TORONTO – Canada's decades-long government policy requiring Canadian First Nation children to attend state-funded church schools amounted to "cultural genocide," a long-awaited report has found.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair Justice Murray Sinclair said Tuesday the residential schools represent one of the "darkest and most troubling chapters in our collective history."
The report is the result of a six-year study of Canada's former government policy requiring Canadian aboriginals to attend the schools, often the scenes of physical and sexual abuse. First Nation leaders have cited the legacy of abuse and isolation as the root cause of epidemic substance abuse on reservations.
From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 aboriginal children were required to attend Christian schools to rid them of their native cultures and languages and integrate them into mainstream Canadian society.
More than 130 residential schools operated across Canada.
The federal government previously admitted that physical and sexual abuse in the once-mandatory schools was rampant and Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an historic apology in Parliament in 2008. Many students recall being beaten for speaking their native languages and losing touch with their parents and customs.
The goal of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to give survivors a forum to tell their stories and to educate Canadians about that dark chapter in the country's history.
Sinclair, a First Nations Canadian judge, described how the commission heard from residential school survivors who were robbed of the love of their families.
"They were stripped of their self-respect and they were stripped of their identity," Sinclair said.
The commission was created as part of a US$5 billion class action settlement in 2006 between the government, churches and the 90,000 surviving First Nation students.
Alma Scott was one of thousands of survivors in Canada who recounted her experience to the commission. She described being taken to a school in Fort Alexander, Manitoba, at the age of five.
"I just remember feeling really sad, and I was in this truck full of other kids who were crying, and so I cried with them," said Scott.
Among the TRC report's 94 recommendations, it calls on the federal government to launch a national inquiry into the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women. It also seeks an apology from the Pope on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church. And it recommends the government fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the "framework for reconciliation."
The TRC's summary also makes clear that the expectations of the aboriginal community in the wake of Harper's apology for the residential school tragedy in 2008 have not yet been met.
Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde said the prime minister's 2008 apology will be empty if it is not followed with action.
Harper said he apologized for the devastation caused by the schools seven years ago. He didn't call it a cultural genocide Tuesday or promise to enact any of the report's 94 recommendations.
Sinclair said he was scheduled to sit down with Harper later Tuesday.
A center at the University of Manitoba will become the permanent home for all statements, documents and materials gathered by the commission. It is scheduled to open this summer.
In Australia, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a formal apology in Parliament in 2008 to the so-called Stolen Generations — thousands of aboriginals who were forcibly taken from their families as children under assimilation policies that lasted from 1910 to 1970.