This story is over 5 years old.


Canadian Residential Schools Where 6,000 Died Amounted to ‘Cultural Genocide'

A final report on the residential school system was released Tuesday, detailing the horror faced by scores of First Nations children in Canada.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
Photo by Daily Vice

William Henry can still taste the moment he was caught speaking Mi'kmaq by a nun at his school.

"She took a piece of soap, and she washed my mouth with it," recalled the former student of one of Canada's infamous residential schools in Nova Scotia.

Mary Courchene, a student at another school in Manitoba, said the system turned her against her heritage.

"I just absolutely hated my own parents. Not because I thought they abandoned me; I hated their brown faces. I hated them because they were Indians."


Beverley Anne Machelle remembers what the separation from her siblings did to her.

"I wasn't even allowed to talk to my brothers," she said. "I had three brothers there. Two of those brothers committed suicide."

Their searing testimony forms part of a new damning report into the abuse and mistreatment of Canada's First Nations children.

After seven years, a slew of setbacks, political squabbling, funding restrictions, and logistical nightmares, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its findings on Tuesday and the results are like a punch to the gut.

"For over a century, the central goals of Canada's Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious and racial entities in Canada," the opening paragraph states.

"The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as 'cultural genocide.'"

The Commission was formed to study the facts, impacts, and legacy of Canada's residential school system.

The final release of the report is, in some ways, the end of the road. In others, thanks to a long list of recommendations on how to repair the country's relationship with its Indigenous peoples, it's just the beginning.

The full report, with testimony from survivors and all 94 recommendations, is available online.


A history of cultural genocide

Canada's implementation of the residential school system dates back to the last half of the 19th century.

Faced with the prospect of dealing with a population whose land they just colonized, English settlers began to scheme ways to assimilate and manage the Indigenous population.

While some First Nations signed treaties with the settlers that generally governed their relationship and ownership of the land, many other nations never had the chance. Even of those treaties that did exist, few, if any, were respected — a litany of court cases have been filed in recent decades to force the Canadian government to comply with the documents the Crown signed in the 1800s.

Ultimately, most First Nations and Metis people (the descendants of First Nations and European settlers) faced a system of food rationing, forced relocation, and military aggression. Most of the Canadian government's actions filtered through the lens of assimilating, or 'civilizing,' Aboriginal people.

It's that history that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission lays out as the background of the residential school system.

The schools were the project of numerous Christian missionaries, looking to instill European religious values into the "savages," as was the common parlance of the time. The early schools ranged from religious boarding schools, resembling orphanages, to "industrial schools," which put children to work in order to teach them trades that were meant to integrate them into the colonial economy.


Towards the end of the century, after Canada's confederation, the federal government began to formalize their administration. Churches would run the schools, and Ottawa would provide funding per student. As the government put more importance behind the school's ability to "take the Indian out of the child," as their philosophy went, they began requiring attendance. Police officers and special "Indian agents" would be sent to reserves to collect children, and would be dispatched again if children escaped the schools.

At the schools, speaking Aboriginal languages was, in most cases and to varying degrees, prohibited. Cultural and religious items that tied the children to their families were generally burned or thrown out. Students would be placed into marriages with current and former students, at the will of the priests and nuns running the schools.

The system sought to eliminate the uniqueness of Canada's First Nations and, by most metrics, succeeded.

According to Statistics Canada, only one-in-four Aboriginal people in Canada speak or understand an Aboriginal language. According to UNESCO, 61 of Canada's Indigenous languages are endangered, while another 24 are vulnerable. Two are already extinct.

"If the preservation of Aboriginal languages does not become a priority for both government and Aboriginal communities, then what the residential schools failed to accomplish will come about through a process of systemic neglect," the report reads.


The report goes on to note that the schools never achieved their purpose — "the residential school system failed as an education system…most students left residential schools unprepared to succeed in the market economy or to pursue more traditional activities such as hunting and fishing," it concludes. The schools produced a generation of children with grade three educations, many of whom lacked the ability to read.

Testimony from survivors and records from the schools themselves also allowed the commission to identify systemic abuse, widespread sexual assault, and a staggering death toll.

The commission estimates that more than 6,000 students died in those schools. The actual total is impossible to know, given that the government destroyed volumes of records in the early 20th century. Of the documented deaths — over 5,000 — less than half have names. The rest of the deaths are merely totals in a ledger. In the early 1900s, nearly 3 percent of all residential school students died while in the school. Even by 1950, nearly four students in every 1,000 would not make it out of the school alive.

The death rate in the schools ranged from twice, to five times, as high as the death rate for non-Aboriginal school children, even into the 1960s.

Put another way: the odds of dying in a residential school were higher than for those fighting in the Second World War.

The report found a variety of reasons for this. Tuberculous ran rampant in the schools thanks in large part to shoddy ventilation and healthcare in the schools, documented by reports warning of these conditions dating back to 1906. In many cases, students who contracted the disease were sent home, where they infected many members of their community.


Fire was also a constant concern. The commission identified 223 fires on record, nearly a quarter of which destroyed the schools, which killed at least 40 students. "The harsh discipline and jail-like nature of life in the schools meant that many students sought to run away. To prevent this, many schools deliberately ignored government instructions in relation to fire drills and fire escapes." The report says that mentality, as well as penny pinching, endangered students and staff well into the late 20th century.

Survivor stories

The commission also interviewed survivors of the schools, and recorded their experience. An abridged version of their stories were published alongside the report.

"Reconciliation is a process of healing relationships that requires public truth sharing, apology, and commemoration that acknowledge and redress past harms," reads one of the committee's principles.

That, at times, got testy. Former staff testified that, while issues existed, they didn't see the level of abuse and neglect the former students were describing. The survivors reacted angrily, accusing the staff of — willfully or not — not seeing what was really going on in the schools.

Testimony from those survivors sheds some light onto the lingering effects of the schools

Many survivors spoke of suicide and depression in the schools. One survivor lost two brothers, who she was separated from her entire time in the school. Another said one of the priests brought him into the gym so he and his classmates could watch a fellow student who had hanged himself from the rafters. It was supposed to serve as a lesson. Other former students told the commission that they attempted suicide when they were as young as 12 years old.


Some of the most unsettling testimony comes from those who faced abuse and sexual assault in the dormitories.

"The supervisor would sneak in, in the dark; take one of the students out. I'd freeze when they would come in, wondering if I was going to be the next one," Nellie Ningewance told the commission. "I was never able to go to sleep."

Others testified that priests and administrators would bribe students with bread, extra food, or candy in exchange for sex. The students, hungry, would agree.

A project looking to document those stories, Where Are the Children, collected video testimony from dozens of survivors.

The commission spent years unearthing records from the churches who ran the schools, provincial coroners, Health Canada, the federal Department of Indian Affairs.

The Canadian government initially agreed to turn over all relevant records to the commission. As time went on, however, it became increasingly clear that the promise was empty.

As the commission tried to collect the roughly five million relevant documents in the government's possession, it became clear that most of the historical documentations were housed in Library and Archives Canada, which serves as a warehouse for most of the government's older records. Ottawa, however, fought the commission's efforts to even get to those documents, arguing that it would be too costly and outside the commission's mandate.

Eventually, a court forced the government to get the documents out. Ottawa ponied up some money to cover the cost of finding and digitizing the documents, but the committee still faced a lack of resources to the bulk of the work.


Many of those records, like arrest records for parents who tried to stop their children from being taken to the schools, still may never be uncovered.

Moving forward

The purpose of the commission wasn't merely to document the past abuses, but also to recommend a way forward.

An exhaustive list of recommendations, that suggests everything from heavily re-investing in First Nations education to improving financing for Aboriginal media, will be submitted to the Canadian government on Tuesday.

While the Stephen Harper government has been criticized for not doing enough for First Nations, it was the current prime minister who formally created the commission and tasked them with making recommendations as to how to move forward.

It was also the current government that agreed to compensate the survivors of the school for the abuse they received, and delivered a formal apology on behalf of Canada to those were taken from their families and forced into these schools.

To date, $2.8 billion has been paid out to over 30,000 survivors.

But, as the report notes, the schools contributed to a legacy of poor education, trauma, and family division that still impacts First Nations today.

While Canada is one of the world's most prosperous countries, according to the Human Development Index, its Aboriginal population ranks on par with the Democratic Republic of Congo according to the government's own statistics.


Many of the commission's recommendations focus on fixing that problem, if the relationship and trust between Canada and its First Nations is to be repaired.

"It's hard to talk about reconciliation when you have 120 First Nations communities with boil water advisories," said Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, in a press conference on Monday. Almost three-quarters of reserves are at medium or high risk of water contamination.

Prime Minister Harper has made an attempt to tackle the education issue, but saw a long sought-after deal crumble, thanks to some of that mistrust.

The $1.9 billion deal fell through after pressure from local chiefs.

The frustration with the federal government culminated in the mass protest movement Idle No More in 2013, as an unprecedented wave of activism and protest pushed thousands of Aboriginal peoples across the country to take to the streets and block rail lines and bridges.


"We are writing this for the future, not for the current government."

That's what Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the commission, told a crowd assembled in Ottawa on Tuesday to unveil the report.

The event brought thousands to Ottawa, including hundreds of survivors. They packed into a downtown hotel for the official release of the report, overflowing from the main hall, onto three levels. Survivors and those who never went to the school alike cried as testimony was played on the hotel's sound system. Volunteers filtered through the crowd, dispensing and collecting tissues — those soaked tissues will be burned in a bonfire ceremony later tonight.


Of Canada's three main political leaders, only New Democrat Thomas Mulcair was in attendance. He received a copy of the report from Justice Sinclair and told media that, if he becomes prime minister in October, he would commit to trying to repair the relationship between the federal government and First Nations.

While Liberal leader Justin Trudeau wasn't at the event, he did issue a press release vowing to adopt all the recommendations if he were to become prime minister.

The full list of recommendations can be read here.

Mulcair specifically committed that he would ratify the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt, meanwhile, remained firmly seated as Sinclair told the crowd that the Canadian government needs to adopt that international treaty.

"It was a tragedy to be sitting beside Minister Valcourt and to see him crossing his arms as everyone else in the room was standing up and applauding," Mulcair said.

Valcourt didn't address media, but he did make a statement in the House of Commons on Monday, saying he was "confident that we will be able to continue healing as a nation, building on the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission."

NDP MP Romeo Saganash, himself a survivor of the residential school system, was also at the event.

"It was a very moving moment for me. I knew that was going to happen," Saganash said after the event. "I spent ten years in a residential school. This commission has allowed me to close that chapter of my life."

Saganash said that a good first step towards reconciliation should be for Canada's Members of Parliament to recognize that they are standing on unceded Algonquin territory when they stand up in the House of Commons.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Sinclair are slated to meet Tuesday afternoon.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling