'How did our community survive this?'

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‘How did our community survive this?’

Many aboriginal (native) children died or disappeared in church schools in Canada. The Missing Children Project is finding out why. Janet Nicol reports.


Aboriginal students at Edmonton Residential School, Alberta in the 1950s. The church schools were part of the plan to bring aboriginal children into Canadian culture. But people say they killed the culture of the aborigines. (Library and Archives Canada / e011080263)

The Missing Children Project is part of Canada’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (TRC). It is trying to find out why more than 4,100 aboriginal students died or disappeared when they were in government residential schools. They are also looking at where the bodies were buried.

After the 1870s, the Canadian government took about 150,000 aboriginal children from their families in many parts of Canada. They often forced them to leave, and made them live at government schools. They were not allowed to speak their language or do anything from their culture.

‘This is a very big project,’ says Kimberly Murray. She is from the Kahnesatake Mohawk Nation and she is executive Director of the TRC. ‘We are putting more names of dead or missing children on the list.’

There was a lot of disease in the church schools. Students died because they did not get enough food, they were not cared for and they had accidents. Some children suffered physical, mental and sexual abuse. They killed themselves or died when they tried to run away.

‘This work is not easy. I have two small children and I ask myself, “How did our community survive this?”’ says Murray.

She tells the story of Charlie Hunter. When he was 13, he lived at a school in Ontario. He died in 1974 when he was trying to save a friend with visual difficulties who was in the water. They buried him 500 kilometres away from his home village, Peawanuck, without talking to his parents.

His story was in the Toronto Star newspaper recently. So people who read the story gave money to bring home the boy’s body. They had a church service to bury him again. And Joseph Koostachin – the man Charlie Hunter had saved – was there.

Many aboriginal children who survived – about 80,000 – have given a lot of important information. They also have information from the government and churches.

They are expecting to get more information. Murray wants everyone with relevant information to contact the TRC. They have a little more than a year to collect the information.

‘We are keeping a list,’ she says. ‘We will continue to look when we think there was a death but we can’t find documents.’

At the end of the project, all the information will go to the University of Manitoba. The public will be able to see most of it.

Many Canadians do not know about this hidden history. There are other projects to help Canadians understand eg. the educational materials ‘100 Years of Loss’ (by the Legacy of Hope Foundation). Other groups are working with the TRC to help people understand and and feel better.

Students were sent to these residential schools in Canada until the mid-20th century. The last school closed only in 1996.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/sections/agenda/2014/06/01/canada-truth-and-reconciliation/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)