If you were taken aback on Tuesday, or even offended, when the long-awaited Final Report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada accused your country of "cultural genocide," step back for a moment and try this exercise:
Close your eyes and imagine you are at home with your two children, a boy aged six and a girl aged eight. There's a knock at the door. It's a moment you've dreaded for weeks. You answer it and there is a man from the government and an RCMP officer who order you to turn your children over to them immediately. The children are led away and placed in the back of a truck in which you can see other children crying. Your boy and girl are screaming that they don't want to leave you but, the minute you show any resistance, the policeman steps in to enforce the law. You are compelled to give up your children, because the state has judged you to be unfit as a parent on account of your race. That night, you are alone with your spouse in an empty house, brokenhearted, powerless and without hope, everything that matters stolen by the state.
Now imagine you are one of the children. You are driven hundreds of kilometres to a new school run by strangers. When you arrive, your hair is cut off and the clothes your mother made you are taken from you and burned. You are punished every time you speak your mother tongue or cry for your parents. You are lost and confused. You are separated from your brother, because he's a boy and you're a girl. You are underfed, cold. There is no playground outside, just a cemetery for the children who died in the care of this horrible place.
And then one of the teachers abuses you sexually. And the state turns a blind eye. Eventually, as a teenager, you are free to go. But go where? Your home has been destroyed. You don't know who to trust, or who you are.
Can you do that? Can you imagine it? An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were stolen from their families and communities over the course of 100 years of Canadian history. The survivors and their descendants are still living with the consequences. And not just in their own lives but beyond that, trying to make their way in a country where the state-sanctioned prejudices of the past are ingrained in the minds of many of their fellow citizens.
Are you among those who don't know that the government compelled indigenous parents to give up their children until the late 1960s, and that the last residential school was closed in 1996?
A poll in 2013 showed that 60 per cent of Canadians believe that First Nations, Inuit and Métis people are the authors of their own problems. This comes after the apology for residential schools made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the House of Commons in 2008. "This policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language," Mr. Harper said, but then his government made no changes in policy to lessen those impacts.
It was ever thus. Previous bodies similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have made recommendations to improve the lot of indigenous peoples that were welcomed by the government of the day, and then never quite panned out.
Maybe that's why the head of the commission, Justice Murray Sinclair, decided to accuse Canada of cultural genocide in his report. Maybe that why the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, last week gave a speech that invoked the same words.
Justice Sinclair has dropped a bomb on our society, both by using that term and by gathering the stories of thousands of people whose lives were damaged by residential schools.
His choice of words, however, unleashed an argument over semantics and labels. Is it fair to call what was done cultural genocide? What does that even mean? Should a word invented to describe the ultimate horror and evil of the Holocaust be invoked here?
It would be a mistake to get lost in that debate. An argument over what to call a wrong that was committed, and how to classify it, is a distraction and a dead end. Focus instead on the stories of the victims. Focus on the facts. Because the facts of what happened to native Canadians in the residential school system, and as a result of the attitudes that led to its creation, are documented in excruciating detail in the report. They speak for themselves.
This country needs to be shaken out of its indifference. It needs to acknowledge a dark history that Canada authored. Canadians must consider how to remedy the harm that we – Canadians – caused.
"Non-aboriginal Canadians hear about the problems faced by aboriginal communities but they have almost no idea how those problems developed," Mr. Sinclair says in his report. That's not an excuse any more.
We'll examine the report's 94 recommendations later this week.