Canada urgently needs an independent investigation into the deaths of thousands of Indigenous children at church-run residential schools if the country ever hopes to finally confront the horrors of its colonial past, the man who led the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has told the Guardian.
Murray Sinclair, a former senator and one of the country’s first Indigenous judges, warned that the “undiscovered truths” of the schools are probably far more devastating than many Canadians realize – including the deliberate killing of children by school staff and the likelihood that such crimes were covered up.
Sinclair called for a powerful investigative body, free of government interference, and with the power to subpoena witnesses.
“We need to know who died, we need to know how they died, we need to know who was responsible for their deaths or for their care at the time that they died,” said Sinclair, a member of the Peguis First Nation. “We need to know why the families weren’t informed. And we need to know where the children are buried.”
Canada has been rocked by the discovery of nearly a thousand unmarked graves at the sites of church-run residential schools which Indigenous children were made to attend as part of a campaign of forced assimilation.
On Thursday, the Cowessess First Nation said that the remains of 751 people had been found at the site of a former residential school in Saskatchewan – just weeks after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc nation found 215 unmarked graves in British Columbia.
Justin Trudeau described the graves as “a shameful reminder” of the systemic racism that Indigenous peoples still endure, adding: “Together, we must acknowledge this truth, learn from our past, and walk the shared path of reconciliation, so we can build a better future.”
But Sinclair warned that reconciliation requires a sustained effort to change by ordinary Canadians and powerful institutions of state – an effort that has so far remained elusive.
“The government, our social institutions, and even our population acknowledge what was done to Indigenous people was wrong. There have been several apologies and a promise of things will change. But there’s been no change,” he said. “So long as any change is only given reluctantly, it means there remains a willingness, ability – and even desire – to go back to the way things were.”
Over more than a century, at least 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to attend the schools, many of which were run by the Catholic church.
Children were forcibly converted to Christianity, given new names and were prohibited from speaking their native languages. The last residential school closed in the 1990s.
Painful survivor testimony to the commission made it clear that sexual, emotional and physical abuse were rife. The final report estimated that more than 4,100 children died from disease, neglect and suicide, although Sinclair has said he believes the true figure could be as high as 15,000.
But the commission was prevented from investigating allegations of criminality and efforts to obtain key church and government records were frustrated.
“We’ve heard stories from survivors who witnessed children being put to death, particularly infants born in the schools who had been fathered by a priest. Many survivors told us that they witnessed those children, those infants, being either buried alive or killed – and sometimes being thrown into furnaces,” said Sinclair, who oversaw thousands of hours of testimony. “Those stories need to be checked out.”
Testimony from survivors and the commission’s final report made it clear that there were undocumented burial sites across the country. But the recent discoveries have nonetheless shocked many Canadians and prompted calls for a new investigation – something the government has so far resisted.
The schools were funded by the federal government, but often operated by religious institutions, and there have been growing calls for formal apology from the Catholic church – and for the release of any related records.
Pope Francis said he was pained by the discovery of the graves last month and called for the rights and cultures of Indigenous peoples to be respected, but his refusal to give a direct apology has disappointed many.
On Friday, the Catholic Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which operated 48 schools, including the Marieval Indian residential school at Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan and the Kamloops Indian residential school, said it would release all documents in its possession.
“We remain deeply sorry for our involvement in residential schools and the harms they brought to Indigenous peoples and communities,” the order said a statement. “We further acknowledge that delays can cause ongoing distrust, distress, and trauma to Indigenous peoples.”
Sinclair said that church and government officials had repeatedly claimed the records have been destroyed or lost. Even when the church handed over documents to the commission, key names and locations were redacted, rendering the documents “useless” for research purposes, he said.
“Quite frankly, we don’t trust their word,” said Sinclair before the order’s announcement on Friday.
“We want there to be an independent investigation to actually go into their archives and see what can be found. And I think that we will be astonished at what their records reveal to us.”
And while some important records have probably been destroyed, others never existed in the first place. “We know that children who died at the hands of one of the staff – particularly the nuns, or the priests – were simply not recorded.”
At the commission, school survivors described how the trauma they suffered was handed down to the next generations – a reality magnified by systematic inequities that persist across the country.
Dozens of First Nations do not have access to drinking water, the government is fighting a human rights tribunal order to compensate Indigenous children who suffered in foster care and a federal minister has admitted racism against Indigenous peoples is rampant within the healthcare system. Indigenous people are overrepresented in federal prisons and Indigenous women are killed at a rate far higher than other groups.
Such realities are the result of a sustained campaign to create and sustain racial inequity, said Sinclair.
“It took constant effort to maintain that relationship of Indigenous inferiority and white superiority,” he said. “To reverse that, it’s going to take generations of concerted effort to do the opposite.”
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