During this era, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were placed in these schools often against their parents' wishes. Many were forbidden to speak their language and practice their own culture. While there is an estimated 80,000 former students living today, the ongoing impact of residential schools has been felt throughout generations and has contributed to social problems that continue to exist.
After their closing, Indian residential schools became notorious for allegations of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse and neglect. The commission will look at activities perpetrated within residential schools, as well as the negative impacts of the schools' stated aim, to forcibly assimilate First Nations children. The matter of student deaths at these institutions, and their burial in unmarked graves without the notification or consent of the parents, is an additional item on the agenda.
On June 11, 2008, the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Government of Canada, delivered a formal apology in the House of Commons to former students, their families, and communities for Canada's role in the operation of the residential schools. The Truthand Reconciliation Commission of Canada has a mandate to learn the truth about what happened in the residential schools and to inform all Canadians about what happened in the schools. The Commission will document the truth of what happened by relying on records held by those who operated and funded the schools, testimony from officials of the institutions that operated the schools, and experiences reported by survivors, their families, communities and anyone personally affected by the residential school experience and its subsequent impacts.
The Commission hopes to guide and inspire First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples and Canadians in a process of truth and healing leading toward reconciliation and renewed relationships based on mutual understanding and respect.The Commission views reconciliation as an ongoing individual and collective process that will require participation from all those affected by the residential school experience. This includes First Nations, Inuit, and Métis former students, their families, communities, religious groups, former Indian Residential School employees, government, and the people of Canada.
Professor John Bowker, author and editor of many books on world religions speaks about native spirituality in his book ‘God a Brief History’ (2002) as follows:
When the anishinabe (a Native American people from the Great Lakes) go hunting they go gently. Certainly the hunted animal dies, but hunting is regarded as an act of communication between human and animal persons: animals, who have their own languages, need to be persuaded to give their bodies by the assurance that humans will make restoration so that the spirit of the dead animal will be reborn: through rituals the hunter and the hunted are connected to each other.
"Walking with care" is a Native American way of talking about the sacred nature of the world. The Sioux (a group of Native Americans living originally in the area of the upper Mississippi river) address the Earth as Mother: "Every step that we take upon you should be done in a sacred manner; each step should be as a prayer."
Native Americans inhabited every part of North America, from the Arctic to the deserts in the south, in many different tribes speaking main different languages, so it is unwise to generalize about Native American religion. Nevertheless, some fundamental themes recur, many of which agree with the beliefs of primal religions, certainly that of humans living in a network of relationships with all that exists.
What European settlers regarded as a wilderness (perhaps from Old English "wild deer-ness" or simply "wild + ness"), Native Americans regarded as a spirited and living being.
The "Great Mystery" referred to by Luther Standing Bear was the equally widespread belief that all things come from the High God, the One source of life as gift, the unproduced Producer of all that is.
How can we return to our native people what was so ruthlessly taken from them? Perhaps beginning by:
- Recognizing our extremely limited understanding of God
- Accepting that native spirituality bears a deep and direct relationship with our ‘mother’ planet and indeed the whole universe.
- Asking our native peoples to teach us true meaning of stewardship.
- Learning from our mistakes of the past, especially towards the native peoples.
- Developing a new inclusive liturgy that celebrates native spirituality
Readers are encouraged to visit the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation website not only to learn more about this tragic period of our history but to discover how the healing of these people as well as our own can now finally take place.
The recent film ‘Rabid Proof Fence’ (2002) provides an excellent backdrop against a similar government policy applied by the Australians during the 1930’s to relocate half-caste children from their families to educational centers to initiate them forcibly into the culture of the white man. A very moving story based on an actual event.