t listen, it will be a tragedy. I think once and for all we, as aboriginal people, will be certain Canadians simply dismiss us as nothing important…that would be the worst insult of all.”
First Nations peoples fight for dignity after years of oppression
THE aboriginal peoples of Canada are split broadly into three groups. People of First Nations descent number some 700,000, the Métis comprise about 400,000 and the Inuit about 50,000.
First Nations peoples live predominately in the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia, but communities live across most of the other provinces.
Their ancestors were prairie living and similar to the Native American tribes of the great plains in the United States.
The terminology used to describe them has been a frequent source of controversy and up until the 1980s, they were frequently known as “Indian bands”. There are more than 600 recognised First Nations governments or bands in Canada.
The Métis are descendants of marriages of Cree, Ojibway, Saulteaux, and Menominee aboriginals to French Canadians, Scots and English.
Inuit is a general term for a group of culturally similar peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Alaska, Greenland, and Canada. They were formerly known as Eskimos, but in Canada and Greenland the term is now considered pejorative.
Although Canada spends about C$10 billion (£5.09 billion) a year on the aboriginal population, many serious problems remain.
Native leaders say the destructive legacy of the schools helps explain the lamentable living conditions, poor health and high crime levels that many face today.
“I think Canadians will have a better appreciation of why we have become so stereotyped – that we’re lazy, or losers, or drunkards, or whatever. [This] resulted from a very destructive, oppressive colonisation of aboriginal people,” said Chief Robert Joseph. The Scotsman