For more than a century, Aboriginal children were subjected to horrific torture, sexual abuse and other forms of degrading treatment in a deliberate policy of assimilation. An official report has just confirmed this but the Harper regime is refusing to commit to the 94 recommendations made in the report headed by Justice Murray Sinclair. What hope can there be for reconciliation?
Wednesday June 3, 2015, 22:57 DST
Canada is guilty of ‘cultural genocide’ in abducting Aboriginal children from their homes and families and subjecting them to horrific abuse and torture that spanned more than a century. This was the stark conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that made its findings known yesterday in Ottawa. Established six years ago and patterned on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Canadian TRC headed by Justice Murray Sinclair heard the testimony of thousands of victims of systemic abuse.
It also made 94 recommendations, many of them wide-ranging and bold. Despite admission that horrific crimes were perpetrated that spanned more than a century, the current right wing regime of Stephen Harper is refusing to make a commitment to their implementation. Lawyer Dennis Endey who successfully fought Omar Khadr’s detention and secured his release on bail last month, has called Harper a “racist and a bigot”. Harper has done nothing to disprove this.
Over the past five years, Commission members traveled across the country compiling the harrowing tales of victims of the residential school system. The first residential schools were established in Western Canada in 1883. Ultimately successive governments funded a total of 130 such residential schools. Their mission was to take Aboriginal children, isolate them from their families and culture and assimilate them into Western culture.
More than 150,000 children were forcibly taken away from their families and put into such schools where they suffered horrific abuse including physical torture, deprivation of food, beatings, and sexual abuse. More than 60 percent of schools were run by the Catholic Church where the children were forced to become Christians. The most conservative estimate puts the number of deaths in these schools at 6,000. The mortality rate in some of these schools was as high as 60 percent, according to TRC chairman Justice Sinclair.
Like the slaves brought from Africa to America, their original names were obliterated. Aboriginal children were given a number instead of allowing them to use their own name, as if they were a species of cattle. In 1920, through an amendment in the Indian Act, the government made it compulsory for Status Indians age 7 to 15 to attend these schools. That is what prompted the TRC chair to declare the abuse and mistreatment of Aboriginal children ‘cultural genocide’ and called for major changes not only in the policies of the three levels of government but also in schools and the society at large.
On June 11, 2008, Harper issued a public apology in parliament on behalf of the country for the residential schools, calling it “profoundly negative.” “Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country,” Harper said at the time.
Most Aboriginal leaders were also present but true to form, Harper has done nothing to redress the gross injustices perpetrated against First Nations people, Metis and Inuits. For instance, Justice Sinclair said that one of the recommendations of his report is that the Canadian government should implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The declaration outlined the minimum human rights standards for indigenous people and their rights to self-determination.
Harper has made no commitment to do so. His 2008 apology was, therefore, a hypocritical utterance devoid of any meaning or substance. Not surprisingly, opposition members of Parliament lashed out at the government’s foot dragging. On June 1, opposition MPs pressed the Harper regime to commit to follow-up on the “symbolism” of the 2008 apology with concrete action. “The reality is that since the 2008 apology, little has changed for indigenous people,” Opposition MP Megan Leslie of the NDP said.
“The legacy of residential schools is still present today in high rates of poverty and unemployment, in the high number of children in foster care and the unacceptably high number of missing and murdered indigenous women,” she said. There are more than 1220 missing and presumed murdered indigenous women in Canada. When Harper was asked by CBC host Peter Mansbridge whether this bothered Harper, he responded nonchalantly, “this is not high on our list of priorities.”
With such utter disregard for the lives of 1200 indigenous women, what can be expected of a regime that does not care for people’s rights, dignity or lives, only for its own grip on power. It would be unrealistic to expect any concrete steps from such a bunch of racists and bigots regarding the abuse suffered by Aboriginal children at residential schools over a century despite an official report.