As in Australia, Sweden, and several other countries*, aboriginal children in Canada were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools, where they were forbidden to use their own languages, practice their own religions or cultural traditions, and were forced to assimilate into the culture of their oppressors.
As if this wasn't bad enough, many of them were horrifically abused - physically, sexually and emotionally. Like abused children everywhere, these victims were wholly dependent on their abusers, and so entirely helpless.
Many died from preventable diseases, spread by overcrowding, lack of sanitation and neglect. The deaths of sick or abused children were covered up; many were buried in unmarked, mass graves.
These concentration camps were run by various mainstream churches, beginning in the early and mid 19th Century; the last church-run school didn't shut its doors until Native peoples forced its closure in the 1970s. Through the 1970s, management of the remaining schools was assumed by Native councils. The widespread abuse was uncovered and made public by activists in the 1990s.
This is surely one of Canada's most terrible legacies and greatest shames.
That sentence is so pale. It feels impossible to articulate how disgusting and shameful this is. It is vitally important to acknowledge and always remember these human-rights crimes, perpetrated by governments and churches, right here in Canada. And to never forget what is happening now, in our own backyard.
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In 1998, the government made a Statement of Reconciliation – including an apology to those people who were sexually or physically abused while attending residential schools – and established the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. The Foundation was provided $350 million to fund community-based healing projects focusing on addressing the legacy of Indian residential schools. In its 2005 budget, the government committed an additional $40 million to continue to support the important work of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
In June 2001, the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada (IRSRC) emerged as a new department of the federal government. Its mission is to address the legacy of the residential schools system and its effects on former students by providing alternative means of compensation and support to the victims.
In the fall of 2003, after some pilot projects launched since 1999, the Alternative Dispute Resolution process or "ADR" was launched. The ADR was a process outside of court providing compensation and psychological support for former students of residential schools who were physically or sexually abused or were in situations of wrongful confinement.
On November 23, 2005, the Canadian government announced a $1.9 billion compensation package to benefit tens of thousands of survivors of abuse at native residential schools. National Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations said the package covers, "decades in time, innumerable events and countless injuries to First Nations individuals and communities." Justice Minister Irwin Cotler called the decision to house young Canadians in church-run residential schools "the single most harmful, disgraceful and racist act in our history." At a news conference in Ottawa, Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan said: "We have made good on our shared resolve to deliver what I firmly believe will be a fair and lasting resolution of the Indian school legacy."
This compensation package became a Settlement Agreement in May 2006. It proposes, among other things, some funding for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, for commemoration and for a "Truth and Reconciliation" program in aboriginal communities, as well as an individual Common Experience Payment. Any person that can be verified as attending a federally run Indian residential school in Canada is entitled to this Common Experience Payment. The amount of compensation is based on the number of years attended by a particular former student of residential schools: $10,000 for the first year attended plus $3,000 for every year attended thereafter.
The Settlement Agreement also proposed an advance payment for former students alive and who are 65 years old and over as of May 30, 2005. The eligible former students had to fill out the advance payment form available for download on the IRSRC website to receive $8,000 that was deducted from the Common Experience Payment. The deadline for reception of the advance payment form by IRSRC was December 31, 2006.
Following a legal process including an examination of the Settlement Agreement by the courts of the provinces and territories of Canada, an "opt-out" period occurred. During this time, the former students of residential schools could reject the agreement if they did not agree with its dispositions. This opt-out period ended on August 20, 2007.
The Common Experience Payment became available to all the former students of residential schools on September 19, 2007. All former students (including those 65 years of age and over as of May 30, 2005) have to fill out the Common Experience Payment application form to receive their full compensation. The deadline to apply for the CEP is September 19, 2011. This gives former Indian Residential School students four years from the implementation date of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement to apply for the Common Experience Payment (CEP).
Similar forced residential boarding schools for native communities were operated in the United States (under the name Indian boarding schools) and in Australia (the Stolen Generation).
In June 21, 2008, the Indian Residential School Museum of Canada is scheduled to open on Long Plain First Nation, near Portage La Prairie, Manitoba.
Tomorrow's apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to be lengthy and detailed. Nothing can change the past, but a full accounting by the perpetrator can help heal wounds. In this case, the perpetrator is an entire country, and someone has to speak for it.
If you haven't seen the movie "Rabbit Proof Fence," about forced-assimilation schools in Australia, I highly recommend it. The film features aboriginal actors and survivors of these concentration camps, and the DVD has lots of very good extras about the history and how the film was made.
* There were forced-assimilation schools in the US, but the US's methods of dealing with its "Indian problem" was quicker and more direct: outright massacre, then complete neglect of the survivors.