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Canadian Commission Releases 'Damning' Report On Treatment Of Aboriginal Children


For more than a century, the Canadian government forced indigenous children to attend church-run Indian residential schools to assimilate them into mainstream society. As we're about to hear, those schools were brutal oftentimes, and many of the children suffered grave harm. The last residential school closed in 1998, and 10 years later, Canada's prime minister offered a formal apology to aboriginal people for, quote, "failing them so profoundly." The government also established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This week, after years of research and interviews, that commission released a damning report, concluding that Canada's treatment of children at the schools amounted to cultural genocide. Justice Murray Sinclair chairs the commission and is a member of the Ojibwe tribe. Welcome to the program.

MURRAY SINCLAIR: Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Paint a picture for us of how these schools operated. Who went there and what happened to the indigenous children who are forced to attend them?

SINCLAIR: Well, thousands of children went through these schools. When the children arrived at the schools, they were literally rounded up every year. Anybody between the age of 5 and 17, it seems, was rounded up and put onto wagons and trains and boats and shipped off to these schools. Sometimes, kids were taken far younger than that because they just happened to be caught up in the round-up. And when they arrived there, the kids would have their hair cut, would be subject to delousing chemicals, would be immediately demeaned and spoken to in a very humiliating and disgraceful manner to talk about how inferior they were, how lucky they were that they were being saved from their life of savagery. And children were stopped from talking to their brothers and sisters because the schools feared they would talk their original, traditional language. Anytime a family member would have clothes sent from home, if it was traditional manner of dress, then the clothes be confiscated and they would have to wear Western garb. And they also became like candy stores for pedophiles.

MONTAGNE: This is what accounts for what the commission defined or called cultural genocide.

SINCLAIR: Absolutely.

MONTAGNE: In practical terms, what has that meant?

SINCLAIR: In this case, it was very clear that the government of Canada deliberately established a school for the purpose of killing the Indian in the child, and that means that their intention was not to kill the child, although they were very careless about that. Thousands of children died in the schools and their deaths were treated as just a kind of a necessary part of the school existence. The government's intention was really to use these schools as centers of indoctrination. Seven generations of children went through these schools. We have said coming to terms with this past in a way that allows for there to be a much more mutually respectful relationship is going to take perhaps generations as well.

MONTAGNE: Well, now that this report has come out, what do you think needs to happen going forward?

SINCLAIR: There are still struggles going on in aboriginal communities surrounding these policies. It needs, at some point, to be acknowledged and to be addressed, and I think that'll take some time. But what we have said is the important first step that needs to occur is an acknowledgment that what we have included in our reports is a proper reflection of the full and complete history in Canada.

MONTAGNE: As you said, coming to terms with that will take generations more. But what are the things that must happen?

SINCLAIR: Well, we've said that it was through the use of education that we got into this mess to begin with. But we really believe that the use of education is the key to reconciliation in the future. Children being educated in this country need to be educated to completely understand the role that aboriginal people played in the development of this nation and that they were not the heathens, savages, pagans and inferior people that the textbooks in our schools have portrayed them. That message needs to change, and aboriginal children need to be given an opportunity to establish their own sense of self-respect. And we think that is the first step.

MONTAGNE: Justice Murray Sinclair is chair of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is a member of the Ojibwe tribe. Thank you very much for joining us.

SINCLAIR: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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