A damning report culminates a six-year examination of Canada’s residential schools that oversaw the ill-treatment of aboriginal children for more than a century.
The Toronto Star
By: Joanna Smith Ottawa Bureau reporter, Published on Tue Jun 02 2015
OTTAWA—The Truth and Reconciliation Commission urges all Canadians to rise to the enormous challenge of righting the wrongs committed by residential schools, even if it takes generations to reverse the ongoing effects of cultural genocide.
“We have described for you a mountain. We have shown you a path to the top. We call upon you to do the climbing,” Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told a packed ballroom in a downtown Ottawa hotel Tuesday.
The exhortation came on an emotionally charged day that saw the commission release a heart-wrenching and damning 381-page summary of its final report detailing the history and legacy of residential schools — largely operated by churches and funded by the Canadian government — that saw 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children come through their doors for more than a century.
Justin Tang / THE CANADIAN PRESS
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s heart-wrenching and damning report is the culmination of a six-year examination of the history and legacy of residential schools. Above, Traditional Chief Dominic Rankin of Pikogan, stands Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne before the Walk for Reconciliation May 31 in Gatineau.
The report also describes how the legacy of residential schools — described as a central component to a government-led policy of cultural genocide — continues, not only through the direct effect that generations of institutionalization and abuse have had on survivors and their families, but how it is manifested in racism, systemic discrimination, poverty and dying indigenous languages.
It includes 94 recommendations, including the call for a Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation that, if implemented, would amount to a complete overhaul of the relationship between Aboriginal Peoples, the Crown and other Canadians.
Sinclair acknowledged that responding to the calls to action would take time, money and effort, but that political leadership could — and should — be implemented right away.
“The one thing that I am confident of is the cost of doing nothing is worse than the cost of doing something,” said Sinclair, who with fellow Commissioners Marie Wilson and Chief Wilton Littlechild met Prime Minister Stephen Harper at his request Tuesday afternoon.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission timeline
“(Harper) was open to listening to some of our concerns and inquired about some of our recommendations. I remain concerned with the government’s resistance to the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” Sinclair said in a statement emailed to media after the meeting, adding the commissioners offered to meet again once he has read the report summary.
The full six-volume collection isn’t due out until later this year.
The Commission has also warned that relations between the federal government and Aboriginal Peoples have deteriorated since the 2008 apology by Harper, but Sinclair noted if the Conservative government chooses not to act, there will one day be another government.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, who was greeted less enthusiastically when he rose to respond to the findings on behalf of the federal government, committed Tuesday to supporting Reconciliation Canada and the Legacy of Hope Fund to promote awareness about residential schools and public dialogue on moving forward.
Valcourt also promised to support National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which will be the home for the millions of historical records provided — often reluctantly — to the commission.
These promises will cost $2 million this fiscal year, according to a government source.
Through the testimony of residential school survivors, former staff, church and government officials and archival documents, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission pieced together a horrifying history that, despite its ripple effects, has been repeatedly dismissed or ignored.
This includes 3,201 registered deaths of children in the care of residential schools — the cause of death, reported in just under 50 per cent of cases, was most frequently tuberculosis, but influenza, pneumonia, fires and suicide all took their toll.
We may never know the true number of deaths, but Sinclair estimates it to be at least 6,000.
“Consider what it means, what we’re talking about today: the enormity of it. Parents who had their children ripped out of their arms, taken to a distant and unknown place, never to be seen again, buried in an unmarked grave long ago forgotten and overgrown. Think of that. Bear that. Imagine that,” Wilson told the room Tuesday.
Arriving at residential school, children had their hair chopped off and their clothing removed — one survivor recalled having her beaded moccasins, made by her grandmother for her to wear to school, taken from her and thrown in the garbage.
Students were discouraged, and often outright forbidden, from speaking their aboriginal languages.
The quality of the education was often poor: in many of the schools, students spent only half a day in the classroom, the rest of their time devoted to cooking, cleaning and otherwise helping to keep the institutions running at a low cost.
Survivors and archives show that discipline at the schools could be harsh and cruel, and that physical and sexual abuse was rampant.
Nearly 38,000 survivors have submitted claims through the Independent Assessment Process established by Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. As of this January, nearly 31,000 of them resolved and a total of $2.69 million awarded in compensation so far.
Despite the shameful history recounted in the pages of the report, the Commission expresses its hope for a better future and urges Canadians to pick up the mantle from the residential school survivors who spoke their truths.
“Our recommendations should not be seen as an itemization of national penance, but as an opportunity to embrace a second chance at establishing a relationship of equals, which was intended at the beginning and should have continued throughout,” Sinclair said.
Truth and Reconciliation report calls residential school system ‘cultural genocide’
Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, June 2, 2015 11:08AM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, June 2, 2015 7:44PM EDT
OTTAWA — A moment of shared emotional catharsis bound survivors of Canada’s residential schools Tuesday as their collective ordeal was officially branded a “cultural genocide” that tore apart their families and left them to contend with lifelong scars of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
The massive report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission makes 94 broad recommendations –everything from greater police independence and reducing the number of aboriginal children in foster care to restrictions on the use of conditional and mandatory minimum sentences.
But with the extent of the abuse endured by survivors now fully documented, with plans for a permanent centre at the University of Manitoba to open later this year, the political road to reconciliation remains far from smooth.
The report summary — the full six-volume collection isn’t due out until later this year — is the culmination of six emotional years of extensive study into the church-run, government-funded institutions, which operated for more than 120 years.
“Our spirit cannot be broken,” commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild, himself a survivor of residential school, told a packed meeting room at a downtown Ottawa hotel.
“We have listened very carefully to many courageous individuals in our search for truth … through pain, tears, joy and sometimes anger, you shared with us what happened.
“There are still many, many survivors who have not healed enough to come forward with their story, or that are too angry to tell their story — or worse, there are those who have given up hope.”
The personal stories documented by the commission included a heart-wrenching account of sexual abuse from Josephine Sutherland, who attended the Fort Albany residential school in Ontario.
“I couldn’t call for help, I couldn’t,” Sutherland told the commission.
“And he did awful things to me, and I was just a little girl … I was so stunned, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t.”
Justice Murray Sinclair, the commission’s chairman, said the experiences of 6,750 survivors who spoke to the commission will be housed at the University of Manitoba as a “permanent historical archive, never to be forgotten or ignored.”
“The residential school experience is clearly one of the darkest most troubling chapters in our collective history,” Sinclair told the hundreds who gathered to mark the release of the commission’s findings.
“The survivors showed great courage, great conviction and trust to us in sharing their stories,” he said. “These were heart-breaking, tragic and shocking accounts of discrimination, deprivation and all manner of physical, sexual, emotional and mental abuse.”
Sinclair also stressed the need for Canadians to know the horrific history of residential schools. The federal government estimates around 150,000 students attended the institutions. The last school, located outside of Regina, closed in 1996.
“The survivors need to know before they leave this earth that people understand what happened and what the schools did to them,” he said.
“The survivors need to know that having been heard and understood that we will act to ensure the repair of damages is done.”
The recommendations of the commission, borne out of the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, touch on a host of problems plaguing Aboriginal Peoples, including child welfare, education, justice and health.
They include a call for a national public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, a request for the Pope to apologize for the Roman Catholic’s role in the residential school system and for Canada to full adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
During a question period dominated by the commission’s findings, NDP leader Tom Mulcair asked Prime Minister Stephen Harper if he would accept the recommendation on the UN declaration.
Harper was non-committal, especially when Mulcair asked him to acknowledge the commission’s use of the term “cultural genocide.” Harper steadfastly avoided repeating the words.
“The government accepted the UN declaration as an aspirational document,” Harper said.
“We have taken specific actions, Mr. Speaker, to enhance the rights of aboriginal people, particularly women living on reserves, and generally all aboriginal people under the Canadian Human Rights Act.”
Harper said his government would review the recommendations, but did not commit to specific action. Both the Liberals and the NDP said they would act on the recommendations, but offered few other details.
Sinclair and Harper also met privately Tuesday to discuss the commission’s findings, which included an estimate that more than 6,000 children died during their time at residential school.
The two shared a “frank and open dialogue,” Sinclair said in a statement.
“He was open to listening to some of our concerns and inquired about some of our recommendations. I remain concerned with the government’s resistance to the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
Sinclair said the commission has offered to meet with the prime minister again after he has reviewed the findings. “We look forward to continuing the conversation.”
NDP MP Romeo Saganash, the party’s deputy aboriginal affairs critic, described how he witnessed abuse first-hand.
Saganash, who helped to draft the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, was removed from his home at the age of six to attend a residential school in Quebec.
“This report and this commission has allowed me to close that chapter of my life,” he said.
In its summary, the commission said the TRC’s work is designed not to close a “sad chapter of Canada’s past” but to open “new healing pathways.”
“We are mindful that knowing the truth about what happened in residential schools in and of itself does not necessarily lead to reconciliation,” the summary said. “Yet, the importance of truth-telling in its own right should not be underestimated.”
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, who was among those speaking at a news conference after the report’s release, described the pain he witnessed from survivors who shared their experience.
“It is with great sadness that I heard that many who were abused and bullied have carried a burden of shame and anger for their entire lives,” Valcourt said.
“I want to send to all of those people a message … those who should feel shame are not the victims, but the perpetrators.”
Truth and Reconciliation: nearly 4 years of hearings wrap
Commission heard about sordid legacy of church-run schools
The Canadian Press Posted: Mar 30, 2014 12:59 PM ETLast Updated: Mar 30, 2014 9:30 PM ET
The commission delving into the sordid legacy of Canada’s Indian residential schools was wrapping up nearly four years of public hearings Sunday, where thousands of victims recounted stories of cruelty and abuse at the hands of those entrusted with their care.
The heart-breaking accounts — almost all videotaped — will now form part of a lasting record of one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history.
For many, being able to tell their stories was at once cathartic and a validation.
“Many times, I was hearing my own story being told in front of me and that became very emotionally challenging because I need to deal with that personally,” Chief Willie Littlechild, a commissioner and himself a residential school survivor, told The Canadian Press.
“At the same time, I think it helped on my own healing journey.”
Vicki Crowchild, 80, of the Tsuu T’ina Nation outside Calgary who attended a school as a child, agreed that the opportunity to talk of her past after her abuser told her no one would ever believe her was hugely beneficial.
‘A lot of people got healed just by telling their story.’– Vicki Crowchild, residential school survivor
Others, she said, felt the same way.
“A lot of people got healed just by telling their story,” Crowchild said.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, under Justice Murray Sinclair, visited more than 300 communities after it began hearings in Winnipeg in June 2010.
Now, it would take more than two years to play back the more than 6,500 statements — they range in length from 10 minutes to five hours — survivors gave the commission.
About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were taken from their families and forced to attend the church-run schools over much of the last century. The last school, outside Regina, closed in 1996.
Children separated from families
The children, the commission heard, were sent hundreds or thousands of kilometres from home. Many were kept largely isolated from their families, sometimes for years.
Siblings were separated and punished for showing any affection to one another. Survivors talked of constant hunger, of beatings and whippings, of sexual abuse. Many died of disease or unexplained causes. Some killed themselves.
The damage done to those who did survive was often lasting.
“When I came out of residential school, when they finally shut it down, I went back into a community that was 95 per cent alcoholics,” said Martha Marsden, who attended a school in Alberta.
“That is how our parents were dealing with children being taken out of their care, being ripped out of their arms.”
As part of a class-action lawsuit settlement reached in 2007, the federal government apologized for the schools and set up the $60-million commission. The mandate was to create as complete a historical record as possible of the system and its legacy.
The commission has frequently found itself at loggerheads with the federal government.
Some of the battles have ended up in court, with various judges castigating Ottawa for failing to turn over records.
Just this past week, Stan Loutit, grand chief of Mushkegowuk Council, urged Justice Minister Peter MacKay to fire government lawyers for fighting to withhold records related to the notorious St. Anne’s residential school in Fort Albany, Ont.
Sinclair himself complained a few days ago that Ottawa would be cutting a program aimed at helping survivors of the system to heal.
Still, the end of the hearings — which wrapped up with a four-day event in Edmonton attended by thousands — marked another beginning, said Littlechild, a former member of Parliament.
“It’s really a start of reconciliation,” he said.
Calvin Bruneau, of the Papaschase First Nation in Alberta, said he, too, looked to some lasting goodwill emerging from the inquiry into the painful residential-school legacy.
“I am hoping it leads to better all-around relations between First Nations people and the government,” said Bruneau, whose grandmother was abused at a residential school.
The commission has been given until the end of June 2015 to report.