In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Playground bones force Canada to face genocide of Indian children

Posted by seumasach on January 6, 2009

6th January, 2009
IN OVERGROWN deserted school playgrounds across Canada lie the bones of thousands of native Indian children who were stolen from their families.

Historian John Milloy is helping to uncover their stories in official research on burial sites. “We know that children were buried in unmarked graves, children who disappeared and were never heard from again,” he said. The research is part of Canada’s attempts to face up to a disturbing legacy of its residential school system, an attempt to “assimilate” native children that resulted in thousands of deaths and ruined lives.

From the late 19th century right up to the 1970s, an estimated 150,000 native children – First Nations, Inuit and Métis – were packed off to the schools, funded by the state and run by the Catholic, Anglican and United churches.

The story has taken a more sinister turn, with allegations about death by torture, fatal medical experiments, forced sterilisation and secret burials in mass graves filtering into the public domain.

These allegations have been gathered and disseminated by Kevin Annett, a defrocked minister who was thrown out of the United Church in 1996 for his part in exposing the schools scandal and the clergy’s sale of entrusted native lands to a logging company.

Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, apologised last year on behalf of the religious authorities. “We failed them, we failed ourselves, we failed God. We failed because of our racism and because of the belief that white ways were superior to aboriginal ways,” he said.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has responded to the claims over Mr Annett’s allegations by ordering maps to be drawn up of possible burial sites and research into numbers and causes of death.

Mr Milloy and his team plan to track down the death certificates and records of maintenance payments sent to schools. Much of the proof will have been lost in routine government purges of official documentation in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, he fears.

Michael Pollesel, general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada, says that many schools would also have lost track of children.

Roland Chrisjohn, a professor of native studies St Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, is sick of what he perceives as Canada tip-toeing around the issue.

“I want someone with the power to subpoena witnesses and documents and go all kinds of places this commission can’t go at all,” he said.

Describing the residential schools as “genocide”, he said: “Perpetrators are still living. People should be held to account.”

Mike Cachagee, the chairman of the National Residential Schools Survivors’ Society, has his own theory about the TRC. “It is an opportunity for churches to receive absolution,” he said.

“For us, there are no words of reconciliation, you have to make amends. Just listening for ten minutes doesn’t work.”

Thousands abused in regime built to crush native cultures

LAST June, the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, rose in parliament to apologise to aboriginal people on behalf of all Canadians for a system of Indian residential schools he called a “sad chapter in our history”.

From the 1870s to the 1970s, some 150,000 native Indian children were forcibly removed from their parents and sent to distant residential schools. Many survivors said they were abused mentally, physically and sexually. In 2006, a class-action lawsuit resulted in a court settlement that awarded them close to $2 billion (£1.5 billion).

There are about 80,000 survivors of a practice that ripped an estimated 150,000 children from their communities and sent them off to be relieved of their “Indian-ness”.

In decades past the aim was to assimilate aboriginal peoples and crush their cultures. Duncan Campbell Scott, a senior government bureaucrat dealing with aboriginal matters, declared in 1920: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem.” He went on: “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.”

Children were called pigs and dogs. Teachers beat them if they used their own languages and told them they would go to hell unless they converted to Christianity. Many parents never saw their sons and daughters again. Survivors often took to drugs and alcohol to dim the pain.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up for five years under the terms of the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, is expected to hear the stories of survivors, beginning this year.

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