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Canadian schools for indigenous children censured

08 January 2016


“Overwhelmingly moved”: the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, wipes his eyes after speaking during the release of the report, in Ottawa, last month

“Overwhelmingly moved”: the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, wipes his eyes after speaking during the release of the report, in Ottawa, last m...

UP TO 6000 children could have died from neglect or abuse in church schools that were run as part of a Canadian government programme to assimilate indigenous races into white colonial culture.

Details of the children’s experiences are contained in the final report of a six-year inquiry by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, into what it has called “a conscious policy of cultural genocide”, launched in the 1880s and only ended in 1996. During that time, more than 150,000 children attended 139 residential schools run by the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and United Churches. Most were poorly constructed, and a regime of neglect, abuse, lack of food, isolation from family, and disease — mostly tuberculosis and influenza — took a lethal toll among the children.

The commission was established after 18,000 survivors of the schools won a landmark legal compensation claim in 2007, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history. So far, almost £1.4 billion has been paid out.

The report identified 3200 deaths at the schools, but suggests that the total could be as high as 6000, because the government stopped recording deaths around 1920. In many cases, no one bothered recording names, gender, and cause of death. The report noted that they died at a far higher rate than school-aged children in the general population.

Bodies of victims were not returned to their home communities, but, instead, were buried in cemeteries that today are either abandoned, disused, or “vulnerable to accidental disturbance”. So far, four school staff have been convicted of the sexual abuse of pupils.

The report was published on 15 December at a formal event in the Canadian capital, Ottawa. It was attended by the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who wept as the details were disclosed. He said: “The Indian residential school system — one of the darkest chapters in Canadian history — has had a profoundly lasting and damaging impact on indigenous culture, heritage, and language. As a father and a former teacher, I am overwhelmingly moved by these events.”

The Canadian government made a formal apology seven years ago, and, Mr Trudeau said, it was “no less true, and no less timely today”. He continued: “The government of Canada sincerely apologises and asks forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.” It was his “deepest hope” that the report’s findings would help to heal some of the pain caused by the residential school system, and begin to restore the trust that was lost so long ago.

The Anglican Church of Canada administered almost a third of the schools. The Primate, the Most Revd Fred Hiltz, thanked the commission “for helping me and for helping all Canadians to listen, wake up, and learn about this sad chapter in our history as a country”.

He supported the commission’s call for the government and churches to account for their participation in “an arrogant . . . policy of assimilation to address the so-called ‘Indian problem’, and for every form of abuse experienced by survivors from those schools”.

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