This past spring I unexpectedly became a more educated individual when I attended an event in Richmond Hill that had been described to me only as the “Community Inclusivity and Equity Council of York Region (CIECYR) Inaugural Bi-annual Awards Benefit and Gala”.  The Awards Benefit and Gala recognizes the work of individuals, not-for profit organizations, and corporate entities within York Region and across Ontario which are dedicated in matters of diversity, equity and inclusion in the context of organizational change, community engagement and/or social transformation.

Honestly, I had no idea what it meant or what to expect, aside from a nice prime rib dinner. The evening began with an official Smudge by Cliff Standingready (a.k.a. Standing Buffalo Warrior), a survivor of the Indian Residential School System, and the “Sacred Spirit Dancers”, a North American Aboriginal dance troupe representing First Nations, Metis and Inuit cultures.  Further, the Canadian National Anthem was sung in Ojibwa by children from the Waabgon Gamig First Nation .School on Georgina Island, a former Indian Day School.

My increased education came in several forms, not the least of which is a South African philosophy called “ubuntu” which translates roughly to “human kindness”.  Essentially, this philosophy advises that we are one people – if I harm you, it lessens my humanity; if you benefit, I benefit – the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.

As a Humanist, this philosophy is not really new, however the explanation and illustrations, and the greater acceptance by an entire country and it’s indigenous peoples was very new – to me.  This philosophy has gained greater exposure over the past 15-20 years through the writings and speaking of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.  I was fortunate in that I was able to hear some of this teaching directly from him – via Skype – and directly from the speaking of his daughter, Reverend Mpho Tutu.  I have to tell you that, if I nothing more had come from the entire evening, listening to Mpho Tutu speak made the 90 minute crush-hour drive from west Mississauga to Richmond Hill,  entirely worth it.  I don’t know for how long she spoke – I’m guessing about 30 minutes – but I was completely enthralled. I didn’t look away once, and certainly not to check the time.

Both Archbishop Tutu and Reverend Tutu addressed not only ubuntu, but it’s application in the development of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission of 1995, legislated to address past human rights violations during the latter era of Apartheid (1960-1994).  Inspired by the Rettig Report of Chile (1970-1991), South Africa’s Commission encompassed three (3) committees:  the Human Rights Violation Committee; the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee; and the Amnesty Committee.  Each of these committees was tasked with, in turn:  investigating human rights violations occurring between 1960 and 1994; restoring victims’ dignity and formulating proposals to assist with rehabilitation; and finally, considering applications for amnesty from individuals who applied for amnesty in accordance with the provisions of The Act.

Although it is generally considered to have been successful in revealing the truth, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee is also widely considered to have failed on several fronts, including the fact that victims often felt that retribution was preferable to restorative justice, and reconciliation was achieved only nominally, if at all, with major political figures being granted amnesty for their crimes.  Further, of a total of 7112 applications for amnesty, only 849 were granted.


As I read the programme, I became aware of the benefit aspect of the evening; the Waabgon Gamig First Nation School.  Built over sixty (60) years ago on an underground aquifer, causing regular flooding, efflorescence and mold the school is in need of constant repair and attention, including the issue of infestation by mice, snakes and insects.  Proceeds from the Gala would offer a financial contribution towards building a library in the new learning centre being planned, and to support the educational needs of the children and youth of Georgina Island.

Another speaker at the event was Justice Murray Sinclair.  Justice Sinclair, an Ojibwa-Canadian, has been Chair of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee since 2009, which was litigated into being as a result of the Indian Residential Schools Agreement of 2006.  For those of you who follow our national news, you would have seen some coverage of the Commission’s conclusions and calls to action – 94 in total – on June 2.  I have stressed some coverage because, having become more educated on this matter, I believe our Aboriginal people have suffered just a little more disservice at the limited media coverage, and not only our Indigenous persons, other Canadians – whether born here or more recent citizens – deserve to know more fully the details of this history. In fact, the evening encompassed so much, it took me quite some time to fit it all together in my mind.  I also have to admit that, since June 2, 2015 I have become embarrassed over learning of some of the historical activities of my predecessors and ancestors, and some of the current commentary of many of my contemporaries.

The Indian Residential School System, housing First Nations, Metis, and Inuit children and youth, was a network of 139 federally funded residential (boarding) schools run by the Roman Catholic, Anglican and United Churches of Canada until 1969, when the schools became the sole responsibility of the Department of Indian Affairs.  In existence from the 1840s until the last of these schools, Gordon Residential School in Saskatchewan, was closed in 1996, the purpose of the Residential Schools was to impose upon the seemingly inferior Aboriginal children the culture, language, and civilizing religions of the supposedly superior British and European immigrants.

The Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 further supported the system by offering 50 acres of land to any indigenous male “sufficiently advanced in the elementary branches of education”, and would “enfranchise” him, removing any tribal affiliation or treaty rights.  Beginning in 1884, attendance became compulsory by law for status Indians under 16 years of age.  Children were forced from their homes and families, sometimes at gun-point and in shackles to far-flung, isolated locations where, through whatever means deemed necessary, they were compelled to learn the language and religion of their oppressors.  Schools existed in all three territories, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.  No schools are currently identified as having existed in Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, or Newfoundland.

Boys and girls were housed and educated separately, and kept separate such that they became strangers.  Interactions between students had to adhere to restrictions, with severe punishment for the use of native language or cultural practices, and children were not given the same education as immigrants. Boys were taught useful labour and farming skills, while girls were taught laundry, sewing, cooking and cleaning skills in preparation for domestic service.  As the school system was woefully underfunded, a great deal of a child’s day may well be spent in labouring specifically to maintain the school wherein they regularly suffered overcrowding, poor sanitation, inadequate heating, and a lack of medical care.  Since funding for a school was based on enrollment, even already ill children were taken from their homes and installed in the school system, increasing the exposure of all to influenza and tuberculosis, among other pathogens.

spiritdancers2The means by which teachers compelled the children to learn, or punished for infractions, were extreme. Corporal punishment, mental and sexual abuse, torture, starvation, and neglect were common, and these punishments far too often ended in an abhorrent numbers of deaths. An estimated minimum of 4000, not including the numbers of students who died at home after release from a school due to severe illness from poor living conditions or various abuses.  Further abuses were presented in 1928 in Alberta and 1933 in British Columbia, with the compulsory sterilization of students.  Although mandatory attendance ended in 1948, during the 1950s Canadian government scientists performed nutritional tests on students, knowingly keeping some students under-nourished to serve as the control group.

According to the Manitoba Justice Institute, the residential school system laid the foundation for the present day epidemic of domestic violence against Aboriginal women and children.  Generations of individuals, having grown up without nurturing family lives, repeat what they have known – abuse, self-abuse, alcohol abuse and substance abuse.  These individuals and their communities represent an inordinately high suicide rate.  In First Nations people aged 10 to 44 years, suicide and self-inflicted injury is the highest cause of death, responsible for almost 40% of mortalities. First Nations women are 8 times more likely to attempt suicide than other Canadian women, and First Nations men are 5 times more likely to attempt suicide than other Canadian men.   Any of you who read my article, “Jeanne Beker made me cry” will recall that the story surrounding the suicide of a teen First Nation girl was the source of the tears.

In the 1980s, survivors of the Indian Residential School System began to sue the government and churches for damages they suffered from their experiences.  In 1988, eight survivors of the St. George’s school at Lytton, B.C. sued the government, the Anglican Church, and a priest in Mowatt v. Clark.  The government and the church admitted fault and agreed to a settlement.  In 1990, eight survivors of the St. Joseph’s school in Williams Lake, B.C. also successfully filed suit against the government and the Catholic Church.

Law suits continued for many years and, in 1995, thirty survivors of the Port Alberni, B.C. school filed charges against a dorm supervisor, Arthur Plint, who had sexually abused children in his care.  In 2005, in addition to being convicted of 16 counts of indecent assault, the court also found that the government and the United Church of Canada shared responsibility.  In sentencing of Plint, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Douglas Hogarth called Plint a “sexual terrorist”, stating “As far as the victims were concerned, the Indian Residential School System was nothing more than institutionalized pedophilia.”

In 1993, the Anglican Church publicly apologized for its role in the residential school system.  In 1994, the Presbyterian Church apologized, followed in 1998 by the United Church.  In April 2009, Phil Fontaine, leader of the Assembly of First Nations, travelled to Vatican City in response to an invitation from Pope Benedict XVI, hoping to receive an apology from the Roman Catholic Church.  Although I wouldn’t call it quite an apology, the Vatican issued a press release stating, “the Holy Father expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity.”  Later, Chief Fontaine noted that he sensed the Pope’s “pain and anguish”, that the acknowledgement was important for what he had sought.

In the meantime, in March 1998, the government made a “Statement of Reconciliation”, including an apology to the people who were physically and/or sexually abused within the school system.  In conjunction with this, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation was established with $350 million to fund community-base healing projects to address the results of the physical and sexual abuse.  In the 2005 federal budget, the government allocated an additional $40 million to support the Foundation.

Following a collection of pilot projects launched since 1999, in the autumn of 2003 the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process was launched.  This was an out-of-court process providing compensation and psychological support for former students who were physically or sexually abused, or were in situations of wrongful confinement. In 2005, the Assembly of First Nations filed a class action lawsuit against the Government of Canada for the long-lasting effects of the mistreatment and human rights violations suffered under the Indian Residential School System.

On November 23, 2005, the Government of Canada announced a compensation package of $1.9 billion to benefit tens of thousands of former residential school students.  National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, said the package was to cover, “decades in time, innumerable events and countless injuries to First Nations individuals and communities.”  The then Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada, Irwin Cotler said that the decision to house First Nations, Metis, and Inuit children in Canada in church-run and government sponsored residential schools was, “the single most harmful, disgraceful and racist act in our history”.  I think I agree with Mr. Cotler.

Deputy Prime Minister at the time, Anne McLellan said in a news conference in Ottawa, “We have made good on our shared resolve to deliver what I firmly believe will be a fair and lasting resolution of the Indian school legacy.”  Unfortunately, I cannot say that I entirely agree with Ms. McLellan’s resolution.

In May 2006, the compensation package became the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.  This was the largest class action settlement in Canadian history and proposed, among other things, funding for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, funding for commemoration, and support for a Truth and Reconciliation program in Aboriginal communities.  This was also to provide an individual Common Experience Payment to each person who could, along with other criteria, be verified as having resided in one of the federally funded Indian Residential Schools in Canada.  The amount of compensation per person was calculated as $10,000.00 for the first year (or any part thereof) in residence, and $3,000.00 per year in residence thereafter.

After a legal process which included a review of the Agreement by the courts of the various provinces and territories where schools had existed, an “opt-out” period occurred.  During this period, ending August 20, 2007, victims had the option to reject the agreement if they felt it inappropriate or insufficient. On September 19, 2007, the Settlement Agreement became the Independent Assessment Process, where individual cases were reviewed in an out-of-court process with an Adjudicator.  Victims (who met specific criteria) applied personally or through a lawyer to receive more comprehensive compensation.  The deadline for applications for individual assessment was September 19, 2007.  Claims which involved physical or sexual abuse could achieve compensation of up to $275,000.00.


Apologies, such as they were, accumulated from the Churches and the federal government and were greeted with a range of responses.  Some felt that a new era of respect was dawning in relations between Aboriginal peoples and the government.  Others felt that the apologies were only symbolic, a mere political tactic that changed nothing in the relationship.  Even financial compensation may not be sufficient to alleviate the current suffering experienced due to past experience in the schools.  Communities and school survivors have organized support groups undertaking healing works, both traditional and not traditional, allowing survivors to talk about and share their experiences with other survivors, their families and their communities, in an effort to affect a fuller spectrum of healing from 150 years of abuse and cultural and racial genocide perpetrated by misguided religious institutions and superior-minded immigrant races.

It is important to note, in the interests of fairness, that Canada was not alone in this form of cultural and racial genocide.  In fact, the United States of America and Australia are both similarly notorious, in varying degrees, for the operation of comparable institutions and corresponding practices.

On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology to an audience of Aboriginal delegates.  The apology was broadcast by the CBC, and was not only for the government’s involvement in past atrocities, but also for the formation of the residential school system in the first place.

On June 2 of this year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its findings and 94 calls to action.  The calls to action represent the first steps in redress of the damage done to individuals and entire cultures by the residential school system and in advancing any hope of reconciliation. Justice Murray Sinclair, as Commissioner, foreshadowed a portion of the calls to action when he was quoted in an article by Mark Kennedy of the Ottawa Citizen stating, “This is not an aboriginal problem.  This is a Canadian problem, because at the same time that aboriginal people were being demeaned in the schools, their culture and language were being taken away from them, and they were being told that they were inferior, they were pagans, they were heathens and savages, and that they were unworthy of being respected — that very same message was being given to the non-aboriginal children in the public schools as well.”

In this regard, future generations of Canadians must be taught the truth of the residential school system and the treatment of our Aboriginal peoples.  This is part of one of the calls to action as it relates to education and is continued in the report as follows: the disparity in funding between Aboriginal children living on and off reservation must be closed; educational gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians must be eliminated; access to post-secondary education for Aboriginal youth must be improved.

The calls to action also include, but are not limited to, requirements to protect child welfare, preserve language and culture, promote legal equality, and strengthen information on missing children.  The calls go on to emphasize the need for the federal, provincial and territorial governments across Canada to adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in order to promote and hopefully achieve successful reconciliation.

Notably, in early July, the premiers of the various provinces have acknowledged the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation, and agreed to implementation of the calls to action.

Having listened to the speeches of those presenting at the Community Inclusivity and Equity Council of York Region, and watching as awards were handed out to individuals, organizations and corporations who appear to be taking serious steps towards equality and inclusivity of all peoples, I like to think we are heading in the right direction, and with hope and strong leadership there is a good chance we can overcome the failings of the past with one caveat – he who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.


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