What did we learn? That provocative question hangs in the air now that Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has wrapped up public hearings into the nation's Indian residential school era. Some 150,000 native children as young as five were taken from their families and forced to live at schools far from home, starting in the late 1800s.
The question is at the core of reconciliation. After nearly four years of hearings -- the last took place in Edmonton over the weekend -- the commission must submit its final report by the end of 2015. And it is in the midst of setting up the country's national research centre on Indian residential schools at the University of Manitoba to hold the research papers, video and testimony from thousands of former students. It will take years to compile all records, however, because most are held by the federal government, which has been forced recently by court order to identify, organize and hand them over.
Learning, in many ways, has just begun. Canadians have now had their eyes opened to the truth of life at the church-run schools. Children were abused physically, emotionally and sexually by instructors, administrators or support staff. Disease and lack of food saw death rates soar at some schools. Despite alarming reports of assaults by school inspectors and Indian agents, of epidemics and work-house routines, the schools remained open, the last finally bolting its doors in Saskatchewan in 1996.
The enormity of this racist social experiment unleashed by the federal government is seen now in generations of emotionally scarred families, individuals and communities. "In order to educate the children properly we must separate them from their families. Some people may say that this is hard but if we want to civilize them we must do that," asserted federal Public Works minister Hector Langevin in 1883. And so it was. Those who survived the experience lost their language, culture, family. Parents lost their hope and vitality. Addictions, not surprisingly, became widespread and continue in trickle-down consequence.
This is a crucial piece of Canada's history. Yet, it is not easy to find it in public schools today. High school curricula make way for a discussion of residential schools among optional courses, but rarely as part of the core social studies or history studies. Manitoba reserves this exploration for Grade 9, in a broader evaluation of Canada's assimilative policies. Alberta requires residential schools be discussed in Grade 10 in the examination of imperialism. In other provinces, the Indian residential school legacy is not required learning.
That, as commissioner Murray Sinclair has made clear, must change. Reconciliation cannot happen without examining the incalculable effects this destructive era had on all Canadians. The legacy has marked Canada's history and relationship with aboriginal people.
The case for mandatory inclusion of Indian residential schools in the nation's classrooms is best made by the young. Stories told at the commission's 2013 hearings in British Columbia finally revealed to a tearful Keeyana Stewart, from Watson Lake Secondary School, why her father "drank so much." The indelible lesson from the gathering was equally profound for schoolmate Kareena Groat: "I hope something like this never happens again, anywhere in the world."