At least 6,000 aboriginal children died while in the Canadian residential school system, Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told Evan Solomon of CBC Radio in an interview that aired on Saturday.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established to study the legacy of the Indian Residential School system (IRS), is scheduled to release a report on Tuesday.
The report, prepared after six years of research including testimonies of more than 7,000 residents and past teachers and staff, will detail the commission’s findings and make recommendations to help address Canada’s history.
Canada’s residential school system was established in the 19th century and survived well into the 20th century with the last institution closing in 1996. The schools were funded by the government, affiliated with the church and aimed “to take the Indian out of the child.”
Earlier estimates put the number of school children who died in the system at fewer than 4,000 yet the actual number may even be higher than the 6,000 mentioned by Sinclair.
“We think that we have not uncovered anywhere near what the total would be because the record keeping around that question was very poor,” Sinclair said at an earlier programme on CBC called Power & Politics. “You would have thought they would have concentrated more on keeping track.”
According to Sinclair, approximately 150,000 children attended residential schools. They were removed from their families, banned from speaking native languages and often were subjected to physical and sexual abuse.
Speaking at Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences on Saturday in Ottawa, Sinclair said that while the history of victimhood must be understood, it cannot dictate the future.
“Rather than presenting the picture of aboriginal people as victims of current social statistics and data, what I say is that [schools and universities] need to contribute to a more positive understanding of what the relationship would have looked like but for the way the relationship evolved over the years.”
Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said on Thursday that Canada attempted to commit “cultural genocide” against aboriginal peoples, adding that “the most glaring blemish on the Canadian historic record relates to our treatment of the First Nations that lived here at the time of colonisation.”
Speaking at the Global Centre for Pluralism, she said Canada developed an “ethos of exclusion and cultural annihilation” which replaced an earlier period of inter-reliance and equality.
“The objective - I quote from Sir John A. Macdonald, our revered forefather - was to ‘take the Indian out of the child,’ and thus solve what was referred to as the Indian problem. ‘Indianness’ was not to be tolerated; rather, it must be eliminated. In the buzz-word of the day, assimilation; in the language of the 21st century, cultural genocide.”
McLachlin said Canadians now know that the policy of assimilation “was wrong,” citing the landmark 2008 ceremony during which Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologised for the abuses aboriginal Canadians suffered.
“Yet the legacy of intolerance lives on in the lives of First Nation people and their children - a legacy of too much poverty, too little education, and over-representation of aboriginal people in our courts,” she noted, pointing out that the effects of intolerance can still be seen to this day.