Trudeau says Canadians ‘horrified and ashamed’ of forced assimilation

Justin Trudeau has said that Canadians are “horrified and ashamed” by their government’s longtime policy of forcing Indigenous children to attend boarding schools where nearly 1,000 unmarked graves have now been discovered – but stopped short of launching a national investigation.

An estimated 751 unmarked graves were recently discovered on the grounds of the former Marieval Indian residential school in Saskatchewan which operated from 1899 to 1997. Last month, some 215 remains were reported at a similar school in British Columbia.

From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools – mostly run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations – in a campaign to assimilate them into Canadian society.

“This was an incredibly harmful government policy that was Canada’s reality for many, many decades and Canadians today are horrified and ashamed of how our country behaved,” Trudeau said. “It was a policy that ripped kids from their homes, from their communities, from their culture and their language and forced assimilation upon them.”

The federal government has previously admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant in the schools, with students beaten for speaking their native languages. Thousands of children died of disease and neglect.

The recent discoveries have fanned growing calls across the country for an independent investigation into what happened at the residential schools. Speaking to reporters on Friday, however, Trudeau made no indication his government was considering a national investigation.

Trudeau’s government has also come under fire from opposition parties and Indigenous advocates, who have called on him to end litigation against First Nations children who suffered in foster care, and residential school survivors.

The Liberal government has appealed against a 2019 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that ordered it to pay C$40,000 (US$32,500) to First Nations children taken from their on-reserve homes and communities. The compensation order follows a separate tribunal ruling in 2016, which determined that the federal government failed to provide the same funding to Indigenous children as welfare services elsewhere in the country, a move that amounted to discrimination.

Trudeau’s government is also battling survivors of St Anne’s residential school in Fort Albany, Ontario, over compensation.

“Should someone who went to a day school for a few months or a year be compensated to the exact same amount as someone who was in a traumatic situation over many, many years, where they were taken from their families and had a very, very different experience?” said the prime minister. “Right now, the human rights tribunal says everyone should get exactly the same amount. We don’t know that that’s entirely fair.”

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