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Report: Canada committed 'cultural genocide' on aboriginals

June 3, 2015

A Canadian policy lasting until the 1990s of sending aboriginal children to residential schools amounted to "cultural genocide," according to newly published research.

Image: DW/S. Griffiths

Canada's residential school system attempted to "eradicate aboriginal culture and assimilate children into mainstream society," said the report, based on six years of research by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

In prepared remarks at the report's unveiling on Tuesday, Justice Murray Sinclair admitted that "what took place in residential schools amounts to nothing short of cultural genocide - a systematic and concerted attempt to extinguish the spirit of Aboriginal peoples."

The investigation documented horrific physical abuse, rape, malnutrition and other atrocities suffered by many of the 150,000 children who attended the schools, typically run by Christian churches in connection with the Ottawa government from the 1840s to the 1990s.

Problems persist

Children as young as five years old were taken away from their families and sent to schools far removed from their ancestral lands.

Sinclair said around 6 percent of the students died while attending the schools, although the commission was only able to document 3,200 of those deaths. Most were buried in unmarked graves on school property. Regarded as heathens and savages by the system's architects, they were beaten for speaking their native language and often forced to accept the Christian faith.

The legacy of the residential school system remains today, as many Canadian aboriginals struggle to recover from generations of family separation. Aboriginals account for less than 5 percent of Canada's population, have higher levels of poverty and a lower life expectancy than other Canadians, and are more often victims of violent crime, addiction and incarceration.

While Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to the survivors of the schools in 2008, relations between his Conservative government and Canada's 1.4 million aboriginals are strained. Harper has told parliament his government intends to examine the report's recommendations before deciding on any future steps.

The group made 94 recommendations for how to reconcile the injustices, including anti-racism training for Canadian public servants. It also urged the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, to apologize to survivors and their families for the Church's role in the schools. In 2011, a similar gesture was made by Pope Benedict XVI in response to revelations of abuse committed by priests in Ireland.