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  • Introduction:Residential Schools and Decolonization
  • Rosemary Nagy and Robinder Kaur Sehdev 1

"Home" to more than 150,000 children from the 1870s until 1996, the residential school system was aimed at "killing the Indian in the child" and assimilating First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children into white settler society. It was, in short, a genocidal policy, operated jointly by the federal government of Canada and the Catholic, Anglican, United, and Presbyterian Churches. Children as young as four years old were torn from their families and placed in institutions that were chronically underfunded; mismanaged; inadequately staffed; and rife with disease, malnutrition, poor ventilation, poor heating, neglect, and death. 2 Sexual, emotional, and physical abuse was pervasive, and it was consistent policy to deny children their languages, their cultures, their families, and even their given names. While some children may have had positive experiences, many former students have found themselves caught between two worlds: deprived of their languages and traditions, they were left on their own to handle the trauma of their school experience and to try to readapt to the traditional way of life that they had been conditioned to reject. Life after residential school has been marred for many by alcohol and substance abuse, cycles of violence, suicide, anger, hopelessness, isolation, shame, guilt, and an inability to parent.

First Nations leader Phil Fontaine catalysed the struggle for redress in 1990 when he stunned Canada by speaking about his residential-school experience. The second major catalyst was the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) of 1991-1996, which broadly exposed the horrors of residential schools to Canadians and called for a public inquiry. By the early 2000s there was a growing number of lawsuits, most notably the Cloud and Baxter class actions. In 1998, following RCAP, the federal [End Page 67] government issued a "statement of regret" 3 for physical and sexual violations and established the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF), an arm's-length foundation with a grant of $350 million to support Indigenous healing processes that address the legacy of sexual, physical, mental, spiritual, and cultural abuse. But the government steadfastly refused the call for a public inquiry and failed to acknowledge the systemic harms of residential schools. In 2003, the government put in place an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) strategy to manage the growing backlog of thousands of civil claims. In November 2004, the Assembly of First Nations issued a report bluntly critical of the dehumanizing nature of ADR and its failure to recognize emotional loss and losses of family life, culture, and language. 4 At this point, there was broad recognition that ADR was not working, and in May 2005 the government signed a political agreement to negotiate a comprehensive out-of-court settlement. On May 10, 2006, the parties reached the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), which was approved by the courts on September 19, 2007.

The main features of the IRSSA are a Common Experience Payment (CEP) for all former students ($10,000 for the first year and an additional $3000 for each subsequent year spent in a residential school); an Individual Assessment Process (IAP) for compensation for sexual and physical abuse; funds for healing and commemoration; and the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC is mandated to acknowledge the residential schools system, its impact, and its consequences; to provide a culturally appropriate and safe environment for survivors to come forward; to witness, support, and promote truth and reconciliation events at the national and community levels; to educate the public on the intergenerational and systemic effects of residential schools, including through a report and the creation of a National Research Centre; and to support the commemoration of former Indian Residential School students and their families. 5

On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an apology for residential schools from the floor of the House of Commons. Acknowledging the lasting and damaging impact on Aboriginal cultures, heritages, and languages, Harper indicated to Aboriginal people that "[t]he burden of this experience has been on your shoulders for far too long. The burden is properly ours as a government, and as a country." He pointed toward the settlement agreement and...


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