Canada has looked into the abyss and the abyss looked back. The country is beginning to deal with and accept responsibility for the painful legacy of residential schools.
The Right Honorable Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, revealed his powerful findings on Wednesday to staff and students on the Lakeshore campus at an overflowing auditorium.
Sinclair said the 150,000 Aboriginal students put through the system suffered starvation, psychological, physical and sexual abuse, deprivation of medical care allowing the spread of influenza and tuberculosis, and some had to bury fellow students in mass unmarked graves.
“It was through education that all this damage was done. This history needs to be part of the curriculum” at all levels, said Sinclair.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the first of its kind, dedicated to finding a way to raise public consciousness and to begin healing of trauma endured by survivors.
The TRC went to over 300 communities in the span of six years to gather information about the experiences of former students. It was funded in part through the $60-million survivors’ money won in a class action lawsuit against the Canadian government. The federal government was responsible for 139 schools. The rest were provincially or church run.
Moving forward to a relationship of mutual respect between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians will require serious changes to the education of millions, Sinclair said. He believes that in addition to teaching about the past, Canada needs to recognize Aboriginal languages as official languages.
Quazance Boissoneau, Liaison Officer for the Aboriginal Resource Centre on both Humber campuses, highlights the role education can play in reconciliation.
“When I was in school, if it wasn’t for my mom and my family being so heavily involved in teaching us our own history I wouldn’t have learned anything,” she said.
“So I can only imagine First Nations people who didn’t get that from their family, they don’t even know themselves,“ said Boissoneau.
“I think it should be taught from elementary school. The moment you first teach history it should be taught.”
In terms of teaching indigenous languages, Boissoneau agrees with Justice Sinclair but anticipates challenge.
“The only hard part is there are so many different dialects, there’s so many different languages, I definitely think that’s a part of reconciliation. The onus is on that region’s school boards to teach their dialect. Me and co-ordinator Grace Esquega are both Ojibway and our dialects are so different… (Humber) Elder Advisor Shelly Charles speaks different dialect.”