Sunday, June 15, 2008

Prime Minister of Canada apologizes to First Nations for Residential School System

Yesterday Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada publicly apologized to the First Nations (Native) Peoples of Canada for the residential school system.
Between the 1600's and 1996 residential school were in place to enforce a policy of 'aggressive naturalization' of Aboriginal Canadians based on the 'inherently superior British system'. The schools were first set up by the French colonials to convert Native Canadians to Christianity then formalized in the 1857 Gradual Civilization Act*. Eventually, the schools were administered by the Catholic and United Churches of Canada and funded by the people of Canada.

Aside, from the moral issues with publicly funding and systematically trying to erase an entire culture the schools where poorly funded, dirty and overcrowded. They were awash in abuse (both physical and sexual), had poor sanitation and high rates of diseases like tuberculosis. Death rates were as high as 69%.
Originally the schools existed to encourage Aboriginals to become English speaking, Christians and farmers. But by 1920 the system had been perverted so badly that children were being forcibly removed from their families (in the above picture parents camp outside the gates of a school in 1885 to visit their children). In the early 20th century Canadian doctors described the horrific rates of death and disease and by the 1950's compulsory attendance was ended. Aboriginal protests in the 1970's resulted in self-governance and eventual closure of the schools. The last one was shut down in 1998.

The wiki site has a good deal of information on these schools so I'd encourage you to read the full story. All I can say is it's about time that someone from our government publicly apologized.
*The Gradual Civilization Act is another piece of Victorian legislation that deserves mention. It sought to convert Aboriginals into Canadians by having them sign away any rights as a Native in exchange for 50 acres of land. The requirements were; over the age of 21, "able to speak, read and write either English or the French language readily and well, and is sufficiently advanced in the elementary branches of education and is of good moral character and free from debt" and "of sober and industrious habits, free from debt and sufficiently intelligent to be capable of managing his own affairs." Once enfranchised the person and all of their descendants gave up tribal affiliations and any claim to lands.

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