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A toddler taken from his home and barred from speaking his mother tongue. A girl lured into her teacher’s room, where she was sexually abused. A teenage boy who endured beatings and humiliation and was haunted by the memories as an adult.
After nearly four years, visits to more than 300 communities and thousands of hours of heart-wrenching testimony, the final hearing came to an end in Edmonton on Sunday.
For more than a century, aboriginal children were sent to the schools, which were intended to prepare them for white society. In the process they were stripped of their language and culture, and many were subjected to emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
The last residential school closed in 1996, but the legacy endures.
A final report by the commission, which was established by the Canadian government, is due next year, bringing together the stories of survivors with millions of government and church documents.
But many are already asking whether it be enough to begin the healing process and repair the damaged relationship between aboriginal people and the Canadian government.
A historic apology
Many contend that since issuing a historic apology for the schools shortly after taking office in 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper hasn’t done enough to ensure a harmonious relationship with the country’s first inhabitants.
Even the commission itself has been a source of conflict.
The federal government has blocked the release of certain key documents, citing privacy reasons, that would give a more complete picture of what transpired at some residential schools.
Gabrielle Scrimshaw is among a number of prominent aboriginal Canadians who argue reconciliation isn’t possible unless the full truth of what happened at residential schools is made public.
“It’s really only just part of the story,” she said. “I think that within the community, there will always be this asterisk because of what’s not in the final report … From a broader Canadian standpoint, we need to tell these truths so that we can fully understand our Canadian history.”
In one case, survivors of a residential school in Ontario say they were forced by staff to sit in an electric chair. The government has been accused of hiding evidence.
Beyond the commission, there are ongoing disputes between the Canadian government and indigenous people over issues like land rights and environmental protection as well as calls for a national inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women.
More than 600 aboriginal women have been killed or gone missing over the past several decades, at a rate far higher than the national average, according to data from the Native Women’s Association of Canada
Most of the documented cases occurred from 2000 to 2010, at which point the federal government ceased funding the database.
These issues have Scrimshaw and others arguing that the government hasn’t acted in good faith since the apology.
Telling their stories
The commission has served at least one important purpose.
It has allowed the survivors of residential schools to tell their stories and hear those of others.
As Chief Willie Littlechild (CK), a commissioner and a residential school survivor, recently told The Canadian Press, the hearings “helped on my own healing journey.”
The commission has also shone light on a shameful part of Canadian history that was largely unknown by the broader public.
Ronald Niezen, a McGill University professor, said that’s part of the commission’s unique mandate — raising awareness about residential schools and creating a historical record of the system and its legacy.
“This makes it different in that it’s actively trying to communicate what it’s trying to do,” said Niezen, the author of a book about the commission. “The goal of the commission becomes public outreach.”
Unlike with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commision, testimony at Canada’s commission hearings may not be used for a criminal investigation. Perpetrators may not be named, and the commission doesn’t have subpoena powers.
But members of the federal government and residential school church staff have been largely absent from the process.
“It’s designed to be affirmative of survivors,” Niezen said.
In all, about 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were taken from their homes —and at least 4,000 died in the schools. Newly released records could put that number far higher.
His mother was in the system, and she later struggled to care for her children. Champagne and his siblings were taken into the custody child services, and ultimately he was raised by a family in Winnipeg, far from his home community.
“I don’t speak my language,” he said.
“What residential schools were attempting to do was to kill the Indian in the child by removing them from them physically from their communities and families and shaming them for holding on to their former identities. The result is generations of parents who didn’t have a connection to their children and so didn’t pass on important things like the language or cultural teachings or even the family bonds.”
Champagne said that the government’s apology seems “insincere” and that its inaction has become a rallying point.
He said it’s no coincidence that the nationwide aboriginal protest movement Idle No More sprang up two years ago and that true reconciliation won’t be possible until the issue of murdered and missing women is addressed.
For Scrimshaw and Champagne, the apology and the resulting commission are only important first steps.
“The apology came about through the courage of the residential school survivors,” Scrimshaw said.
“Just like any parent would tell their child, actions speak louder than words.”