Truth and Reconciliation

Photo by Elena Olesik on

Last year I read about hundreds of unmarked graves of indigenous children being found near an old residential school in Canada. I did not think much more about it until I saw a more extended segment about the situation on 60 Minutes. Now I am haunted by the story of cruelty and racism that thousands of young natives of Canada had to endure over the course of time. 

According to the story the Canadian government sponsored a concerted effort to indoctrinate the young children from indigenous families. Thousands of youngsters were taken from their parents by the state and placed in residential schools all across Canada. Once there nuns and priests and members of other Christian churches attempted to strip the little one of all signs of their native cultures, languages, histories and even names. Their long hair was shorn and often they were called by a number rather than having a name to identify them. They lived, learned and worshiped at the school. Any traditions from their families brought into the open were cause for severe punishment. The idea was to extinguish the childrens’ pasts and turn them into dark skinned versions of white Canadians. 

This practice was still being followed as late as the nineteen fifties and sixties. Discipline was swift and harsh. Sadly the abuse sometimes even included sexual acts. Those who endured the humiliations were emotionally and physically scarred. Many died before they were adults and their deaths were mostly hidden away in unmarked graves. Not even their parents knew what had happened to their offspring. It was a horror abetted by the government and aided by religious groups of mostly Catholic nuns and priests along with Presbyterian and Anglican ministers. 

Recently the Canadian government has formally apologized to the people and families affected by this horrific practice. They have created a National Center for Truth and Reconciliation tasked with finding all of the children who appeared to have gone missing over the years. Most of them are no doubt among the hundreds whose graves have been discovered through the efforts of the center and the various tribes whose children were among those taken from families. 

The tragedy has resulted in intergenerational difficulties. Poverty, mental illness, addictions, violence and broken relationships have been the legacy of these almost genocidal policies. Many of the children became so broken that they were unable to live normal lives and in turn their children were also affected. Only now is some progress being made in unearthing the truth and attempting to help the abused rebuild their lives. The Anglican and Presbyterian churches have formally apologized to the families, as has the Canadian government, but the Catholic Church has been slow to admit its part in the travesty. Meanwhile the government has also compensated families for the injustices that they had to endure. 

While those affected welcome the efforts to finally recognize the wrongness of this dark moment of Canada’s history, the damage has already ruined so many lives. Tribes mourn the loss of generations of children. Those who attended the schools complain that of lifelong struggles to develop individual identities. Nightmares from their youth continue to haunt them. 

I’ve shed tears and then felt sad and angry after hearing of the horrific situation. I can’t help but think of my own education during the nineteen fifties and sixties. I had a couple of teachers who were tyrants, but mostly those who taught me were kind. They allowed and even encouraged me to be myself. They would not have dreamed of taking me and my brothers away for our family to brainwash us and force us to forget our culture. I can’t help believing that this only happened because the people in charge viewed the young boys and girls from indigenous tribes as being inferior. In a deeply racists and misguided decision they essentially stole the children from their homes and attempted to excuse their abominable behavior with claims of saving the little ones from horrific lives. Instead those children were mostly deprived of love and forced to deny their heritage as something unfit for society. The psychological and physical damage to them was unbearable.

I suppose that I will never ever understand how anyone is ever able to think that demeaning others is okay, especially those who do them in the guise of Christianity. Somehow we humans are capable of becoming so self centered and blind that we are unable to understand the worth of every person on this earth. We like to rank ourselves according to some presumed code of virtues which inevitably make some appear unworthy of regard. 

I applaud the brave souls in Canada who have bluntly and without excuses admitted to the wrongdoings of the past. I like that they have created a Center of Truth and Reconciliation. Perhaps it will not heal the wounds of those most affected but honesty and apologies are a positive first step in an attempt to ensure that such a thing never happens again. Until we admit that humans have done some very bad things to each other we can’t really move forward. Reconciliation requires truth and in general there are still too many unwilling to face down the mistakes of the past and understand the damage they have done. Canada’s experience and the reaction to it, is a sign that the people there want to bind the wounds of the suffering members of their nation. I wish them well and hope that they never forget to honor differences from here going forward.