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OTTAWA -- Canada has lost the sense of urgency that once existed for properly addressing the legacy of residential schools but there is still hope it will happen eventually, the independent commission tasked with documenting the truth about residential schools and guiding Canada to reconcile with indigenous people said today.
In releasing the first part of its final report, the three commissioners posted 94 recommendations for action by the federal and provincial governments, churches and other Canadians.
Although the recommendations themselves do not call on Ottawa to label the residential schools a cultural genocide, there can be no doubt that the label fits the bill, the report says.
"For over a century, Canada had a policy to eliminate Aboriginal governments, ignore Aboriginal rights, terminate 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," reads the opening line of the 382-page executive summary. "The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as cultural genocide."
TRC Chair Murray Sinclair had hard words this morning in his speech upon the official release of the TRC report in Ottawa.
More than 600 survivors, family members, political leaders and religious leaders crowded into the ballroom of a downtown Ottawa hotel for the release.
"Today I stand before you and acknowledge that what took place in residential schools amounts to nothing short of cultural genocide," Sinclair said, to applause from the audience. "It was nothing less than a systematic and concerted attempt to extinguish the spirit of Aboriginal peoples."
And, Sinclair said, he and the other two commissioners simply do not believe the current government has much will to do anything about it.
"We believe the current government is not willing to make good" on the promises made in the apology in 2008.
"Words are not enough," Sinclair said. "Reconciliation requires deliberate, thoughtful and sustained action."
He said the government’s rejection of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples "sends a clear message to Aboriginal people in Canada, all Canadians, and the world."
Canada was reluctant to sign on to the declaration at first, did so under pressure saying all the while it was not binding, and "shamefully," last fall was the only country to raise objections to a document that reaffirmed the declaration.
But that declaration is given a lot of weight by the commissioners as a document that can help lead the way to reconciliation.
The commission grounded many of its recommendations on that declaration, said Sinclair.
The TRC notes Canada has been in this position before, in 1996, with the release of the report from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. But that report was largely ignored by government and a majority of its recommendations never implemented.
"In 2015, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada wraps up its work, the country has a rare second chance to seize a lost opportunity for reconciliation," the report says. "We live in a twenty-first-century global world. At stake is Canada’s place as a prosperous, just and inclusive democracy within that global world."
The commissioners were clear they are wary of the government.
"The promise of reconciliation, which seemed so imminent back in 2008 when the prime minister, on behalf of all Canadians, apologized to survivors, has faded," they wrote.
And the relationship between Ottawa and Aboriginal peoples is "deterioriating."
"Instead of moving towards reconciliation, there have been divisive conflicts over Aboriginal education, child welfare, and justice."
Too many Canadians don’t know what happened to aboriginal peoples, and that lack of knowledge drives poor public policy decisions and racism.
In the 94 recommendations TRC Chair Murray Sinclair and his two co-comissioners came up with is a blueprint for what they hope will be a way to bring Canada and the Indigenous people who live within its borders to a common understanding and a common goal. From eliminating gaps in educational attainment and health between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians, to ensuring there are the policies and funding in place to reduce the number of kids in care and overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in this country’s justice system – both as victims and offenders, the recommendations point in many ways to territory already gone over.
An inquiry for murdered and missing aboriginal women is a must, says the report. The government has flat out rejected the idea for years.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt is in attendance. He was the only person in the room to remain seated during an ovation from the crowd after Sinclair called for an inquiry into the high number of murdered and missing aboriginal women in Canada.
There are calls for medical, nursing, law and journalism schools to include a mandatory course on the history and legacy of residential schools, and skills training on conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.
It wants Ottawa to eliminate the gap between funding for education on and off reserve, and draft new education legislation in consultation with aboriginal people, that will improve the educational attainment levels and success rates of aboriginal students.
Only about one-third of aboriginal kids complete high school.
The commission also wants Ottawa to eliminate the Criminal Code provision that allows teachers and parents to spank children as a disciplinary measure. That recommendation largely stems from the large number of aboriginal students who report being beaten at residential schools in punishment for everything from speaking the wrong language to not eating their dinner.
The residential schools existed in Canada from the latter half of the 19th century and throughout most of the 20th. The last of the schools closed in the mid-1990s, although few remained after 1980. An estimated 150,000 aboriginal kids attended residential schools, which existed mainly in the west, the north and parts of northern Ontario and northern Quebec.
The schools were run by the churches on behalf of the federal government and operated out of a federal government policy to assimilate aboriginal children.
The TRC report, based on the stories of thousands of survivors and facts gleaned from millions of documents in archives across Canada, outlines the truth about what happened in the schools.
The racist policies that underlined the entire system. The chronic underfunding that led to dilapidated schools, understaffed and overcrowded classrooms, poor supervision that allowed for rampant physical and sexual abuse.
"The full extent of the abuse that occurred in the schools is only now coming to light," reported the commissioners in the executive summary.
About half of the survivors who made claims for compensation as former students under the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement also made claims for compensation for physical and sexual abuse. More than 30,000 of those claims have been accepted and $2.7 billion in compensation paid out.
Forty-five former former residential school staff have been convicted of sexual or physical abuse.
The abuse took on many forms. From voyeurism, when staff insisted on watching their students in the shower, to groping and rape. Physical abuses included beatings for speaking the wrong language or not answering questions correctly in class. Some students even reported being forced to eat their own vomit if they were sick after eating food often described as inedible and lacking in nutrition.
"The impact of abuse was immediate and long-lasting," the commissioners wrote. "It destroyed the students’ ability to function in the school and led many to turn to self-destructive behaviours."
The abuse from staff also led students to turn on each other, leading students to abuse other students.
The commissioners fully believe reconciliation can only happen if the truths of aboriginal history become part of the Canadian identity. So they call for age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, treaties and the contributions of aboriginal peoples to Canada to be developed and become mandatory for all students from kindergarten to grade 12. The commissioners also want monuments to residential schools erected in Ottawa and every capital city, and plans put in place to commemorate residential school sites.
It wants an aboriginal Language Commissioner created to help promote and protect aboriginal languages. And it wants a National Council for Reconciliation to monitor, evaluate and report annually on the process of reconciliation.
They also ask for $10 million over seven years to fund the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation which is being set up at the University of Manitoba to house a permanent archive of the documents and stories uncovered by the TRC over the last six years.
The commissioners also rely heavily on Canada fully implementing and following up on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That declaration, which Canada balked at initially but eventually adopted with the provision that it was not binding, could be the catalyst for reconciliation, the commissioners believe.
"The commission is convinced that a refusal to respect the rights and remedies in the Declaration will serve to further aggravate the legacy of residential schools and will constitute a barrier to progress towards reconciliation," the commissioners wrote.
To see the full executive summary click here.
The 94 calls to action by the TRC can be found here.
Updated on Tuesday, June 2, 2015 at 8:34 AM CDT: Updates with comments on federal government's attitude
8:36 AM: Adds interactive graphic
8:56 AM: Adds sidebar story on Margaret Lavalee
9:23 AM: Adds events in Winnipeg.
9:36 AM: Adds comments from Greg Selinger
9:50 AM: Adds photo
10:01 AM: Removes sidebar story
10:45 AM: Updates with remarks from Sinclair
10:49 AM: Changes photos
10:56 AM: Adds PDF of TRC report
11:11 AM: Livestream added.
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