Facing up to Canada's dark history

From the late 19th Century up to the 1970s, an estimated 150,000 native children in Canada were seized from their parents and sent far away to state-funded, church-run schools to learn how to think, speak and act like white people. The country is still coming to terms with the disastrous results.

By Lorraine Mallinder

11 February 2008 / BBC News

Maybe I picked a bad day to visit. The place is a ghost town.

I came here with the idea of taking a mental snapshot of life in Kahnewake, exclusively populated by members of the Mohawk nation, at the beginning of an important year for Canada's relations with its native peoples.

In the coming months, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will start touring the country to heal the scars of the residential schools system, a policy that resulted in thousands of deaths and devastated lives.

With an estimated 80,000 former pupils still around today, many of whom witnessed or suffered sexual, physical and mental abuse, the debate over how much truth will be needed for reconciliation is stirring controversy.

Bitter memories

Back in the freezing present, I duck into a smoke shop, selling tax-free tobacco, for shelter. Star Eagle greets me from behind the counter and, eyeing my numb face with bemusement, offers me a coffee.

"Truth and reconciliation? I ain't never heard of that," she says when I ask whether she is aware of the new commission. Now in her 50s, she has bitter memories of the residential schools regime.

"People here are heart-broken about what they went through," she tells me. "They show their hearts on their faces and they don't know it."

"I call it hard face," she says. Her eyes deaden and her features tense in a depiction of life in Kahnewake.

Away from the reserve, in Ottawa, the Canadian capital, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has suffered some loss of face.

Launched last year, it has had trouble getting off the ground. Its chief commissioner, a Mississauga Indian and a judge on the Ontario Court of Appeal, resigned in October after tussles over the body's mandate.

As the politicking over his replacement continues, the public spotlight has been shifting from the healing of the living to the raising of the dead.

It is accepted knowledge that a large proportion of the children, some estimates run into tens of thousands, died of tuberculosis in the cold, filthy schools.

Spirit of the dead

But recently, the story has taken a darker turn, as allegations of secret burials in mass graves, death by torture and fatal medical experiments have begun to surface.

The man behind the new allegations is Kevin Annett, a defrocked Vancouver minister who was thrown out of the United Church in the mid 90s for exposing the schools scandal and challenging the clergy's sale of native lands.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission cannot, under the terms of its mandate, subpoena documents or witnesses to investigate the claims. It has, however, ordered research into possible burial sites.

It has also floated the idea of holding traditional ceremonies to ask the spirits of the dead children to return home to communities like Kahnewake.

Annett tells me this is a cover-up. He wants a Nuremberg-style tribunal to hold government and church officials accountable for genocide. He also wants the children's bones to be dug up, forensically tested and returned home.

I ask some native people about their views on Annett's campaign and receive a complex set of responses. While most say there is an element of truth in the shock allegations, not everyone supports the former minister.

Willie Blackwater, a Gitxsan Indian, is well known in Canada for his landmark victory against the church and the government in a sexual abuse lawsuit in the 90s.

He resents the idea that Annett, a white man who has never attended residential school, has somehow become the public face of the dead children. He believes Annett has "disgraced" native people with his public demands for the dead to be repatriated.

I ask Blackwater what kind of outcome he would be happy with. He supports the truth and reconciliation process, but thinks that native people should be in charge.

'Locked in pain'

I get the sense from my discussions with him and others that native people feel the Church and state, the white establishment, are driving the whole healing process. They feel excluded from the real decisions on truth and reconciliation.

Maybe it stems from the experience of everyday life on reserves like Kahnewake, cut off from mainstream Canadian society, with no political or economic clout.

The segregation is both enshrined in federal laws that define native status and self-imposed by wary native communities that frown upon intermarriage with outsiders.

People in isolated reserves like Kahnewake are still haunted by memories of the residential schools era. For many, it is a world of drug and alcohol addiction, violence and high suicide rates.

"Sometimes I feel people get annoyed with me for trying to be happy," says Star Eagle. "They're all locked in together with their pain."

There is a real sense of foreboding as Canada prepares to come to terms with its dark history. Whatever emerges from the process of truth and reconciliation, the ghosts will not go quietly.


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