Let the truth be told

  • June 24, 2010
TRCC logoCanadians often express pride in building a nation that respects and celebrates cultural diversity. But as true as that might be today, our national back-patting takes a short view of history. For most of Canada’s existence, Ottawa directed a cruel policy at aboriginal peoples that is rightly likened to cultural genocide.

Canadians are being asked to confront that dark era at a series of public events organized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools. The first of seven meetings, held recently in Winnipeg, saw dozens of survivors and their families courageously step to a microphone and have their personal stories preserved as a paragraph in Canadian history.

Canadians need to hear this. It is one thing to admit to the numbers — the federal government took 150,000 children from their homes between 1874-1996 and sent them to 132 church-run boarding schools where physical, sexual and emotional abuse was rampant —  but it is also necessary to reveal the faces and hear the stories behind the statistics.

The commission is that forum. It is the final phase in a long, painful process that saw the government and churches admit wrongdoing and approve a multi-billion-dollar compensation fund in 2006, saw Stephen Harper issue a government apology in 2008 and saw Pope Benedict XVI apologize on behalf of Catholic institutions in 2009.

For more than a century, church and state waged an immoral campaign to culturally re-engineer First Nations, Inuit and Metis children. Separated from parents and community, children were re-taught  how to speak, pray, dress and even cut their hair. They were denied traditional culture and customs in a misguided strategy to make them “Canadian.” Thousands were abused by so-called guardians from various Christian denominations.

As Phil Fontaine, former Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, once said: “They tried to kill the Indian in the child, to eradicate any sense of Indian-ness from Canada.”

Generations of children were stripped of self-respect and cultural identity. They carried physical and psychological scars into adulthood that emotionally crippled them through their parenting years. Many of the abused became abusers. “I was unable to love anyone,” said one victim.

These events occurred in the past but their aftermath roils today on reserves where rates of poverty, suicide, obesity, illness, alcoholism and crime exceed the national average, often by startling amounts. As much as we trumpet multiculturalism as a triumph of Canadian society, we must  acknowledge that the prolonged degradation of native culture is an unwashed stain on our history.

That’s why these gatherings are important. Justice demands that Canadians listen closely. The truth must be heard. History must be recorded. And decisive action taken to relieve the suffering and to ensure such pain is never inflicted again.

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