A Disturbing Repeat of the Residential School Nightmare

This Wednesday at The Forks in Winnipeg the Aboriginal Truth and Reconciliation Commission will begin its hearings into Canada's residential school system. That system saw 150,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit children placed in 130 residential schools across Canada. These hearings are the first of seven planned across Canada. Their goals, to listen, to heal, to understand and to ensure this legacy of the past informs our decision towards First Nations people today.

We will watch these hearings with a strong desire that those who experienced this neglect, abuse, mistreatment will find a measure of peace.  Perhaps some of us we will even expect this to be the beginning of the end of injustice; surely this could never happen again.

Yet dear reader consider what is happening to First Nations children today.  According to the First Nations Caring Society: There are more First Nations children in foster care today than were placed in Residential Schools at their height.

This is shocking, deeply troubling – and bears repeating: More First Nations children are in child welfare care today than at the height of residential schools.

We know from John Milloy's book on residential schools, A National Crime (1999) there were 8900 children in residential schools at the height of their operations in 1949.  Today a conservative estimate sees 27,000 First Nations children in foster care. Different strategy same result – children removed from their natural parents and family breakdown.

Let me add more texture to that statement, again courtesy of The First Nations Caring Society.

  • one in ten aboriginal children versus one in two hundred non-aboriginal children are in child welfare
  • seven times as many infants die on First Nations reserves than in the rest of the country.  This is the primary reason, Canada's child mortality rates have plunged from sixth to twenty-fourth in the world
  • one in six First Nations households don't have clean drinking water.

The causes are well known: poverty, poor housing and substance abuse all of which we can do something about.  Of particular concern is the drastic under-funding of at home supports
for children and families.

In 2007 the First Nations Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission against the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada alleging that inequitable funding for First Nations children and families on reserve resulted in unequal benefit under child welfare laws.  They have since been joined by Amnesty International.  Our government, the Government of Canada is stonewalling these proceedings essentially using legal loopholes rather than addressing the substance of these concerns.

Here's the irony, deep tragedy and a reminder that the quest for justice is relentless, paradoxical,
elusive, contradictory, and complex. 

The Truth and Reconciliation hearings begin June 16th on the second anniversary of our Prime Minister Harper standing in the House of Commons and apologizing on behalf of all Canadians and asked for "forgiveness of the Aboriginal Peoples of this
country for failing them so profoundly."

I was proud of our Prime Minister for doing the right thing and making this apology.  In fact I happened to be in a room with BC Premier Gordon Campbell  just after he returned from an event with First Nation leaders celebrating this historic breakthrough. Premier Campbell couldn't speak about it without crying.  As Sean A-in-chut Atleo Chief of the First Nations Assembly stated -  The historic apology to residential school survivors was an important
moment in our shared history. The apology was a statement by all of
Parliament that colonialist policies and attitudes that undermined First
Nations governments and denigrated First Nations families and cultures
were wrong, caused great harm and have no place in Canada today.

You can do more than read,listen or view media reports on the Truth and Reconciliation hearings.  Visit The First Nations Caring Society website.  They offer a list of seven things you can easily do in less than two minutes.  I would add an eighth: Contact your MP or our Prime Minister and urge Canada to do the right thing.  To address the chronic underfunding of supports and education to First Nations children and families on reserve, (approximately $125 Million annually).  To follow the well researched solutions proposed by the First Nations Caring Society. 

Let's make sure in 25 years there isn't another Truth and Reconciliation process for the children brought up in the child welfare system.

To hear a recent CBC Sunday Edition interview with Dr. Cindy Blackstock the remarkable leader of the First Nations Caring Society click here.

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  1. peterrj@shaw.ca

    On an individual basis, the depth of the tragedy is overwhelming.
    1. A First Nations man was sent to me by his family doctor. He believed he was the only student who was sexually abused at his residential school, and so he thought he must have been a really bad kid. It took months for him to accept that the abuse was not about his own personal failings.
    2. Some years later, he tried to fill out Federal Government compensation forms but was so re-traumatized that he could not move from his armchair for several days – urinating and defacating on himself.
    3. When he told me about this, he broke down and cried. In 30 years of practice where crying was commomplace, I have never heard such sounds coming from a human being.
    4. When he was finally ready for his compensation hearing, the government allowed him to choose the venue and to invite one supporter who had to remain silent throughout the proceedings. He chose our clinic as the site and I was to be the silent supporter.
    5. It was difficult to remain silent but I really tried. After several hours of questioning, it was clear that the man was becoming re-traumatized by the process so I intervened.
    6. At that point, the compensation people made a decision based on which specific types of sexual abuse had taken place and on how many occasions. This is how the total amount of compensation was assessed. Surely there has to be a better way than this!
    7. The man wanted to use part of his compensation to return to his village – the idyllic home of his childhood – in order to erect a memorial to his friends who never made it. They’d attended residential school with him, but were now dead from substance abuse and more direct forms of suicide. My person was the strong one.
    Peter Johnson

  2. Al Etmanski

    Thanks Peter – I know about your continued and courageous support and stand on behalf of so many who have been traumatized and unable to speak for themselves.

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