Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s historic apology to survivors of the residential schools was a fundamental first step toward acknowledging the agony of their experience.
But now, more concrete action must be taken to address the tragic consequences of forcibly separating 150,000 Inuit, Métis and First Nations children from their families, consequences that continue to reverberate in aboriginal communities today.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s interim report makes several specific recommendations, which Ottawa and the provinces would be wise to implement, among them making sure that every Canadian learns what went on in these institutions, and the extent of the abuse, neglect and cultural loss. The commissioners found that many Canadians remain ignorant about those events. A massive public education campaign is needed, including the development of an authoritative curriculum and teaching materials for schools.
Imagine the horror of being scooped from your home, sent to live in a boarding school hundreds, or even thousands, of kilometres away, subjected to physical and sexual abuse, forbidden to speak your native tongue or practise your religion, and having your name changed to a number. Imagine dying without ever seeing your parents again.
Knowing this will help school students better understand the legacy of such trauma in native communities, which today takes the form of addictions, family breakdown, sexual abuse and poor educational and health outcomes.
The commission recommends that mental health facilities in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories be built that specialize in childhood trauma and traditional healing methods. With a suicide rate that is 12 times higher than the national one, it seems cruel that such facilities do not already exist. Parenting programs are also a worthy investment.
Commissioners Marie Wilson, Chief Wilton Littlechild and Justice Murray Sinclair are not being hyperbolic when they say residential schools were an assault on aboriginal culture, families and society. “People are angry at being told they should simply ‘get over it,’” the report observes. “Canadians have been led to believe that Aboriginal people were and are uncivilized, primitive and inferior.... This lack of education and misinformation has led to misunderstanding and... hostility between aboriginals and non-aboriginals.”
The government-funded residential schools operated for a century; the last ones didn’t close until the 1990s. Reconciliation will take generations. But the healing process will proceed more quickly if all Canadians understand the stories of despair – and of survivors’ heroism – from this regrettable chapter in the country’s history.