Hundreds of First Nation members in Canada will testify this month regarding their experiences at government-funded boarding schools designed to assimilate Native children into Canadian culture and religion. Approximately 150,000 children attended the Church-run boarding schools, which operated until the 1970s.
Children of First Nations who were sent to the schools were separated from their families, forced to abandon their cultural identity, and many were physically and sexually abused. As part of a settlement with the Canadian government four years ago, a truth and reconciliation commission has been established to explore the abuses of this system and allow its victims to offer personal testimonials. The settlement also included an apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and more than C$2billion in compensation for former schoolchildren and their families.
The hearings opened in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the first of seven sessions to be held across the country. Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Native singer-songwriter who took part in the commission's opening ceremonies, reflected on the impact the boarding school system had for First Nations. "It is just totally heartbreaking. The things that happened for generations of children, just removed from their homes. How can you say to a child, we're going to take away your parents, your sisters, your brothers your home - everything? You are going to be up for grabs for anyone who wants to do anything to you. And it was done."
Manitoba Justice Murray Sinclair, the head of the commission, said the experiences of former students will no longer be relegated to the sidelines of Canadian history. "They will tell you something they have never told anyone before, it is the kind of truth that causes you to squirm. The truth eventually will heal us all."