Call to action: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.

AuthorEdmond, John

For over a century, generations of Aboriginal children, mostly First Nations, were taken from their families, often by force, and placed in residential schools usually far from home, where they were to be assimilated into white society. For most of that time, the schools were run by churches: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and United. They were not allowed to speak their own language even to each other, and many were abused physically and often sexually at the hands of their "caregivers." The experience itself was emotional abuse. The last school closed in 1996, by which time about 150,000 children had been through the system. Many died of tuberculosis in the early 20th century; posttraumatic stress disorder, major depression, anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, criminal records, and suicide have been the lot of others. Some, such as Phil Fontaine, former head of the Assembly of First Nations, came through to become Aboriginal leaders.

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has put it,

For children, life in these schools was lonely and alien. Buildings were poorly located, poorly built, and poorly maintained. The staff was limited in numbers, often poorly trained, and not adequately upervised. Many schools were poorly heated and poorly ventilated, and the diet was meagre and of poor quality. Discipline was harsh, and daily life was highly regimented. Aboriginal languages and cultures were denigrated and suppressed. The educational goals of the schools were limited and confused, and usually reflected a low regard for the intellectual capabilities of Aboriginal people. For the students, education and technical training too often gave way to the drudgery of doing the chores necessary to make the schools self-sustaining. Child neglect was institutionalized, and the lack of supervision created situations where students were prey to sexual and physical abusers. Losing their children for months at a time to a far-away institution was not what the chiefs had in mind, when, between 1871 and 1906, they signed treaties to read that schools would be maintained on reserves whenever the Indians of the reserve desired it. This was despite Prime Minister John A. Macdonald's 1883 statement in the House of Commons (speaking as Superintendent General of Indian Affairs):

When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men. See Indian Residential Schools--A Chronology

The history of residential schools came to public attention from the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which recommended an investigation. In 2007, a class action brought by former students resulted in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, one element of which was that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be convened.

The Commission, consisting of Manitoba Associate Chief Justice Murray Sinclair, Chief Wilton Littlechild and Dr. Marie Wilson began work in 2009.

The Commission issued an interim report in 2012, which contained 94 recommendations. These have come to the fore since the 2014 election campaign in which now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised full implementation of the recommendations. The government has since reiterated the promise of full implementation. This promise warrants closer examination.

The Commission released its Final Report in 2015, describing the schools assimilation policy as "cultural genocide." It comprised six main and five supplementary volumes...

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