Education urged to redress Canada native 'cultural genocide'

Michel Comte
A woman holds a sign as several hundred indigenous people march through the streets of Toronto to bring attention to the plight of indigenous peoples in Canada, on June 24, 2010 (AFP Photo/Jemal Countess)

Ottawa (AFP) - A commission called Tuesday for increased funding for education of Canada's aboriginal population to repair the damage caused during the last century by Christian-run boarding schools for Indians, Inuits and mixed-race children.

"Survivors were stripped of the love of their families. They were stripped of their self-respect and they were stripped of their identity," said commission chair Murray Sinclair.

The truth and reconciliation commission, which was set up to address the disparity in academic performance between aboriginals and non-aboriginals, blamed a policy of assimilation pursued by Canada from the end of the 19th century that it concluded amounted to "cultural genocide."

Sinclair, an Ojibway-Canadian judge, called for national healing "as we make a path towards a more just, more fair and more loving country."

He was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper later in the day to discuss his findings and recommendations, including adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Ottawa has so far resisted.

Harper officially apologized in 2008 as part of a record Can$1.9 billion settlement with former students for "failing them so profoundly."

He told parliament on Tuesday the government "will read the report before deciding the next steps."

But Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said at the commission closing ceremony the apology is "empty, meaningless without action."

The commission spent five years gathering testimony from 7,000 former students about their experiences at the residential schools.

Beginning in 1874, 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Metis children in Canada were forcibly enrolled in 132 boarding schools run by Christian churches on behalf of the federal government in an effort to integrate them into society.

"The children who attended these schools were severely punished for practising their cultural ceremonies, for speaking their family's language," commented TRC commissioner Marie Wilson.

Many former students alleged abuse by headmasters and teachers, who stripped them of their culture and language.

At least 3,200 students never returned home.

The experience has also been blamed for gross poverty and desperation in native communities that breeds abuse, suicide and crime.

Most of Canada's Indian Residential Schools, modeled after US Indian industrial schools of the period, were shut down in the 1970s. The last one closed in 1996 in Saskatchewan province.

"Reconciliation rests on building aboriginal culture back up, and preserving the languages and ceremonies that the schools tried to eliminate," Wilson said.

The report also calls for the repeal of a law that permits educators to spank students, the teaching of Canada's 58 aboriginal languages (most of them now spoken by only a handful of individuals) and the introduction of mandatory courses on aboriginal history for all nursing, journalism and law students, as well as for bureaucrats.

It urges the government to help locate students' missing graves, and to include a pledge to observe treaties with indigenous peoples in Canada's citizenship oath.

It also calls for a papal apology for the church's role in the "spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children in Roman Catholic-run residential schools."