Vol. 2 No. 12                                "India is the cradle of the human race... " - Mark Twain
July 2008 "Canada is one of the oldest federations the planet still has up and running." - Roy MacGregor

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A Nation Apologises for "killing the Indian in the child" 


Photo Courtesy: PM's website

U.S. and Canadian authorities took Native children from their homes and tried to school, and sometimes beat, the Indian out them.

 

"There comes a time in the history of nations when their peoples must become fully reconciled to their past if they are to go forward with confidence to embrace their future," said Kevin Michael Rudd, Australia's 26th Prime Minister, in his speech in the House of Representatives in Canberra, on February 13, 2008, while moving a motion of Apology to Australia's Indigenous Peoples. 

 

For U.S.A., as a nation, that time has not come until now, though some states have individually, apologised.

 

For Canada that time came on June 11, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in a speech in the House of Commons, apologized to Canada's aboriginals for the federal government's role in residential schools. 

 

As 11 aboriginal guests of honour sat before him on chairs arranged in a native restitution circle, Harper called the residential schools "a sad chapter in our history."

 

"I stand before you to offer an apology to former students of Indian residential schools. The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history," Harper said.

 

Harper was followed by Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, NDP Leader Jack Layton, Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe and other Aboriginal leaders, who gave emotional speeches.

 

"It was federally mandated by law, and executed en masse. It was tantamount to state kidnapping. The parents of these children were not deemed citizens at the time, spoke little or no English and had no means to fight back," writes Michelle Stirling-Anosh, Ponoka, in Calgary Herald. 

 

From the 1870s to the 1970s, around 150,000 native Indian children were forcibly removed from their parents and sent to distant residential schools, where many say they were abused mentally, physically and sexually.

 

Conditions in the schools – run by various churches on behalf of the government – were sometimes dire.

 

Contemporary accounts suggest up to half the children in some institutions died of tuberculosis.

 

One prominent academic calls what happened genocide, yet for many years few Canadians knew what had happened.

 

The schools were, originally, an extension of the missionary work of various churches, and they began receiving state funding in 1874 after the government moved away from a policy of fostering aboriginal autonomy and sought instead to assimilate aboriginals into mainstream society, says a Reuters report.

 

It further adds, “Duncan Campbell Scott, a senior government bureaucrat dealing with aboriginal matters, declared in 1920 that ‘I want to get rid of the Indian problem. He added: ‘Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.’"

 

Most of the churches that ran the schools apologised in the 1980s and 1990s.

 

Chief Phil Fontaine, head of the Assembly of First Nations, which represents Indians and himself a former student, said the idea behind the policy was to cause "profound harm, loss and grief to individuals, families, communities and subsequent generations".

 

The system was "assimilation founded on racist premises - premises of inferiority, disrespect, discrimination and inequality", he says.

CANADA'S ABORIGINALS 

Made up of Indians, known as First Nations people, Metis and Inuit

Population 1.2 million out of total 33 million Canadians

48% of aboriginals are under 25 years old (31% for non-aboriginals)

Unemployment rate for 25-64 year olds almost three times the national rate

34% do not complete secondary school (15% for non-aboriginals)

Suicide rate among young aboriginals almost twice the national average 

[Sources: StatsCan, Aboriginal Health Organisation]

John Milloy, a professor of Canadian studies at Trent University in Ontario, who has written a book on the school system, says it was a deliberate practice to keep sick and healthy children together, leading to high death rates from tuberculosis.

 

Chuck Strahl, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, said he hoped it would bring "renewed hope, faith, mutual respect and trust" between aboriginals and the government.  

 

 As of June 2nd, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Justice Harry LaForme, the Ontario judge, is starting a five year mandate where they intend to travel the country to meet with all involved parties to give a voice to all those affected by these schools.

 

Justice Harry LaForm describes the current relationship between the government and the aboriginal community as "faulty and filled with mistrust and misunderstanding".

 

"It is unworkable," he says, "and what happened with residential schools is part of it."  

 

Mike Cachagee was one of those children and he was present in the parliament for the historic step of apologising on behalf of the nation for one of the darkest chapters in its history. He was not impressed by apologies.

 

At the age of four, he was sent from his home to a series of state-run church boarding schools, where he was physically and sexually abused stripped of his language, religion and culture.

 

When he returned home 12 years later, his mother did not recognise him.

 

"To apologise for taking me away from my family, for losing my culture and the loss of my childhood and the loss of my mother's love... How does one apologise for that?" he asks.

 

A full and sincere apology will be a new starting point, "a reference point for a new beginning", Mike Cachagee says.

 

"Aboriginals have been in Canada for 30,000 years. We were a vibrant community and did quite well for all those years. Then we had a complete moral, cultural and spiritual breakdown because of this," says Mr Cachagee.

 

He says the general Canadian attitude to what happened is indifference: "It's like the elephant in the living room that no-one wants to look at."

 

His view is echoed by Mr LaForme, who adds that the Canadian public is by-and-large unaware of the history of aboriginal people.

 

Mr Cachagee says he does not think the government's apology will make him feel any different about what happened to him or his people.

 

"But I am optimistic that it will shed light on the issues that aboriginal people have to deal with," he says, "so that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren's attitudes - and the attitudes of
Canadians towards them - will be different."
 

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                   

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