On June 2, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will release its report on the legacy of residential schools. The TRC was appointed by the federal government to examine the legacy of the schools back in 2008. It’s documented what happened there and held events at which survivors came forward to tell their stories. Also in 2008, Prime Minister Harper and churches, which operated the schools on the government’s behalf, apologized to former residential school students, who have since received financial compensation.
Indigenous people overlooked
We may think that we know our history but unfortunately most of us do not. Perhaps my own life experience may serve to illustrate. I grew up in rural Saskatchewan, where Treaty Six — between the Crown and nations of the Plains Cree — was negotiated and signed in 1876. About 20 years later, my grandparents and others arrived as agricultural settlers. Our village was about 80 kilometres from Batoche, where the Metis made their last stand against the soldiers and militia of the Canadian government.
Amazingly, I grew up knowing nothing about the treaties or Batoche until I took a Grade 12 Canadian history course. In prairie communities, it was as though the First Nations people who preceded the Europeans never existed. History, it seemed, had begun only when the settlers arrived, and, invariably, comments about indigenous people in our community were negative.
No excuse for ignorance
There’s no longer any excuse for prejudice or ignorance, if ever there was one. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal People in 1991 described the history of oppression across Canada in exhaustive detail. There were a variety of instruments used in what’s now seen as aggressive assimilation, including the Indian Act. But perhaps, residential schools were the cruelest manifestation.
Beginning in the 1880s and continuing well into the 20th century, an estimated 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Metis children were removed — often forcibly —from their homes and placed in schools. They were punished for speaking their languages, lived in substandard conditions and endured physical, emotional and, in some cases, sexual abuse (I mourn as a parent when I think of that experience). According to documents obtained by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, some schools even carried out nutritional experiments on malnourished students with the federal government’s knowledge.
Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the TRC, says that the residential school system constituted genocide. And there’s no harsher indictment for a nation.
Moving forward together
Of course, many Canadians may believe that we’ve put this all behind us and that we should move on. We know, however, from United Nations studies, media reports, the stories of survivors and from our own experience that indigenous people in Canada are still being left behind. We need altered political, regulatory and economic arrangements, not to mention a change of heart if we’re ever to move forward together.
Ecumenical group KAIROS aims at just that. During the months of May and June, it’s holding TRC-related events in Ottawa and across the country.
This piece appeared, in a slightly altered form, as a blog with the United Church Observer on March 26, 2015.