The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada has concluded the country’s decades-long policy of forcibly removing indigenous children from their families and placing them in state-funded residential Christian schools amounted to “cultural genocide.” After a six-year investigation, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report concluded: “The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to aboriginal people and gain control over their lands and resources. If every aboriginal person had been ‘absorbed into the body politic,’ there would be no reserves, no treaties and no aboriginal rights.” The first schools opened in 1883. The last one closed in 1998. During that time over 150,000 indigenous children were sent away to rid them of their native cultures and languages and integrate them into mainstream Canadian society. Many students recall being beaten for speaking their native languages and losing touch with their parents and customs. The report also documents widespread physical, cultural and sexual abuse. We are joined by Pamela Palmater, associate professor and chair of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, an Idle No More activist and author of Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity and Belonging.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada has concluded that country’s decades-long policy of forcibly removing indigenous children from their families and placing them in state-funded residential Christian schools amounted to, quote, “cultural genocide.” After a six-year investigation, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report concluded: quote, “The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to aboriginal people and gain control over their lands and resources. If every aboriginal person had been ‘absorbed into the body politic,’ there would be no reserves, no treaties and no aboriginal rights.”
AMY GOODMAN: The first schools opened in 1883. The last one closed in 1998. During that time, over 150,000 indigenous children were sent away to rid them of their native cultures and languages and integrate them into mainstream Canadian society. Many students recall being beaten for speaking their native languages and losing touch with their parents and customs. The report also documents widespread physical, cultural and sexual abuse at the schools. It was based in part on testimony from 7,000 survivors. This is Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
JUSTICE MURRAY SINCLAIR: The residential school experience is clearly one of the darkest, most troubling chapters in our collective history. In the period from Confederation until the decision to close residential schools was taken in this country in 1969, Canada clearly participated in a period of cultural genocide. We heard of the effects of over 100 years of mistreatment of more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children placed in these schools. Removed from their families and home communities, seven generations of aboriginal children were denied their identity. We heard how, separated from their language, their culture, their spiritual traditions and their collective history, children became unable to answer questions as simple as “Where do I come from?” “Where am I going?” “Why am I here?” and “Who am I?”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, also said he suspects as many as 7,500 indigenous children died at the residential schools, but the exact figure may never be known. The Canadian government stopped recording the deaths in 1920 after the chief medical officer at Indian Affairs suggested children in the schools were dying at an alarming rate.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings, we go to Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada to talk to Pamela Palmater, associate professor and chair in indigenous governance at Ryerson University. She is a Mi’kmaq lawyer, an Idle No More activist and author of Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity and Belonging.
Welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you start, Pamela, by talking—by responding to the commission’s report? Were you surprised by what they found?
PAMELA PALMATER: No, I wasn’t surprised. I mean, this is something that indigenous peoples have known since the inception of residential schools. The federal government wasn’t surprised, the RCMP or churches. Everybody in a position of power has long known about the crimes and abuses that happened at residential schools. We’re quite thankful for the bravery of the survivors to come forward and make sure that it was documented. This is a critical piece. And the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did an incredible job in the face of many barriers put forward by the federal government to make sure that their stories were heard and that as much documented evidence was contained in the report. And I think that’s incredibly important for Canadians, because we know what happened to us, but Canadians don’t know what happened, and they don’t understand the culpability of the federal government and churches in this regard.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the issue of the conclusion of cultural genocide, do you have any concerns or qualms about that specifically?
PAMELA PALMATER: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission went about as far as they felt comfortable in naming it cultural genocide. But I—it’s just genocide through and through. If you look at the U.N. definition on genocide, it meets every single one of those factors. And there’s nothing cultural about it. They weren’t killing us because of our culture. They were killing us because we were Indians, and we stood in the way of accessing all of the lands and resources and settlement in this country.
Think about it. All of the overrepresentation in this country in prisons—you know, some prisons have as high as 60 percent indigenous peoples—that’s not because of our culture; it’s because we’re Indians, and we have rights and aboriginal rights that still stand in the way of unfettered resource development. Why are our kids overrepresented in Child and Family Services, to the tune of 30,000 to 40,000 in Canada? Here in Manitoba, 90 percent of all kids in care are indigenous. It’s not because of their culture; it’s because of who they are as Indians and that we’re the indigenous peoples here, and we have rights to protect this territory, and we’re essentially the last stand against complete, unfettered development here in this country.
And so, if you look at it across the board, while they may have characterized it in terms of, you know, assimilating culture, you wouldn’t have a death rate of upwards of 40 percent in some of those schools if it was just about culture. It would have been more aggressive education tactics, both in those schools and in the communities. If you have a death rate that’s higher than those who enlisted in World War II, this wasn’t about culture.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to survivor testimony recorded by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada. This is William Nelson describing his experience being sent to a residential school.
WILLIAM NELSON: We arrived to the dorm in the middle of the night. The supervisor for the junior boys showed me my bed, the rows of beds where other boys were asleep. I thought they were asleep, but once the supervisor closed the door, all the heads popped up. And the boys all stood around to look at the new kid. That was me. Around the second night or so, the supervisor opened the dorm door, which he caught me sitting up in bed. He says, “We have rules here, if you’re caught sitting up in bed. You should be sleeping.” Because I was sitting up, I had to be punished. The punishment was getting strapped and whipped with a belt. I believe it was about seven times that I was whipped in the back.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s William Nelson. Another survivor of the residential schools named MaryAnn Sam of Vancouver Island also spoke at the Truth and Reconciliation sharing circle.
MARYANN SAM: From my experience while I was at the residential school, my sisters and I were led to believe that our mother was killed in a car accident. But that was not true. She was in the accident, but the ministry and families had taken us, hid me and my sisters for years. When my mom was well enough to care for us again, she searched and searched for us. We were once again reunited. She returned us home, a single parent. And again, it was her struggle that provided us strength to love and respect others. It was then, when we returned home, that we were brought to the day school again with priests and nuns. So we thought this was the way of life. But we enjoyed where we were, back with our community, family and children that we knew. But the experience here was similar, not again to use our language, not to use our cultural ways, because that was not for who we were. In my community, it was our mothers who fought for our school and went about to teach our language, our culture.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s MaryAnn Sam of Vancouver Island speaking at the Truth and Reconciliation sharing circle. Professor Palmater, she says, “My sisters and I were led to believe our mother was killed in a car accident. But that wasn’t true.” And respond to what both William and she were saying.
PAMELA PALMATER: Well, I mean, these stories are quite common, and stories even worse than this are quite common, the amount of intentional lying and deception and keeping parents away from children. So it wasn’t like parents were just enrolling these children, they were going to school, and there were some isolated incidents of bad things happening. We’re talking about wholescale theft of children from communities, in large part against the will of the parents, and parents were kept away from those schools. And even children who ran away were brought back oftentimes by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, despite the allegations of what was happening in those schools.
And that’s the real crime here, because whether or not people agree that this is genocide, it was always against the law to kidnap children, to assault them, to assault them with deadly weapons, to rape, torture them, use electric chairs on them, to deny them food and water, to beat them to such an extent that some died, to starve them until some died. All of these things were crimes then, just as it is now. And nobody was prosecuted, despite the fact that the RCMP knew, the federal government knew, and the churches knew exactly what was happening.
And I think really illustrative of that are the government’s own documents. You had doctors coming to the federal government, saying, “You have extremely high death rates in the schools.” And the federal government’s response was: “Well, that doesn’t justify a change in our policy, because the overall objective is, quote-unquote, ‘the final solution.'” And we’ve heard those words before. So we know exactly what the intention was. And I know there was a focus on culture and that people were abused and beaten for speaking their language and culture, and they were clearly denied their identity. But for many of these children, upwards of 40 percent, they were denied their right to live. And that goes far beyond culture. Think about at the same time the forced sterilizations that were happening against indigenous women and little girls all across the country. Sterilization has nothing to do with one’s culture, but, in essence, the one’s right to continue on in their cultural group or nation-based group. The objective was to get rid of Indians in whatever way possible. Culture was one aspect of it, but also denying them the right to live or to procreate was an essential part of this.
And I think what’s really important for people around the world to understand is that residential schools didn’t really stand in isolation. It was in addition to the forced sterilizations, the scalping bounties, all of the—overrepresenting our people in prison, stealing them and putting them in Child and Family Services, the thousands of murdered and missing indigenous women in this country that go unresolved, and no steps taken to prevent these actions, and that this is ongoing. It would be a terrible mistake to historicize this and say, “Well, this happened a long time ago. We now know what happened. Let’s apologize and move on.” It is ongoing.
When they closed residential schools, their very next policy was known as the Sixties Scoop, where they actually took more children from First Nations than during the residential school period, which is why we have now 30 to 40 percent of our children in care. They’re still taking our children. They’re still trying to raise them in non-indigenous families. And many of these children end up as murdered or missing indigenous women, or they end up in the prison system. And that’s—this legacy of the residential schools is ongoing. It’s very much in the present. You can track the survivors of residential schools to kids in care, to people in prison, to those who are homeless, to those who have poor health. All of these things are very much in the present. So we have to take action now to address the ongoing problems that were started by the residential school and have never stopped and continue to this day in just different terminology and in different policies.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Paula Palmater, I wanted to ask you about the role of the churches in this. It wasn’t just the government. Which churches? What specifically did they do? And what has been their admission of—their own admission of their culpability in this cultural genocide, or this general genocide, as you say?
PAMELA PALMATER: Well, I think it’s varied. So, all of the churches that were here were involved in this. It looks like the majority of these schools were run by the Catholic Church. I understand that there—at a local level, there has been difficulty in obtaining records. Often churches didn’t make note of the children who died in those schools. So we don’t even have a complete record of those—how many that did die. We know for sure it’s at least 6,000 to 7,000, but it could be even higher. Many churches had unmarked graves. And we’re in a situation now where many residential school survivors and First Nations are demanding that churches come forward and give us all of their documentation, at every level, no matter where the documents have been kept, about who knew what and when, who was involved, and primarily to bring closure for many of these families to know where their child last spent their days, where their remains could possibly be. And all of that information has not been forthcoming from the churches, especially at an administrative or national or international level.
At the local level, however, you do see local churches trying to take steps to make amends, to try to have a better relationship with indigenous peoples, and trying to work together to support different initiatives on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. So we have Cree people who are walking across the country for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission events, and their walk was supported by some of the churches, and things like that. But I think at an institutional level, the churches have a lot more work to do, and they need to make some very specific and targeted apologies, and make amends, because, as we know, apology means nothing unless you’re going to try to make amends to right the wrongs that happened in the past. And so, they have a clear responsibility, in addition to the federal government, to support things like indigenous languages and cultures and education, and trying to find a way to both identify these children and return them to their families and communities. That’s incredibly important.
AMY GOODMAN: Last year, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police revealed at least 1,181 native women and girls were killed or went missing between 1980 and 2012. The new Truth and Reconciliation Commission report made a link between the residential schools with the missing and murdered women. The report states, quote, “The available information suggests a devastating link between the large numbers of murdered and missing Aboriginal women and the many harmful background factors in their lives. The complex interplay of factors—many of which are part of the legacy of residential schools—needs to be examined, as does the lack of success of police forces in solving these crimes against Aboriginal women,” unquote. Paula Palmater, can you talk about what is being planned now? I mean, that’s a government commission. What is the follow-up at this point?
PAMELA PALMATER: Well, there is no follow-up. And probably one of the most insulting, shameful things that happened yesterday was when the Truth and Reconciliation commissioner, Justice Murray Sinclair, got up and said there’s a clear link between what happened in residential schools and the vulnerability of our indigenous women and girls that go murdered and missing, and that he recommended and supported all of the calls for a national inquiry: Everyone stood up, gave him a standing ovation, except the minister of Indian affairs.
And that’s extremely significant, if the minister of Indian affairs can’t be supportive of finding justice for indigenous women and girls, who go murdered and missing at an extremely alarming rate. Here in Manitoba, it’s 50 percent. They only make up 4 percent of the population, but 50 percent of all indigenous women and—of all women and girls that go murdered or missing are indigenous. And so we have some significant issues across the country. Again, it’s not just about our culture. Our very lives are at stake.
And so, the minister of Indian affairs didn’t clap. He didn’t give a standing ovation. And this is in line with what the prime minister has said. He has said, time and time again, an inquiry into why indigenous women go murdered and missing is not high on our radar. He doesn’t consider it to be an issue. And he’s really out of touch with all of the research. There’s been at least 50 reports with over 700 recommendations on how to deal with this. And the United Nations, various human rights bodies, including CEDAW, have come out with reports which have researched and studied this and said this is a problem.
The police are not taking action. There’s lots of socioeconomic conditions of poverty that make our indigenous women and girls vulnerable, some stemming from residential schools, some stemming from Canada’s very purposeful, targeted, racist and discriminatory laws and policies, and that a national inquiry is recommended to get at the root of it so that we can come up with solutions to prevent it from happening to begin with. It’s no good to have a police force who’s now willing to take action to investigate murders; we want to stop those from happening in the beginning.
And I think it’s critical that this Truth and Reconciliation report tied all of these things together, that residential schools didn’t just happen as a moment in history. It’s ongoing legacy. And that’s also in line with some of the other recommendations around the overrepresentation of our people in prisons. Justice Murray Sinclair recommended that action be taken right away to look at all of the criminalization data and take action to stop this from happening—the same with Child and Family Services, the same with all of the socioeconomic problems that make our people vulnerable to begin with.
AMY GOODMAN: Paula Palmater, we want to thank you very much for being with us, associate professor and chair in indigenous governance at Ryerson University. She is a Mi’kmaq lawyer, an Idle No More activist and author of Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity and Belonging. Thanks so much for joining us from Winnipeg, Manitoba.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Sepp Blatter to step down. We’ll speak with an Australian soccer official who blew the whistle on FIFA. Stay with us.
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