Church-run residential schools committed ‘cultural genocide’ against Native Canadians – Nick Robins-Early

Drummers pass Parliament Hill as they lead the Walk for Reconciliation, part of the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Sunday, May 31, 2015 in Ottawa. Beginning in the 1870s, over 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were required to attend government-funded, church-run residential schools in an attempt to assimilate them into Canadian society; the last school closed in 1996. Students were prohibited from speaking their own languages, practicing their culture and often experienced physical and sexual abuse. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Nick Robins-Early“Canada’s residential school system began in the late 19th century as a means of assimilating aboriginal youth into white colonial society through education and removing them of their cultural, spiritual and linguistic heritage. … Authorities forcibly took children from their homes and put them into boarding schools, which were operated by Christian churches — the majority of which were Catholic. “This was done not to educate them, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity,” the commission’s report states.” – Nick Robins-Early

Truth and Reconciliation Commission Chair Justice Murray SinclairCanada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a landmark report on Tuesday that extensively details accounts of aboriginal children undergoing forced assimilation and physical and sexual abuse in state-funded, church-run boarding schools.

After conducting six years of research and over 6,000 survivor  Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (R) and National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine (2R) pause before walking into the House of Commons on Parliament Hill June 11, 2008 in Ottawa, Canada. Harper delivered a formal statement of apology on behalf of the Federal Government and all Canadians to former students of Indian Residential Schools, who for decades were forcibly removed from their communities and sent to state-funded schools to be assimilated. (Photo by Mike Carroccetto/Getty Images)interviews, the commission’s report found that what happened at the schools, and the broader aboriginal policy that they were a part of, “can best be described as ‘cultural genocide.'”

A total of 139 of these residential schools, as they are known, existed across the country between 1883 and the late 1990s, with a sharp decline in operations after the 1970s. Many indigenous former students spoke with the TRC about their time at these institutions, detailing traumatic stories of being stripped of their cultural identity and, often, subjected to horrific assaults.

Canada’s residential schools have been the target of numerous legal challenges, as former students and rights groups have sought to redress the wrongs committed against the nation’s aboriginal people as a result of government policies.

Survivors settled a massive class-action lawsuit against churches and the government in 2007. Among other things, the settlement required the founding of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission began its work in 2009 and collected over 6,750 witness accounts over six years.

Canada’s residential school system began in the late 19th century as a means of assimilating aboriginal youth into white colonial society through education and removing them of their cultural, spiritual and linguistic heritage.

The report notes that while addressing Parliament in 1883, Canada’s first prime minister, John A. MacDonald, said assimilation could only be accomplished by removing aboriginal children from their families and community — otherwise, he said, an aboriginal child would simply be “a savage who can read and write.”

Authorities forcibly took children from their homes and put them into boarding schools, which were operated by Christian churches — the majority of which were Catholic. “This was done not to educate them, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity,” the commission’s report states.

Canadian Residential School SurvivorsSome of these abuses have previously been documented by rights groups and in legal cases. For example, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported in 2013 that some schools conducted nutritional experiments on malnourished students in the 1940s and 1950s, in which children were withheld nutrients or kept on “starvation-level diets.” The TRC report, however, is the likely most comprehensive, detailed and up-to-date account. The summary report released Tuesday contains hundreds of pages detailing decades of trauma, and survivors’ stories were compiled into a lengthy additional document. A full six-volume document on the schools is set to be released later this year.

Female students and a nun at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Manitoba.Among other findings, the TRC documented survivors being punished and beaten if they failed to remember the Euro-Canadian names they were ordered to take on in place of their aboriginal names. Many said they had their hair, which can contain spiritual significance for aboriginals, cut off.

The commission also heard numerous reports of horrific physical and sexual abuse at the hands of school administrators, including sexual assaults on children as young as five.

Over 31,000 legal claims of sexual assault in residential schools have been resolved, totaling almost 2.8 billion Canadian dollars in compensation. Criminal charges have also been brought against some perpetrators, including an 11-year sentence for former dormitory supervisor Arthur Plint and two non-consecutive convictions for supervisor Paul Leroux.

The federal government estimates that a total of 150,000 aboriginal children went through the school system, according to the TRC report. More than 3,200 children are documented by the report to have died in the schools, but TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair stated that the true number of deaths may be closer to 6,000.

If the 6,000 figure is accurate, the odds of a child dying in a residential school were higher that the odds of Canadians dying while serving in World War II, notes the CBC.

In 37 separate instances, students attempted to burn down their schools to escape the abuse, with two of those attempts resulting in the deaths of staff and students, according to the report. Other students died from exposure while attempting to run away.

Starting in 1969, Canada’s government began a long and drawn-out process of closing down the schools, the report states, taking control from the churches and changing policies. The last federally supported schools shuttered in the late 1990s, as the decade saw more survivors speaking out and aboriginal rights groups demanding reparation. The government issued a formal apology to former students in 2008.

In addition to documenting the abuse suffered in the schools, the long-awaited TRC report issues 94 proposals for achieving reconciliation. These range from changes in public health policy to language laws that protect indigenous languages. The report also suggests that memorial monuments be built in the capital of every province and territory, and that Canada adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

It also calls on the pope to issue a formal apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the abuse.

Richard GagnonThe Anglican and Presbyterian churches have issued apologies in previous years, and Pope Benedict expressed sorrow and sympathy for the abuses in 2009, but did not apologize. Canada’s Archbishop Gagnon balked at calls for an apology on Wednesday, saying “that ground has been covered already.”

The Canadian government hasn’t committed to implementing any of the proposals, and it has previously opposed signing the UN declaration out of concerns that this would give aboriginal groups the ability to veto national laws in their territories.

Both of Canada’s largest opposition groups have said that they would implement all 94 proposals if they come to power. The next election is to be held in October.

The full summary report can be read here. — HuffPost, 4 June 2015

» Nick Robins-Early is the Associate World Editor at the Huffington Post, New York.

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One Response

  1. Hindus back Canadian aboriginals’ demand of Pope’s apology for Church’s role in “cultural genocide” – Merinews – 13 June 2015

    Indus are supporting the demand of “Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada” for apology by Pope “for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children in Catholic-run residential schools”.

    Distinguished Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada today, agreed with the long awaited report released on June two of “Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada” that Canada government’s policy requiring the aboriginal children to attend state-mandated church-run boarding schools was a “cultural genocide”.

    Over 150,000 aboriginal children, from 1883 until the last one closed in 1998, were reportedly dragged to these institutions; which was an intrusion and total disregard for the sanctity of the family, Zed who is President of Universal Society of Hinduism, stated, calling it a “monumental injustice”.

    Rajan Zed further said that Canada, instead of vague promises, should show strong political will and do something concrete to end the chaos and poverty in aboriginal communities today; and provide improved health care on reserves, close the education attainment gap between aboriginals and other Canadians, improve their social and economic well-being, impart them skills, invest in child welfare, preserve their various languages, end systematic discrimination and include in the curriculum of all K-12 grades of Canada the contributions of aboriginal people and injustices of residential schools. Moreover, Canada should wholeheartedly adopt United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Zed added.

    Zed indicated that the aboriginal residential schools was a national shame and dark chapter for Canada and Canada had much work to do to restore trust of aboriginals and improve the deteriorating relationship between the Canadian government and aboriginal people.

    Rajan Zed pointed out that it was immoral for Canada to steal the childhood of these children forced into residential schools and subject them to a loveless life full of loneliness.

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