OTTAWA — A long-awaited report on the horrors of Canada’s residential school system calls it nothing short of a “cultural genocide,” making 94 broad recommendations —everything from greater police independence and reducing the number of aboriginal children in foster care to restrictions on the use of conditional and mandatory minimum sentences.
The summary of the Truth and Reconciliation report, released Tuesday, is the culmination of six emotional years of extensive study into the church-run, government-funded institutions, which operated for more than 120 years.
The exercise has been “a difficult, inspiring and very painful journey for all of us,” said Justice Murray Sinclair, Canada’s first aboriginal justice and the commission’s chairman.
“The residential school experience is clearly one of the darkest most troubling chapters in our collective history,” Sinclair told a packed news conference Tuesday in Ottawa.
“In the period from Confederation until the decision to close residential schools was taken in this country in 1969, Canada clearly participated in a period of cultural genocide.”
The scope of the commission and its report is staggering. The full report, weighing in at six volumes and thousands of pages, will be released later this year.
Sinclair described how the commission heard from residential school survivors who were robbed of the love of their families.
“They were stripped of their self-respect and they were stripped of their identity. Their stories — more than 6,750 of them in number — will now become part of a permanent historical archive never to be forgotten or ignored.”
Alma Scott was one of thousands of survivors who recounted her experience to the commission. She described being taken to a school in Fort Alexander, Man., at the age of five.
“We gotten taken away by a big truck. I can still remember my mom and dad looking at us,” Scott said in her testimony.
“I just remember feeling really sad, and I was in this truck full of other kids who were crying, and so I cried with them.”
The commission also listened to the stories of those who worked at or administered the residential schools. Many of those men and women are still haunted by what they witnessed, and filled with regret at having been part of the system, Sinclair said.
“We heard the pain of those charged with the care of those children. We heard of the demons that they face for not being able to care for them properly or to protect them from the abusers.”
The TRC’s summary also makes clear that the expectations of the aboriginal community in the wake of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s historic apology for the residential-school tragedy in 2008 have not yet been met.
“The promise of reconciliation, which seemed so imminent back in 2008 when the prime minister, on behalf of all Canadians, apologized to survivors has faded,” it says. “Without truth, justice and healing, there can be no genuine reconciliation.”
The TRC report calls on the federal government to launch a national inquiry into the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women. It also goes so far as to recommend additional CBC funding, a statutory holiday to honour survivors and an apology from the Pope on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church.
More than 130 residential schools operated across Canada and the federal government has estimated at least 150,000 First Nation, Metis and Inuit students passed through the system. The last school, located outside of Regina, closed in 1996.
A centre at the University of Manitoba will become the permanent home for all statements, documents and materials gathered by the commission. It is scheduled to open this summer.
Other key recommendations:
— That federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the “framework for reconciliation”;
— That governments acknowledge the current state of aboriginal health in Canada is “a direct result of previous Canadian government policies including residential schools”;
— That the federal government establish a statutory holiday to honour survivors, their families and communities;
— That the federal government establish a written policy reaffirming independence of the RCMP to investigate crimes where government may be an interested party.
Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press