A commission set up to examine a decades-long government policy that required native Canadians — known as the First Nations — to attend schools where students were stripped of their cultural identity said on Friday that the institutional abuse created a legacy of turmoil.
From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 Aboriginal children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools in a painful attempt to assimilate them into Canadian society. They were prohibited from speaking their languages or participating in cultural practices.
“Countless students emerged from the schools as lost souls, their lives soon to be cut short by drugs, alcohol and violence,” the commission’s interim report said.
That legacy of abuse and isolation has been cited by native leaders as the root cause of epidemic rates of alcoholism and drug addiction on reservations.
Canada’s more than 1 million Aboriginals remain the country’s poorest and most disadvantaged group.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s interim report titled They Came for the Children is part of an initiative to understand a dark period in Canadian history and help the community heal.
The commission was created as part of a US$5 billion class action settlement in 2006 — the largest in Canadian history — between the government, churches and 90,000 surviving students.
A telling quote from former Canadian Public Works Minister Hector Langevin in 1883 opens the report: “In order to educate the children properly, we must separate them from their families. Some people may say that this is hard, but if we want to civilize them we must do that.”
The federal government acknowledged 10 years ago that physical and sexual abuse in the schools was rampant. Many students recall being beaten for speaking their native languages and losing touch with their parents and customs.
“It is commonly said that it takes a village to raise a child. The government of Canada took little children away from their villages and placed them into institutions that were the furthest things from a village you could expect,” commission chairman Justice Murray Sinclair said during a press conference to present the report on Friday.
“Then, on top of that, the government of Canada set out to destroy their villages so when they got out of those institutions, they did not have a village to go to,” he added.
The report said the result was damaged relations within Aboriginal families and with Canadian society at large.
Commissioner Marie Wilson said most Canadians were never taught about his dismal period in Canadian history.
“We have all been the losers for that lack of understanding. It has led us to a place of stereotypes and judgment, and often an inability to connect the dots between the realities of our country today and the 130-year history of contributing factors that led to it,” she said at the news conference.
The commission made 20 recommendations in its interim report, including a call for all public schools to include material about the historical treatment of Canada’s First Nations.
Another recommendation calls for health and wellness centers to offer trauma and grief counseling for survivors of the residential schools.
The interim report comes as the commission reaches the halfway mark in its five-year mandate. The commissioners are set to deliver their full report when their mandate expires in 2014.