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Bernie Farber, a former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, writes on human and civil rights matters.

It's a letter written in the mid-1960s on a common Underwood typewriter. The words typed on the paper, however, are not common at all. They depict a childhood of pain, torment, deprivation and starvation.

Russell Moses was a member of the Delaware band of the Six Nations of the Grand River. Born in 1932, he was not unaccustomed to poverty and discrimination, like many other aboriginal children of the day. And like 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children, he found himself at the age of 8 removed from all he knew and thrust into the Mohawk Institute, a residential school just outside of Brantford, Ont.

This week has seen Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) release its 328-page report. The commission's aim was to "oversee a process to provide former students and anyone who has been affected by the Indian Residential Schools legacy, with an opportunity to share their individual experiences in a safe and culturally appropriate manner."

Russell Moses was a man ahead of his time. In 1965, the Indian Affairs branch of the federal government reached out to a number of former residents to ask them for their "candid" views on the residential schools. Moses was a veteran of the Korean War, then served with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Later he acted as an expert on native issues within the federal public service.

For its time, the Moses letter is astonishing in its detail. It serves as an indictment against not only our history but our historical denial of the anguish native children faced over the more than 140 years of the existence of residential schools in Canada. The last of these institutions was shuttered in 1996.

The Mohawk Institute, referred to by the children as "the Mush hole," was a dark and horrible place, the stuff of children's nightmares. Food, as described by the Moses letter, was "minimal in quantity and appalling in quality." Breakfast often consisted of oatmeal infested with worms; lunch was rotten soup with scraps of beef and decaying vegetables; and dinner was two slices of bread and jam, potatoes and, in the summer, maybe an apple for dessert.

Moses laments in his letter that he had seen "Indian children eating from the swill barrel, picking out soggy bits of food intended for the pigs."

The church-run institution, funded and overseen by the federal government, gave each of the children a number that was sewn onto their clothing. Over the time they spent in the school, that was their identity.

Robbed of their names, forbidden to speak their languages (severe beatings would follow any use of traditional language), subjected to harsh physical punishment and deprived of love, the children suffered enormously.

Forced to work, they arose at 6 a.m. and cleaned stables, cared for the pigs, milked cows and much else.

"We had no toothbrushes, no underwear was issued in the summer, no socks in the summer. Our clothing was a disgrace to this country … Cold showers were provided summer and winter in which we were herded en masse by some of the bigger boys and if you didn't keep up under the shower you would be struck by a brass studded belt," Moses wrote in the letter.

Lice were common, and all the children simply had their heads shaved each spring.

Religion was forced on them to the point where their First Nations culture was virtually forgotten. Yet Christian charity was a foreign concept when it came to their care.

"I have seen Indian children having their faces rubbed in human excrement," Moses wrote.

"We were not treated as human beings – we were the Indians who had to become shining examples of Anglican Christianity."

For far too many non-indigenous Canadians, this story and countless other testimonies told to the TRC might very well be the first time they have heard of the atrocities suffered by these children. Precious little can be found in school history texts, and many are beginning to believe that the historical denial of the suffering was intentional.

First Nations, academics, former politicians and many others believe that forced residential schooling meets the United Nations test for genocide. They may be right.

One thing, however, is certain. Our long road toward reconciliation does not end with the closing of the TRC. This journey is just beginning.

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