airing canadas dirtiest laundry

In 1990, a few First Nations people sued Ottawa over the shameful legacy of Indian residential schools. And then came a few more.

In 1990, a few First Nations people sued Ottawa over the shameful legacy of Indian residential schools.

And then came a few more.

Sixteen years later, that initial trickle of legal suits has become a torrent washing into Supreme Courts across the country.

The cross-Canada hearing’s last stop was the Yukon.

And this week, more than 100 aboriginal people filled two Whitehorse court chambers to overflowing.

Most were part of the class-action lawsuit that pits 80,000 residential school survivors against Ottawa and the Christian sects that ran the schools.

Now it’s up to Yukon Justice Ron Veale and eight other Canadian judges to decide if the proposed settlement is fair.

But can any conclusion to this federal policy of cultural annihilation be fair?

Let’s be clear: thousands of aboriginal children were kidnapped from their homes and forced to assimilate with white society — to speak a foreign language, adopt a foreign religion and, generally, to behave and think like their captors.

And, as bad as that was, it got worse.

Many of these children were, essentially, tortured by their teachers, priests, surrogate parents and others.

Can wads of cash and healing programs restore the cultural losses that six generations of aboriginal Canadians have suffered?


There is no hiding from this brutal era of Canadian history. Nor should there be.

These people’s stories must be repeated, over and over, lest Canadians try to deny this stain on the nation’s record that some consider an attempted genocide.

There is scarce space to do so here.

Phillip Gatensby, a residential school survivor and aboriginal support worker, suggested the residential school legacy be included in public school textbooks.

It’s a good suggestion.

In the meantime, those who deny or downplay the residential school legacy either haven’t heard the raw details of abuse, or do not believe them. This suggests the survivors are lying, which just adds insult to the injury.

In 1876, the consolidated Indian Act’s intention was clear: it reflected “the ultimate goal of assimilation of Canada’s aboriginal population,” according to the Indian and Northern Affairs Canada website.

One hundred and thirty years later, the stories of those who lived that policy are too common and too well-documented to refute.

Furthermore, Ottawa knows the survivors have a case; otherwise it would not be seeking a multi-billion dollar settlement.

But without formal acknowledgement of wrongdoing from Canada’s prime minister or governor general, a successful settlement will be a hollow victory.

And that formal acknowledgement isn’t coming.

It’s not part of the deal.

And that’s strange.

Consider, for a moment, that in 1988 former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney offered a formal apology to Japanese Canadians sent to internment camps during the Second World War.

Ten years later, Ottawa launched a “path to healing” for aboriginal Canadians that included a statement of reconciliation that said: “To those of you who suffered this tragedy at residential schools, we are deeply sorry.”

Sounds good.

But, in fact, no prime minister or governor general has ever formally apologized to Canada’s indigenous people for the torture of their children, the destruction of their families and the willing destruction of their languages and culture.

Without such a statement, any settlement reeks of insincerity.

Of course, Ottawa knows this.

It knows a formal recognition and apology could open a Pandora’s Box of litigation.

So it’s waiting until 94 per cent of the claimants sign the settlement agreement first. Once they sign, they forfeit their right to sue the government on the residential schools issue ever again – an essential clause of the proposed agreement.

Of course, once Ottawa is protected by law, an apology might be offered.

Which just proves that, despite the sentiment, not much has changed.

Western laws trump aboriginal dignity every time. (GM)