Canada confronts its dark history of abuse in residential schools

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Landmark report reveals school system’s brutal attempt to assimilate thousands of native children for more than a century and gives voice to survivors

Sue Caribou contracts pneumonia once a year, like clockwork. The recurring illness stems from her childhood years at one of Canada’s horrific residential schools. “I was thrown into a cold shower every night, sometimes after being raped”, the frail 50-year-old indigenous mother of six said, matter-of-factly.

Sue Caribou said Catholic missionaries abused her until 1979 at the Guy Hill institution

 Caribou was snatched from her parents’ house in 1972 by the state-funded, church-run Indian Residential School system that brutally attempted to assimilate native children for over a century. She was only seven years old. “We had to stand like soldiers while singing the national anthem, otherwise, we would be beaten up”, she recalled.

 Caribou said Catholic missionaries physically and sexually abused her until 1979 at the Guy Hill institution, in the east of the province of Manitoba. She said she was called a “dog”, was forced to eat rotten vegetables and was forbidden to speak her native language of Cree.

 “I vowed to myself that if I ever get out alive of that horrible place, I would speak up and fight for our rights”, she said.Her voice and that of 150,000 other residential school pupils was finally heard across the nation this week as Canada faced one of the darkest chapters in its history. The head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), set up to examine the school system’s legacy, did not mince his words when he unveiled his landmark report. “Canada clearly participated in a period of cultural genocide”, declared Justice Murray Sinclair to cries and applause of survivors in Ottawa. Although prime minister Stephen Harper apologised for the school system in 2008 (as did the Roman Catholic Church in 2009), his government has always denied that it was a form of genocide.

 Many survivors who gathered in Ottawa felt empowered for the first time in their life after hearing the findings of the six-year-long commission.

 “It feels like our story is validated at last and is out there for the world to see”, said a tearful 58-year-old Cindy Tom-Lindley, who is executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivor Society in British Columbia. “We were too scared as children to speak out. So to give our testimonies to the commission was liberating and emotional.”

 As many as 6,000 children died in residential institutions, which ran from 1876 to 1996.


A group of female students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Manitoba in February 1940. Photograph: Reuters

 The accurate figure could be much higher however, since the government stopped recording aboriginal students’ deaths in 1920 in light of the alarming statistics. Caribou believes that dozens of pupils perished at the institution where she was detained. “Remains were found all over the fields. But numbers do not reflect the reality. Many of my friends committed suicide after their release”, said Caribou, who said she was frustrated that an inquiry did not take place twenty years ago, after the last of the residential schools closed

 Justice Sinclair, who was the second aboriginal judge to be appointed in Canada in 1988, made clear the connection between residential schools and the social ills plaguing the First Nations today, namely unemployment, domestic violence, the over-representation of aboriginal children in foster care and the high homicide rate of indigenous women.

 “I didn’t learn anything at the Guy Hill school except the “Our Father” prayer and the national anthem”, said Caribou. “My children taught me how to read and write. I’ve been a housekeeper all my life because of my lack of education and poor health”.

 The hopeful mood among survivors in the capital was met with silence by the government, despite urgent calls to act on the commission’s 94 recommendations. Prime Minister Harper did not utter a word while he attended the emotional closing ceremony of the TRC on Thursday, nor did he announce any measures that would further reconciliation for survivors and close the economic gap between First Nations and non-aboriginal Canadians.

 Since coming into power in 2006, the Conservative government has repeatedly rejected some long-standing demands by First Nations, such as holding a national enquiry on the missing and murdered aboriginal women, a measure also recommended by Justice Sinclair.

 “If Stephen Harper’s apology for residential schools is not followed by actions, it will prove to be meaningless”, warned Perry Bellegarde, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Bellegarde said Harper should move quickly on certain policy proposals, such as promoting the use of native languages and introducing aboriginal rights in the school curriculums across the nation. Bellegarde also stressed that more funding is desperately needed for equal education on reserves, where the government spends 3,000 dollars less per student than the national average.

 The upcoming federal elections this October might still turn the tide in favour of the First Nations. Leaders of the two opposition parties – the New Democratic Party and the Liberal Party – have both promised to act on key policies if elected on October 19. There has been growing support in the general population for aboriginal requests, with three quarters of Canadians in favour of a public enquiry on violence against indigenous women who are four times more at risk of being murdered. NDP’s Thomas Mulcair has pledged that he would set up one within days of being elected.

 Tom-Lindley hopes that the awareness and political pressure on the Harper government will continue to grow until Election Day.

 “Canadians are starting to get the message that this is not only an aboriginal issue, it concerns everyone. We have found our voice and we will not keep quiet anymore.”


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