The removal of aboriginal children to be placed in the residential school system was an act of genocide, stated Justice Murray Sinclair, the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, during a lecture at the University of Manitoba Feb. 17.
Sinclair pointed out that the United Nations definition of genocide includes forcibly transferring children of a group to another group based on race.
He argued that in the past, Canada was careful to exclude its residential school policies from being scrutinized under this definition.
“But the reality is that to take children away from their families and place them in another group in society for the purpose of racial indoctrination was and is an act of genocide, and it occurs all around the world,” he said.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the result of a $60 million deal between the federal government, the Crown, and survivors of the residential school system.
One of its aims is to give each survivor of the residential school system a chance to put a statement on record of their experiences.
There are 85,000 people who have filed claims as members of the residential school system, about 25,000 have put forward statements to the commission.
The TRC estimates that there are about 200 to 300 million documents regarding residential school policy and almost 20 million photographs.
The commission has obtained 14,000 documents for their records thus far.
The commission has also heard from several family members of survivors of the residential school system as well as former staff about how the system impacted their lives, Sinclair said.
“When we’ve had these sharing circles with survivors and asked them where they would find peace, they’ve almost always talked about reconciling with their families,” he explained.
“It has become the focal point for much of our work . . . because it is such an important part of the healing of survivors.
It is also part of the healing of the children and grandchildren of survivors.”
Many survivors have chosen not to share their experiences with their families in order to protect them the pain their family members may feel as a result, Sinclair said.
“It’s because they want to protect them from that sense of rage that has grown inside them over the victimization of their parents. And yet, they can’t,” he said.
“That sense of rage that survivors have come home with over what happened to them . . . that was passed on to their children through the victimization of their children, now find a focal point on the government and the children.”
The TRC has heard from approximately 100 former staff of residential schools. Many of them have said that they feel ashamed for their role in the residential school system, and worry that their perspective many not be appreciated, he said.
“They’re on the other side of that coin, and in many ways they also feel victimized,” he said. Many tried to hide the fact that they had worked in a residential school, and chose to leave it off of their resume.
“That sense of guilt and shame is not shared by all who worked there, but it is shared by a number.”
Sinclair said the TRC may recommend that a permanent foundation be established for survivors of the residential school system.
“People should not become dependent on the commission to be the instigator of everything” in dealing with the impact of the residential school system on Canadian society, he said.