Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized Tuesday to natives for more than a century of abuses at boarding schools set up to assimilate Canada’s indigenous peoples, saying the burden of those experiences weighs heavily.
He was speaking to former students, chiefs and religious leaders at the unveiling of a final report on the schools, which left many boys and girls disconnected from their families, communities and feeling ashamed of being born native.
The previous administration officially apologized in June 2008 for the “cultural genocide,” as part of a Can$1.9 billion (1.4 billion US dollars) settlement with former students.
It also launched a truth and reconciliation commission which urged Ottawa to increase funding for natives to address the disparity in academic performance with non-aboriginals.
Trudeau pledged to implement this and 93 other recommendations in the report to help repair the damage caused by the schools.
“The burden of this experience has been on your shoulders for far too long,” Trudeau said. “The burden is properly ours as a government, and as a country.
“Our goal as we move forward together is clear: it is to lift this burden from your shoulders, from those of your families, and communities.
“It is to accept fully our responsibilities and our failings as a government and as a country.”
Beginning in 1874, 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Metis children in Canada were forcibly enrolled in 139 boarding schools run by Christian churches on behalf of the federal government in an effort to integrate them into society.
Many survivors alleged abuse by headmasters and teachers, who stripped them of their culture and language.
At least 3,200 students never returned home.
The experience has been blamed for gross poverty and desperation in native communities that breeds abuse, suicide and crime.
Most of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools were shut down in the 1970s. The last one closed in 1996 in Saskatchewan province.
Justice Murray Sinclair, a judge who chaired the commission and heard from 7,000 former students over a six-year period, said healing will take time.
“Change, of course, will not be immediate,” he said.
“It will take years, perhaps generations, but it is important for Canadians to start somewhere and ultimately to create those tools of reconciliation that will live beyond today.”
The report’s recommendations include teaching of Canada’s 58 aboriginal languages (most of them now spoken by only a handful of individuals), the introduction of mandatory courses on native history, and help to locate students’ missing graves.
It also called for a papal apology for the church’s role in the “spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuses” at the schools.