OTTAWA (Reuters) - After decades of foot-dragging, Canada is finally about to take a close look at what one aboriginal leader calls “the single most disgraceful, harmful and racist act in our history.”
From the 1870s to the 1970s, around 150,000 native Indian children were forcibly removed from their parents and sent to distant residential schools, where many say they were abused mentally, physically and sexually.
Conditions in the schools -- run by various churches on behalf of the government -- were sometimes dire. Contemporary accounts suggest up to half the children in some institutions died of tuberculosis.
One prominent academic calls what happened a genocide, yet for many years few Canadians knew what had happened.
Now, for the first time, the mainstream population will be learning a lot more about what was done in its name.
As part of a C$1.9 billion ($1.9 billion) settlement between Ottawa and the 90,000 school survivors in May 2006 that ended years of law suits, a truth and reconciliation commission is set to start work on June 1.
The commission, which has a life span of five years, will travel across Canada and hold public hearings on the abuses.
“You have to get the truth out ... it seems impossible today but it’s real, it happened,” said federal Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl.
Native leaders hope the commission -- to be headed by aboriginal Judge Harry LaForme -- will help improve ties between the largely marginalized one million native population and the rest of the 32 million people in Canada.
“I don’t say that this is going to be a magic wand and everybody is going to feel good when this is over. But we do know there is a healing component to that sort of process,” LaForme told Reuters.
Government officials at the time said the schools were supposed to educate native children. The other aim was to assimilate aboriginal peoples and crush their cultures.
Duncan Campbell Scott, a senior government bureaucrat dealing with aboriginal matters, declared in 1920 that ”I want to get rid of the Indian problem. He added: “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.”
Children in the schools were called pigs and dogs. Teachers beat them if they used their own languages and told them they would go to hell unless they converted to Christianity.
Many parents never saw their sons and daughters again. Survivors often took to drugs and alcohol to dim the pain.
Although Canada spends around C$10 billion a year on the aboriginal population, many serious problems remain.
Native leaders say the destructive legacy of the schools helps explain the lamentable living conditions, poor health and high crime levels that many face today.
“I think Canadians will have a better appreciation of why we have become so stereotyped -- that we’re lazy, or losers, or drunkards, or whatever. (This) resulted from a very destructive, oppressive colonization of aboriginal people,” said Chief Robert Joseph.
Critics, noting the commission will not have subpoena powers, say it will not make much of a difference.
Roland Chrisjohn at the University of St. Thomas in New Brunswick says Ottawa must first admit that taking children from their parents and giving them to outsiders constituted an act of genocide.
“Residential schools were about destroying our political systems, destroying our religious systems, destroying our communities, our cultures, our livelihood ... they largely succeeded,” Chrisjohn said.
The churches are suitably contrite. Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, says religious authorities tried to “socialize and Christianize” aboriginal peoples.
“We failed them, we failed ourselves, we failed God. We failed because of our racism and because of the belief that white ways were superior to aboriginal ways,” he said.
(For more details about the schools, click here)
Ted Quewezance, executive director of the National Residential School Survivors’ Society, is confident the commission will help efforts at reconciliation.
Quewezance told Reuters he was abused physically and sexually during seven years at a school.
When asked how he coped with the memories, he replied: “You just live with it, that’s all.”
The residential schools scandal has strong parallels with what happened at the same time in Australia, where at least 100,000 aboriginal children were removed from their parents for a variety of reasons. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to the “Stolen Generations” in February.
The United States also ran boarding schools for aboriginal Americans, but on a smaller scale.
Strahl concedes there is a danger that years of public testimony about abuse could cause resentment among the mainstream population.
“It’s a two-edged sword ... the commissioners are going to be extremely important to make sure that it doesn’t just become a bashing exercise, one way or the other,” he said.
And no one can tell whether Canadians will pay much attention to the hearings. Native leaders have long complained about what they say is a widespread ignorance of and indifference to the aboriginal population.
“If they don’t listen it will be a tragedy. I think once and for all we, as aboriginal people, will be certain that Canadians simply dismiss us as nothing important ... that would be the worst insult of all,” said Joseph.
For now, the official tone is one of optimism, especially since Prime Minister Stephen Harper will meet a key aboriginal demand on June 11 when he stands up in Parliament and formally apologizes to school survivors.
LaForme says that if all goes to plan “we will be able to say, in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, we have looked the beast in the eye. We have come to terms with our horrendous past and it will no longer keep us hostage.”
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Eddie Evans