James Papatie had his roots uprooted. He was born in 1964 in Kitcisakik, a community of the Anicinape people in the Canadian region of Abitibi-Témiscamingue (province of Quebec), and was part of the nearly 150,000 indigenous minors who lived in one of the 139 boarding schools opened in Canada to assimilate them by the force the dominant culture. The first three boarding schools were created in 1883; the last one closed in 1996. Papatie was locked up in Saint-Marc-de-Figuery, (about 450 kilometers from Montreal). He still remembers when, at the age of six, he was taken to this institution. “It was a kidnapping. Officials from the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, priests and police came to look for us in boats. Some children hugged their mothers and grandmothers. Several parents were beaten by the police. They could go to jail for refusing to hand over their children, ”says Papatie by phone from Kitcisakik.
“Then we traveled a few hours by bus. When we arrived at the boarding school, they took off our traditional clothing and set it on fire. They showered us, washed us with bleach and floor brushes. They applied a product against lice that caused itching. Then they shaved us and gave us uniforms, “he continues. That was only the beginning of the horror. “I was sexually assaulted by a priest and two older students. The students reproduced many times what they had suffered. I received blows, I suffered psychological abuse, mockery of my culture, ”he says. The Saint-Marc-de-Figuery boarding school closed in 1973. Papatie was sent to a somewhat more open regime residence and also lived in foster care with non-indigenous families, but was not returned to his village. He stopped studying at the age of 15; he says he had “too many negative thoughts” in his head. He was immersed in alcohol and drugs for years, but with willpower he left that stage behind and became a leader in his community. He returned to the place and the culture they had tried to uproot from him.
His experience, like that of many others, was “a cultural genocide”, as defined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) created to analyze what happened in the internees in a report in 2015. Now voices are emerging in Canada that indicate that the adjective is superfluous. The case of James Papatie (who in his community they call Jimmy) summarizes much of the catalog of horrors suffered by indigenous minors. He remembers many hours making furniture at boarding school. The TRC highlighted that labor exploitation was not anecdotal in these centers.
This murky chapter of the past has been brought to the fore by the finds by indigenous communities of cemeteries with unnamed graves on the grounds of three former boarding schools. On May 27 it was announced that the remains of 215 children had been found in Kamloops, British Columbia, on June 24 the discovery of 751 unmarked graves in Marieval, Saskatchewan was made public, and on June 30 it was reported that another 182 such graves in the old center of St. Eugene’s Mission, British Columbia. Perry Bellegard, head of the Assembly of First Nations of Canada, which includes 634 leaders and some 900,000 indigenous people (of the total of 1.4 million that is defined as such, 4.9% of the population), said in the latter date: “This is the beginning of the discoveries. I call on all Canadians to join First Nations in demanding justice. “
A day later, Canada celebrated its national holiday. Thousands of people demonstrated in various parts of the country. They did so in memory of the minors who died in boarding schools, in support of the survivors and to demand that this tragedy be fully investigated. Children’s shoes and toys were left as a tribute in parks and on the steps of public buildings. Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, admitted to Radio-Canada: “The biggest mistake this country has made is the forced assimilation of indigenous minors through boarding schools.”
This error started in 1876 with the approval of the so-called India Act, which stipulated, among other points, that children from indigenous communities be placed under the guardianship of the State. Until today, this federal law regulates a large part of the activities of indigenous peoples. John A. Macdonald, the prime minister considered the driving force behind boarding school policy, entrusted his Minister of Public Works, Hector-Louis Langevin, with the design of this network of centers.
The federal government financed the institutions and their administration was in charge of religious groups (more than 70% Catholic). “When the school is in the reserve, the child lives with his parents, who are wild; he is surrounded by savages and, although he can learn to read and write, his habits, his training and his way of thinking are Indian ”, Macdonald even said in a parliamentary speech in 1883. Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin wrote in those years: “When they graduate from our institutions, the children have lost everything native, except their blood.” Two testimonies that clearly reflect the contempt for the indigenous people and their culture.
In the last decade of the 20th century, a group of survivors began to demand forgiveness and compensation from the government and the churches. An agreement between the parties did not come until 2007. A year later, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of Canadians to indigenous peoples for these internees. The federal government disbursed 3,230 million dollars (about 2,730 million euros) between compensation and legal expenses. The Protestant groups also apologized and did their part. Not so the Catholic Church. The indigenous people await an apology from the Pope and the payment of 21.3 million dollars of the 25 million established in the agreement. Amid the wave of outrage over the discovered graves, eight churches (six Catholic and two Protestant) have burned in recent weeks; other temples have suffered vandalism with graffiti. These acts have been condemned by both the authorities and the indigenous people.
The cemeteries of the internees are the silent testimony of what the indigenous peoples denounced for a long time: that many parents did not hear from their children again after they were taken from them. “The commission heard thousands of testimonies. In several cases, cases of minors who disappeared came up. They did not want to accept the truth. Now it’s different because of the findings, ”says Brieg Capitaine, professor of Sociology at the University of Ottawa. The TCR established in 2019 that 4,134 minors died in these centers, but some experts estimate more than 6,000 deaths.
Half of the deaths were due to tuberculosis, and there were also deaths from other diseases. Others were caused by fires or by hypothermia and drowning while trying to escape. There were also suicides. However, the causes remain a mystery in part of the cases. “We were hungry,” notes Papatie. Researchers from the University of Toronto documented that poor diet weakened the immune system of many children and multiplied the rates of diabetes and obesity in later generations.
Overcrowding, insufficient heating and poor food were the norm in many centers. “The federal government did not want to allocate more resources. The letters of various missionaries asked for them. I don’t think religious groups wanted to spend a single dollar to bring the bodies back to the indigenous communities. That said, they buried these children in unmarked graves, in a show of racism and dehumanization ”, denounces Capitaine. For this reason, the Government and indigenous leaders ask that the different congregations share their files.
Papatie affirms that the pain has been very great: loss of identity, trauma from the abuse, difficulties to speak the language of her parents again, addictions, suicide attempts. After dropping out of school, he entered a maelstrom of drugs and alcohol. “I wanted to stop feeling the wounds in my soul,” he says. At the age of 20, fighting against his demons, he became part of the Council of Kitcisakik. Between 1997 and 2005, he was the head of his community. Now he is responsible for the management of natural resources.
Various academic works have shown the intergenerational impact of centers for indigenous minors. Papatie explains: “My mother and I went to boarding schools. Then you don’t know how to raise your children. You have too much sadness and anger. Some parents and children in my community spent years at the Notre-Dame-de-la-Route residence. Not only the internees recognized by Ottawa in the reparation agreement caused problems. In the residences there were also cases of violence and sexual assault. Our children, who are now parents, experienced similar things, “he adds. The Papatie community and others filed a lawsuit demanding compensation for the damage caused in this Québec center.
The federal government has received more than a hundred applications asking for funds to investigate other former boarding schools. Ottawa has offered $ 27 million; British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario another 30 million. Specialists cited by the newspaper The Globe and Mail they claim that the bill could reach 1 billion dollars. Finding, identifying and paying tribute to missing children was already one of the recommendations of the report presented by the TCR in 2015. Canada can no longer look the other way.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.