Column: The dark legacy of Canada’s residential schools

It’s unbelievable this went on for over a century. Children were literally ripped away from their families.

Stolen children. Outlawed language and traditions. Crushed sacred and ancient cultures. Abuse. Neglect. A sadistic government policy to kill the Indian in the child.

The heart breaking and damning report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission delivered in Ottawa Tuesday culminates six years of examining the notorious residential school system that endured from 1883 to 1986 and which is, without doubt, the most glaring scar on Canada’s historical record.

Known in the 19th century by the buzz word “assimilation”, Canada’s Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin had a 21st century phrase for it: cultural genocide.

No doubt.

The whole insidious idea was the brainchild of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald after a study of industrial schools for Aboriginal children in the U.S. where “aggressive civilization” was the political approach. European settlers had brought with them the notion that their society was superior. The mentality that defined the glory days of the British Empire or achievements of other European nations underscored that sense of domination.

It wasn’t much of a leap for them to see Aboriginals as “savage”, “ignorant” and in need of being “civilized” in their image. That translated into removing children from parents, villages, culture, language, and tradition and isolating them to the point of outlawing the use of their language (the only language they knew) and ancient customs. They were subjected to a policy of “aggressive assimilation” taught at church-run, government funded boarding schools where attendance by all Aboriginal children was mandatory.

It’s unbelievable this went on for over a century. Children were literally ripped away from their families. And, by the stats and facts, the fallout from this policy defies belief.

The odds of children dying in school were 1 in 25 and, in the early years, 1 in 2. In total there were 139 schools, 60 per cent of which were run by the Roman Catholic Church. Some 150,000 First Nation, Meti, and Inuit children were forced through this system and at least 6,000 of them died. Schools didn’t have playgrounds. They had cemeteries. All the children who died because of smallpox, measles, ‘flu, or tuberculosis or other conditions ended up buried in unmarked graves. Many parents were never told what happened. Nor did they know of the constant and systemic sexual, physical, and emotional abuse their children suffered.

Former students who did survive number 80,000 but their shattered lives have defined their existence. The influence of residential schools became intergenerational as trauma and stigma haunted them. More than 6,000 survivors came forward to speak before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Commission report listed 94 recommendations addressing issues like child welfare, education including the history and legacy of residential schools, youth programs, health, protection of language and culture, equity in society and law, and adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation. The Commission also calls for museums, provincial archives and vital statistics agencies to collect all records of Aboriginal children in residential schools and make them available to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in the University of Manitoba.

How much attention the Harper government will pay to all the recommendations remains to be seen but there is no doubt the dark legacy of residential schools affects everyone. This isn’t only an Aboriginal issue; it’s a Canadian dilemma.

Never again should that expression, ‘just Indian’ define Aboriginals. They are, as they have always been, a vibrant, resourceful, colourful, and unique people. Their language, customs, traditions, and beliefs are born of profound insights and ancient wisdom handed down in oral stories.

Through their cultural lens is a unique understanding of the world we all share.