Mary Annette Pember/YouTube
Justice Murray Sinclair, chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, presents the panel's final report on residential schools, calling them "cultural genocide."

'Cultural Genocide,' Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls Residential Schools

Mary Annette Pember

It was a long time coming, but the words that residential school survivors and their loved ones had long awaited were finally uttered.

“Canada clearly participated in a period of cultural genocide,” said Justice Murray Sinclair, Ojibwe, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and presented its official findings about Canada’s residential schools program on June 2. The packed Delta Ottawa hotel ballroom audience erupted into cheers and applause as people rose to their feet when TRC Chairman Justice Murray Sinclair, Ojibway, presented the panel’s findings.

“It has come full circle,” noted Eugene Cardinal of the Cree Nation.

Cardinal’s tone betrayed a tinge of irony. An Indian residential school survivor, he observed that the final gathering of the TRC, convened as one component of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, was taking place in Ottawa, the very place where the original policies intended to ‘kill the Indian to save the man’ had been created more than 100 years ago.

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The crowd of mostly aboriginal people heartily approved the TRC’s summary version of a multi-volume report. Six years in the making, the report documents widespread physical and sexual abuses at government- and church-run residential schools from 1883 until 1998.

“This has been a difficult, inspiring and very painful journey for all of us,” Sinclair said. “The residential school experience is clearly one of the darkest, most troubling chapters in our collective history—the period from Confederation until the decision to close residential schools was taken in this country in 1969.”

Emotion ran high in the audience, swinging from shouts of jubilation to cries of anguish as some broke down in tears when Sinclair described the organization’s work.

“This is a commission like no other,” Sinclair said. “It was not set up by the government but by parties to the Indian Residential Settlement Agreement seeking to repair harm caused by residential schools.”

Much of the healing came from simply allowing the survivors to speak about what had happened to them.

“They were not subject to cross examination as if on trial,” Sinclair noted. “They were invited to share what they had to share, no more, no less. Their stories were recorded into history, and at the end of each day, they were acknowledged.”

Report findings tied trauma from residential school abuses with generational problems plaguing indigenous people today such as addiction, poverty, suicide, high rates of incarceration and health disparities.

“We heard of the impact of over 100 years of mistreatment. We heard from families and loved ones connected to survivors for whom the effects had been deeply damaging and still felt today,” Sinclair said.

Sinclair spoke of the legacy of residential schools that left indigenous children culturally, emotionally, physically and spiritually adrift.

“We heard about survivors who as children were unable to answer the simple questions of, “Who am I?” Where did I come from? Where am I going? Why am I here?” Sinclair said. “The answers to these fundamental questions guide us in life and fulfill our sense of self.”

He described Canada’s efforts to extinguish indigenous culture, language and peoples as the very essence of colonialism. Even today these issues persist, and among 94 recommendations for changes contained in the report were improvements in government child welfare practices that continue to separate indigenous children from their families. The report also recommends incorporating indigenous history and residential school experience into school curricula; funding health care programs to address health disparities between Indigenous Peoples and the mainstream population; adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into law, and developing a royal process of reconciliation issued by the Crown. The latter, according to Sinclair, should include a repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery that gave 15th-century European explorers the right to lay claim to lands they discovered.

He also noted that the recommendations include a call for a national inquiry into missing indigenous women and girls.

Sinclair maintained that the current Canadian government has yet to make good on its claims that it wishes to join with aboriginal people in a relationship based on shared history and respect for one another and a desire to move forward together as promised nine years ago in the prime minister’s apology. During a press conference following the presentation of the report, one reporter asked if the Commission might have been overly ambitious in requesting such a long list of recommendations.

“We made the recommendations to guide activities for the future, not just for this government,” Sinclair replied.


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