Canada urgently needs an independent investigation into the deaths of thousands of indigenous children in church-run residential schools if the country ever hopes to finally face the horrors of its colonial past, the man who led the country Truth and Reconciliation Commission he has told The Guardian.
Murray Sinclair, a former senator and one of the country’s first indigenous judges, warned that the “undiscovered truths” of schools are probably far more devastating than many Canadians believe, including the deliberate killing of children by school personnel and the probability that such crimes were covered.
Sinclair called for a powerful investigative body, free from government interference and empowered to subpoena witnesses.
“We need to know who died, we need to know how they died, we need to know who was responsible for their deaths or for their care at the time they died,” said Sinclair, a member of the Peguis First Nation. “We need to know why the families were not informed. And we need to know where the children are buried. “
Canada has been rocked by the discovery of nearly 1,000 unidentified graves at the sites of church-run residential schools that indigenous children were forced to attend as part of a forced assimilation campaign.
On Thursday, the Cowessess First Nation said the remains of 751 people had been found at the site of a former residential school in Saskatchewan, just weeks after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc nation found 215 unmarked graves in British Columbia.
Justin Trudeau described the graves as “a shameful reminder” of the systemic racism indigenous peoples still endure, adding: “Together, we must acknowledge this truth, learn from our past, and walk the shared path of reconciliation, so that we can build a better future. “
But Sinclair cautioned that reconciliation requires a sustained effort for change on the part of ordinary Canadians and powerful state institutions, an effort that has so far been elusive.
“The government, our social institutions and even our population recognize that what was done to indigenous peoples was wrong. There have been several apologies and the promise that things will change. But there have been no changes, “he said. “Whenever any change is reluctant, it means that there remains the will, the ability, and even the desire to go back to the way things were.
Sinclair led a historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission which in 2015 concluded that the residential school system amounted to cultural genocide.
For more than a century, at least 150,000 indigenous children were separated from their families and forced to attend schools, many of which were run by the Catholic Church.
The children were forcibly converted to Christianity, given new names, and prohibited from speaking their native languages. The last residential school closed in the 1990s.
The painful testimony of survivors before the commission made it clear that sexual, emotional and physical abuse was rife. The final report estimated that more than 4,100 children died from illness, neglect and suicide, although Sinclair has said he believes the true number could be as high as 15,000.
But the commission was prevented from investigating the criminal charges and efforts to obtain key church and government records were thwarted.
“We have heard stories from survivors who witnessed children being killed, particularly babies born in schools who had been fathered by a priest. Many survivors told us that they witnessed how those children, those babies, were buried alive or killed, and sometimes thrown into ovens, ”said Sinclair, who oversaw thousands of hours of testimony. “Those stories need to be reviewed.”
The testimony of the survivors and the final report of the commission made it clear that there were undocumented cemeteries throughout the country. However, the recent discoveries have shocked many Canadians and prompted calls for a new investigation, something the government has so far resisted.
The schools were funded by the federal government, but often operated by religious institutions, and there have been increasing requests for formal apologies from the Catholic Church and for the release of any related records.
Pope Francis said he was pained by the discovery of the graves last month and called for the rights and cultures of indigenous peoples to be respected, but his refusal to give a direct apology has disappointed many.
On Friday, the Catholic Missionaries Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who operated 48 schools, including the Marieval Indian Residential School at Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan and the Kamloops Indian Residential SchoolHe said that he would release all the documents in his possession.
“We deeply regret our participation in residential schools and the damage they brought to indigenous peoples and communities, ”the order said in a statement. “We further recognize that delays can cause continued mistrust, distress and trauma to indigenous peoples.”
Sinclair said church and government officials had repeatedly claimed the records had been destroyed or lost. Even when the church turned over the documents to the commission, key names and locations were redacted, rendering the documents “useless” for investigative purposes, he said.
“Frankly, we don’t take his word for it,” Sinclair said before the announcement of the order on Friday.
“We want there to be an independent investigation to go into their archives and see what can be found. And I think we will be surprised by what their records reveal to us. “
And while some important records may have been destroyed in the first place, others never existed. “We know that the children who died at the hands of one of the staff members, in particular the nuns or the priests, were simply not registered.”
At the commission, school survivors described how the trauma they endured was passed on to subsequent generations, a reality magnified by the systematic inequalities that persist across the country.
Dozens of First Nations do not have access to clean water, the government is fighting an order from a human rights court to compensate indigenous children who suffered in foster care, and a federal minister has admitted that racism against indigenous peoples is rampant in the healthcare system. Indigenous peoples are overrepresented in federal prisons, and Indigenous women are murdered at a much higher rate than other groups.
These realities are the result of a sustained campaign to create and maintain racial inequity, Sinclair said.
“It took a constant effort to maintain that relationship of indigenous inferiority and white superiority,” he said. “To reverse that, it will take generations of concerted effort to do the opposite.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism