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Editorial

Call it. Call a spade a spade. That’s what Canada’s commissioners for the historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission have done, to their credit and to the benefit of all Canadians. It’s time for the Harper government to do the same, now, to set this country on the long, hard road to understanding itself, to make some peace with its past.

The commission, chaired by Manitoba’s own Justice Murray Sinclair, has declared the federal government aimed to "cause aboriginal people to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious and racial entities in Canada."

Kevin Hart at a pipe ceremony at Thunderbird House on Main Street Thursday.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Kevin Hart at a pipe ceremony at Thunderbird House on Main Street Thursday.

John A. Macdonald authorized the schools in 1883, to take the children away from the influences of the "savages," their parents, to make them white like him.

Indian residential schools, the commission says, were central to a policy of "cultural genocide."

The pull-no-punches executive summary, released Tuesday ahead of its multi-volume full report, is a blunt indictment of Canada’s century-long experiment of assimilation to get rid of the "Indian problem."

The Indian Act made school attendance mandatory in 1920. Where day schools didn’t exist, children as young as or younger than five were forcibly sent to forbidding institutions run by church people filled with religious fervour and little parenting know-how.

Short-sighted, misguided, racist. Call it what you will, it went wrong from the inception and wreaked ruin upon whole nations of first peoples. (The federal government got wind of sexual and physical abuse, at Selkirk’s Rupertsland School, as early as 1889.)

How bad did it get? Words have yet been invented to do justice to the effect on aboriginal people, their culture, potential, this country and Canadians.

But start here: 6,000 children ‘missing.’ That’s an underestimate because floods, fire and decay have shot holes in the records.

Churches, their head offices and governments at all levels ought to step up to the commission’s call, now, to uncover the forgotten, overgrown cemeteries at former residential school sites. Mark the grounds, tend to the graves and honour the dead.

And what of the living? The 2007 court-sanctioned settlement between the churches, federal government and aboriginal people has also seen 30,939 sexual or serious physical abuse claims resolved so far, and $2.69 billion in compensation paid to the victims. That’s out of some 150,000 students enrolled over 100-plus years, about 80,000 of whom are still living.

This is why the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement is "the largest single recognition of criminal victimization in Canadian history."

The commission, six years and $60 million in the making, has done an honourable job of collecting the stories of former students. Sonia Wuttunee-Byrd, at a national event in Winnipeg in 2010, shared this:

"(T)hey started to sexually take advantage of me and abuse me, not one, not two, but many, many people for a very long time, until I was 16. I started to really deteriorate.

"I became very sick and anorexic, and really started to go downhill. At one point I only weighed 66 pounds, and that was it, I had no desire to live. The doctor said, ‘You have a month to live, go home.’ He said to my family, ‘Take her home, she is going to die.’… I would say to Mom and Dad, and they never understood why I was crying. The school always said, ‘Sonia is a fantastic student, she is doing so well,’ but inside it was torment. I held everything in and didn’t tell anybody for 20 years."

The residential school policy failed in its attempt to kill the Indian in the child, a goal inspired by the American system of early industrial schools for native people.

It did not kill Ms. Wuttunee-Byrd. In fact, the rise of an educated, aboriginal middle class in Canada today is a testament to the people’s resilience.

But Canadians should not wonder why disproportionate numbers still toil in poverty, fill the child welfare agencies, abuse drugs, fill the jails and die much younger than non-aboriginals.

The commission has called upon provincial governments to do what’s necessary, in the next decade, to keep aboriginal children with their families. Courts must cede to alternative justice sanctions, to keep aboriginal youth, men and women out of jail.

This is a taste of the magnitude of the job ahead for Canadians, to reconcile the enormity of the racist policies inflicted upon our first peoples. That work will be guided by the truths yet to come: The stories of the 7,000 survivors who gave statements are stored at the new National Centre of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the University of Manitoba.

In a gesture of reconciliation, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt committed the federal government Tuesday to supporting the centre. (That message should have come from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but he did not attend the public ceremonies, underscoring the commission’s finding of a deterioration in relations between Ottawa and aboriginal people.)

The centre has already received some five million documents from churches and the federal government. It is receiving millions more from Library and Archives Canada, and they will be open to academic and other researchers in years to come.

So there are many more chapters to be written about residential schools, aboriginal resilience and the failed attempt at cultural genocide against the first peoples of this land.

The truths to come will rewrite history. It is this unvarnished version Canadians need to learn, to reconcile themselves to a different kind of Canada than the one they heard about in their history classes. Aboriginal people bear the visible scars of the Indian residential school era, but all of Canada suffered — we bear that stain collectively. Aboriginal people are on the path to closing their wounds. The rest of us need to put on our travelling shoes.