“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
— Sir Winston Churchill
The Indian residential schools system is a uniquely Canadian wound that will be very slow to heal.
Beginning as early as the 1870s, more than 150,000 First Nations children were taken from their families and forced to attend federally run residential schools far from home.
The goal of this mass institutionalization was simple: eradicate the First Nation in the child. Children were forbidden to speak their own language or practise their own culture. Those who disobeyed faced severe punishment. Others endured terrible emotional and sexual abuse.
New research conducted under the Missing Children Project suggests at least 3,000 students died in the system.
Officials believed that, given enough time, “aggressive assimilation” would persuade First Nations children to speak English, practise Christianity and adopt Canadian customs.
A monumental failure, the Indian residential schools system caused untold grief to First Nations families and produced generations of First Nations men and women ill-equipped to function in society, First Nation or otherwise.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized to residential school students in Parliament on June 11, 2008.
Compensation, called Common Experience Payments, was made available to surviving residential school students, and Ottawa established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine the system’s legacy.
But has the federal government learned from the mistakes of the past?
Shawn Atleo doesn’t think so.
The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations told the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on Monday that First Nations children are still being sent into institutional care by the thousands due to systematic under-funding of child-welfare services on reserves.
“It’s a pattern that looks a lot like the pattern under residential schools,” he added later in an interview.
The AFN and First Nations Child and Family Caring Society have been arguing since 2007 that child-welfare services on reserves receive 22 per cent less funding than off-reserve services.
The human rights tribunal is investigating those claims, if it gets the chance. The federal government has been attempting to quash the human rights case in the courts. It argues the case should not be heard at all because it’s unfair to compare federal programs to provincial programs.
Federal lawyers are expected to make just that argument at the Federal Court of Appeal next week.
It is difficult to imagine how First Nations families must feel as yet another generation of children are torn away from their homes. The reasons may differ this time around — poverty, domestic violence, poor social conditions — but the effects on their development will be tragically similar.
There is little doubt that some of the children to whom Atleo refers are institutionalized as the result of social problems rooted in the residential school experience.
It is a vicious cycle that will be difficult if not impossible to break unless the federal government first recognizes the impact that the mass institutionalization of children has had on First Nation society and then provides the funding and programs necessary to ensure that First Nations children remain as close to their families as possible.
Breaking this cycle will require more than an apology, more than compensation, more than a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It will require a long-term commitment by Canadians to tend to our wound and those most affected by it.
Judging by Ottawa’s response to the human rights case so far, it has already forgotten the lessons of the past and is bound and determined to repeat the same mistakes in the future.
Cameron Kennedy is an Advocate editor.