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Canada hears of native abuse pain

1 June 08 17:57 GMT

A truth and reconciliation commission examining what native leaders call one of the most tragic and racist chapters in Canada's history has begun.

The commission will study Canada's decades-long policies that removed Aboriginal children from their families to force Christianity upon them.

The state-funded religious schools were often the scenes of horrific physical and sexual abuse.

The commission has a five-year mandate to detail the abuses.

From the 19th Century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 aboriginal children were required to attend Christian schools in an attempt to rid them of their native cultures and languages and integrate them into society.

Darkest chapter

The federal government admitted 10 years ago that physical and sexual abuse in the once-mandatory schools was rampant.

Many students recall being beaten for speaking their native languages, and losing touch with their parents and customs.

That legacy of abuse and isolation has been cited by leaders of native communities as the root cause of continuing epidemic rates of alcoholism and drug addiction on reservations.

The commission, which is in the early phase of its research, will spend five years travelling across the country to hear stories from former students, teachers and others involved in the so-called residential schools run by the Roman Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations.

The goal is to give survivors a forum to tell their stories and to educate Canadians about what happened.

"It's the darkest, most tragic chapter in Canadian history and virtually no one knows about this," said Phil Fontaine, chief of the national Assembly of First Nations, the umbrella group that speaks for Canada's first nations' people.

Mr Fontaine was himself among the victims of sexual abuse at a church school. "I'm just one of many," he said.

Foster healing

Aboriginal Judge Harry LaForme, who heads the commission, is hopeful Canadians will be more sympathetic of the plight of aboriginals once they know more.

Mr LaForme told the BBC that the aim of the commission was not to name offenders and point fingers, but to foster healing.

"We know what occurred, what we now want to hear is the stories from the people themselves."

The commission was created as part of an agreement in 2006 between the government, churches and the 90,000 surviving aboriginal students to help redress some of the issues plaguing the native population.

About C$60m (£30m) will be used to fund the commission's work.

No date has been set yet for testimony to begin.

The start of the commission's work precedes a public apology that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is scheduled to deliver in parliament on 11 June - an acknowledgment that native leaders have sought for years.

Canada's aboriginals - who number nearly one million - remain the country's poorest and most disadvantaged group, with a life expectancy five to seven years lower than non-natives.

Suicide rates are three times higher than the national average, and teenage pregnancies are nine times higher.

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