They Came for the Children: Truth Commission Sheds Light on Canada’s Genocide Against Indigenous Peoples

Photo: Residential School survivor Lorna Standingready (L) is comforted during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada closing ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, June 3, 2015. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Imagine a village with all its children gone. For aboriginal peoples all across Canada, this was their lived reality, not the stuff of imagination. The story of what happened to the children – who were forcibly removed from their families and sent to military-style camps that were euphemistically called “schools” – has at last been told, compiled in the monumental six-volume Truth and Reconciliation Report on residential schools for aboriginal children released in 2015. The accounts of cruelty against generations of children will strain credulity of the moral imagination, but this extraordinary report is about much more than that.

In the testimony given by hundreds of former residents and staff over the six-year long truth-telling process, documented in thousands of pages, survivors tell of being shackled to their beds at night and raped, of being forced to eat their own vomit, of being beaten with rods or whips for having cast a glance or a wave over a crowded mess hall at a sister or brother with whom they were forbidden contact, of having needles pierced through their tongues for speaking their own language.

The story of systemic child abuse and neglect – horrific as it is, is not all there is to tell. To cast a light into what may be the darkest and most shameful part of Canada’s history, is to look into the policies of forced assimilation of aboriginal peoples that were integral to the making of Canada itself. The intent to rupture families in order to prevent the transmission of a culture, in order to end those practices that allow the continued existence of a group as a group, is both the legal definition of cultural genocide and the stated objective of these institutions. Canada’s admission of cultural genocide in these pages is historic not only for Canada: it represents the first official admission of genocide by any nation anywhere in the Americas.[1]

And it does so in a detailed accounting not only of the horrors of the residential schools, but of the federal government’s history of legal trickery, its failure to fulfill its treaty obligations, and its domination of almost every aspect of aboriginal life. In reviewing this history of colonization, the Commission has, piece by piece, deconstructed the Doctrine of Progress, which elevates European civilization above all others, and the Doctrine of Discovery, by which Europeans justified the theft of land from those who were here long before them – those archaic and racist doctrines which nevertheless persist in the national mythologies and prejudices and have been the basis of the EuroCanadian relationship with its aboriginal peoples. To reconcile Canada with its aboriginal people means not just addressing the historic crimes against children; it will mean restoring and dignifying the unique legal status of aboriginals as the original and rightful inhabitants of the land we call Canada.

Canada’s first Prime Minister, John MacDonald, created the first residential industrial schools for aboriginal children in the 1880s, modeled on the “aggressive civilizing” policies of the United States, using the justification that would be used again and again for policies of cultural genocide – that the Indians were dying, and their only hope was assimilation. “If anything is to be done,” he said, “with the Indian, we must catch him young.” Rather than fulfill its Treaty obligations – which require providing healthcare, schools and other services to nations that had ceded land to Canada – the federal government adopted the less expensive approach of attempting to assimilate the Indians and to break up the reserves. The residential school system was essential to this design.

The 1920 Indian Act – Canada’s blueprint for the erasure of its aboriginal peoples– made attendance mandatory at industrial residential schools for all aboriginal children within the government’s reach, and forbid their attendance at any other schools. To be clear, these places were not schools: they were punitive rather than nurturing, where children were forced to perform hard labor, were under constant supervision, their letters home read and censored; they were flogged and manacled, deprived of food, locked in cellars and displayed in stocks. The little schooling they received was mostly in religious instruction, involving hours every day spent on their knees, as well as training in domestic work, for girls, and agricultural or industrial labor, for boys. Staff at these camps were themselves uneducated, many of whom had never completed high school. Diseases were allowed to rage through the overcrowded camps, especially TB, at a time when TB treatment and prevention were available to the general population. Children who escaped often froze to death, or were brutally punished if they were caught. The dead were buried in mass graves; others simply disappeared without a trace.

The deliberate destruction of families was unimaginably traumatic, from the day that a priest – usually it was a priest or a minister– showed up without notice to take the children. They were removed by truck, by boat or wagon or train. Often, children did not have time to say goodbye to their brothers and sisters. They were dragged away screaming. Upon arrival, after a long journey – for the camps were set deliberately far from their families – their long hair was shorn, their homemade coats and moccasins were taken away, and so were their names. Masak became Alice, Ochankugahe became Daniel. More often than not, they were simply referred to by a number. Hunger and loneliness defined their lives; children were driven to steal food, trap rodents, or scavenge garbage dumps to feed themselves. They endured all these abuses without family to console them, or to tell them that they were not at fault for being raped, or to explain to them that sexual abuse was not “education.” And they endured these abuses for week after week, year after year, generation after generation.

The federal government was well aware of the failure of these institutions at assimilating these children into Canadian society; it was aware of the scandalously high death rates and the appalling conditions of the camps. Policies remained unchanged even after a government medical inspector in 1907 found that the children were dying in residential schools all across Canada – overcrowding, poor sanitation, and poor nutrition prepared the soil for the diseases that swept through these camps, claiming the lives of as many as three quarters of the children, who were buried in unmarked graves, or who were sent away when they were gravely ill, only to die shortly after returning home. A subsequent report by the Minister of Indian Affairs in 1913 stated, “It is quite within the mark to say that 50 percent of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education they had received therein.” By the 1950s, the children were no longer forced to perform hard labor, and the epidemics had subsided, but the policy of abducting children in order to “kill the Indian in the child” entered a new level of aggressiveness, with only slight modifications to its rationalizations. By this time, the government had expanded into the northern regions where previously the provincial and federal governments had little or no presence. The institutions persisted through the 1980s, and the last of the residential schools for aboriginal children in Canada closed its doors in 1996.

As the Truth and Reconciliation report has emphasized, this is not just a matter of the past, but of the living present in aboriginal communities throughout Canada. One third of all aboriginal adults living today are survivors of this violence. The mortality continues through epidemics of suicide, substance abuse, domestic violence, and the newly introduced social diseases – diabetes and obesity – that have replaced the infectious diseases of the past. The policies failed at coerced assimilation; but they did succeed at tearing apart the family, and thereby unraveling the social and cultural coherence of aboriginal life and community.

The Truth and Reconciliation process had its origins in the 1980s when survivors began to speak out about the abuses they suffered at these institutions. Apologies from the churches followed. Over the next decades, survivors filed thousands of individual lawsuits, culminating the $2 billion 2007 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, the largest class action settlement in Canada’s history. In addition to providing individual compensation to former residents and a contribution to the Aboriginal Healing Fund, the agreement required the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an official public apology:

To the approximately 80,000 living former students, and all family members and communities, the Government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes and we apologize for having done this.  We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions, that it created a void in many lives and communities, and we apologize for having done this.  We now recognize that, in separating children from their families, we undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their own children and sowed the seeds for generations to follow, and we apologize for having done this.  We now recognize that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled, and we apologize for failing to protect you.  Not only did you suffer these abuses as children, but as you became parents, you were powerless to protect your own children from suffering the same experience, and for this we are sorry.

Apologies are important. Without them no reconciliation is possible. A truth and reconciliation process involves an admission of past wrongs, apology, compensation, and a demonstrable commitment to change. The Commission’s ninety-four recommendations – built on the framework of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – spelled out over the thousands of pages, if they are acted upon, will touch on every aspect of Canadian society – from its educational system, its judiciary, to the uses of aboriginal lands. The oath of citizenship will include new language: every new citizen will swear to “faithfully observe the laws of Canada including Treaties with Indigenous Peoples.” Reconciliation will mean identifying and commemorating the children buried in unmarked graves; it will mean reducing the grossly disproportionate incarceration rates of aboriginals; it will mean restoring indigenous legal systems, revitalizing languages and cultural practices; it will mean acting to reduce violence against aboriginal women; it will mean supporting the restoration of indigenous memory; and it will mean eliminating the insulting requirement for First Nations to prove their millennial occupancy of their lands in lands rights negotiations. As the legal foundation of Canada itself, the Doctrine of Discovery must be replaced by the Treaties, which alone give legitimacy to Canada as a nation. To reconcile Canada’s image of itself as a champion human rights and the rule of law, with its history of aggressive colonization of its First Nations, will require an honest accounting of Canadian history.

In the Commission’s view, all students – aboriginal and non-Aboriginal – need to learn that the history of this country did not begin with the arrival of Jacques Cartier on the banks of the St. Lawrence. They need to learn about the Indigenous nations the Europeans met, about their rich linguistic and cultural heritage… Canadians need to learn why Indigenous nations negotiated the Treaties and to understand that they negotiated with integrity and good faith. They need to learn about why Aboriginal leaders and Elders still fight so hard to defend these Treaties, what these agreements represent to them, and why they have been ignored by European settlers or governments. They need to learn about what it means to have inherent rights….

Privilege and wealth are not easily relinquished, however. The destruction of the aboriginal world has always been about the land – and the coveting of resources from Treaty and non-Treaty aboriginal lands is not going to diminish. This is the most worrisome piece of the report, because nowhere is there a recognition in these pages that the right to self determination includes the right to say no to resource extraction or development on aboriginal lands. The Commission makes a point of clarifying that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples does not give veto power to First Nations over the uses of their lands, while pointing out that the Supreme Court allows that aboriginal land rights can be superceded by the needs of the general public. [2]

The Commission refers to a report titled “Responsible Energy Resource Development in Canada,” which calls for “forging constructive relationships,” “reducing social and environmental impacts,” “ensuring the continuity of cultures and traditions,” and “sharing the benefits fairly.” And yet “reducing impact” and “ensuring the continuity of cultures” is not possible in the context of tar sands extraction or strip mining or mega hydroelectric development – which is what we are talking about when we talk about energy resource development. The report borrows all the corporate double speak of the Green Economy; but it is simply nonsense to talk about “safeguarding the environment” or protecting “cultural values” while turning living forests and wetlands into moonscapes. To parade aboriginal elders before EIS panels in a display of respecting “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” in this context becomes a form of mockery. The report cites the comments by Kenneth Coates, Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation, and law professor Dwight Newman, on the “immensely exciting” potential the Tslihqot’in [3] decision presents for future prosperity for aboriginal communities, yet nowhere does the Commission acknowledge that the Tslihqot’in decision gives First Nations the right to say no to tar sands or hydroelectric or another form of large scale destruction on their lands.

It is true that there have been other reports –there was the 1907 Bryce Report, the 1983 Penner Report, the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Report – which recognized failed policies towards First Nations, but did little to change the lives of aboriginal people. But it would be hard to turn away from these stories – of children torn from their families, starved and flogged and even raped. More than 150,000 Canadians turned up for the seven national Truth and Reconciliation events; tears were flowing as survivors courageously recalled painful memories, as parents apologized to children and children apologized to parents, as testimony was given of the countless acts of resistance by small children who found ways to hold their heads high, of the too few acts of kindness. The most common word used to describe the experience of listening to this testimony has been “transformational.” “I knew the storyline… but I had no real idea,” said former Prime Minister Joe Clark. “I thought I was prepared, but I was not.” “It has really taken over my heart,” said Shelagh Rogers, a journalist. A high school teacher said, “I have a history degree in Canadian history. I learned more in the past five days about Canada than I have in three years of that degree.” Indigenous and progressive scholars have written this history before, but this time, it has become the official story.

From south of the border, I have followed these events with awe and a deepening shame that the United States, where I live, has had no truth and reconciliation process of its own for its genocidal wars against native America, its institutionalized child abuse, nor for its history of slavery. We tell stories in order to live, and to justify telling others how to live, and the stories we tell shape who we are and what we do. The lie that the United States continues to support about spreading democracy is an old one and it has its origins in early America. We can continue to uphold such fictions because we have been doing so for more than 200 years. Our national origin story has turned the colonizers into the colonized, a war of conquest into a war of liberation. The more recent imperialist wars of aggression are not a departure but a continuation of U.S. history. As Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz writes in her Indigenous Peoples History of the United States, “Overseas empire was the logical outcome of the course the United States chose at its founding in total war against the indigenous people of the continent.”        

Meanwhile Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is calling on Canadians to engage in a process of reconciliation that will take many generations. Here in the United States we have scarcely taken note of this extraordinary process underway in a country that shares our border. But we should be following this closely, as Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation process has created a model for the other nations – namely Australia, New Zealand, and the United States – who were the last (besides Canada) to sign on to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and who have been the most recalcitrant in granting the right to self-determination to its first peoples. The United States created the original model for Canada’s treatment of aboriginal children; now, it is Canada that has created the model for reconciliation. We can and should all engage in the process that Canada’s aboriginal people have begun; to be sure, here in the United States, we have a far darker and deeper history of genocide to be reconciled.

Alexis Lathem has reported on hydroelectric development on Innu and Cree lands for Toward Freedom and other journals, and is the author of the poetry collection Alphabet of Bones (Wind Ridge).

Works Cited

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. “Statement of apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools.” June 11, 2008.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Final Report. Six volumes. (2015).

——-They Came for the Children. Preliminary Report (2012).

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States. Boston: Beacon. 2014.


[1] In what is also an unprecedented development, the Guatemalan courts have convicted the former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide – a single individual.

[2] The report cites the Supreme Court ruling in the Delgamuukw case, which broadened aboriginal land rights while allowing that “governments can still infringe on Aboriginal rights if it can demonstrate that it is in the broader public interest to do so.” Agriculture, forestry, mining and hydroelectric power are all the “kinds of objectives that are consistent with this purpose and, in principle, can justify the infringement of aboriginal title.”

[3] In 2014 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Tsilhqut’in peoples have aboriginal title to their land in British Columbia, and “ownership rights…including the right to decide how the land will be used; the right of enjoyment and occupancy of the land; the right to possess the land; the right to the economic benefits of the land; and the right to pro-actively use and manage the land.” The decision represents the most sweeping recognition of aboriginal land rights in Canadian law.