Canadians need ‘conversation’ about residential schools: Murray Sinclair

Posted on April 17, 2015 in Equality Debates – news/politics
April 15, 2015.   By Mark Kennedy, Ottawa Citizen

The residential schools that scarred thousands of aboriginal children over seven generations were symptomatic of a larger Canadian attitude that treated indigenous people as ethnically inferior, says the head of a commission on the issue.

In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) chairman Justice Murray Sinclair said he wants to kick-start a national debate about how to reconcile inequities that still remain between aboriginal and nonaboriginal Canadians. The TRC will release its report in Ottawa on June 2, just months before the federal election. Created in 2009, the commission heard from 7,000 people and is still receiving federal archival documents that Sinclair says tell an “astounding” story of what happened in the schools.

The commission’s report will contain recommendations and Sinclair said he wants all Canadians – not just politicians – involved in a national discussion on how to improve relations between aboriginals and nonaboriginals.

“The essence of what people need to know is this: For the longest time, aboriginal people have been mistreated by this country. In terms of their rights, but also in terms of their ability to function as human beings,” he said.

“Not just because of a lack of resources, but also a social experience which has taught them that they are incapable of managing their own affairs or taking care of themselves.”

At the same time, said Sinclair, non-aboriginal Canadians have grown up to believe “they come from a superior stock, a superior civilization.

“The schools were but one example of what was going on in society at large since Confederation.

Because the Canadian govern-ment was messaging as justification for the schools that it was about civilizing an inferior people through the use of Christianization.”

Sinclair said the country’s education system must be changed so all children know about the residential schools and the importance of indigenous culture. “We need to change the way that people in the community engage with each other and think about each other.

“So that when you pass a homeless person on the street, then your willingness to engage with that person is not altered by your stereotypical racist view about them. Or will be altered by or influenced by your understanding of what’s gone on that might contribute to that.”

Sinclair’s comments come as the TRC finishes work on one of Canada’s biggest under-reported stories.

Over many decades, 150,000 aboriginal children were sent by the federal government to church-run schools, where many faced physical and sexual abuse.

The system ravaged Canada’s aboriginal communities, leading to abject poverty, social problems from alcoholism to crime, and dysfunctional families that lacked parenting skills.

More than 6,000 children died at residential schools, according to records, although the real number is believed to be higher.

The TRC heard many stories from people about the abuse they suffered. Sinclair indicated that’s just part of a bigger picture.

“The residential school experience has had its most significant impact upon the lives of aboriginal children who went there by virtue of the fact that their culture and languages were taken away from them.”

Also important, said Sinclair, is how many spoke of other types of emotional trauma they experienced.

“Survivors have told us that even when they weren’t physically abused in the schools, that they lived in constant fear that they would be.

“Whenever a child was disciplined or punished it was always done in front of the class or in front of the entire student body as a lesson to everybody. They were told, ‘This is what’s going to happen to you if you run away, or if you talk back to the teacher.'”

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