Canada's moment to right past wrongs

A government report accuses Canada of past 'cultural genocide' for the forced assimilation of native people. Like other democracies with a history of abusing indigenous or minority people, Canada can set a model for reconciliation.

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Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper embraces Elder Evelyn Commanda-Dewache during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's closing ceremony n Ottawa June 3.

Canadians were startled June 2 when a government report accused the country of having committed “cultural genocide” until as late as 1998 through the forced assimilation of its indigenous people, who make up 4.3 percent of the population. Canada, after all, has been a leader in world efforts to prevent mass atrocities. 

Just as startling was one recommendation in the report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that might allow aboriginal people to veto existing laws. 

“A just reconciliation requires more than simply talking about the need to heal the deep wounds of history,” the 388-page report said. “Words of apology alone are insufficient; concrete actions on both symbolic and material fronts are required.”

Canada is hardly the first democracy to face up to past abuses against indigenous or minority people who are still alive today – and then seek a fair path to reconciliation and recompense. Two decades ago, South Africa set a model with a panel empowered to forgive anyone who admitted to committing atrocities during the apartheid era. Australia may soon hold a referendum to recognize its first peoples in the Constitution. The United States gave reparations to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. In New Zealand, some political leaders seek self-rule for the Maoris.

With its report, Canada makes a valuable contribution to this steady progress among democracies to right past wrongs, often born of colonialism and racism, through exposure and redress. 

The report provides extensive details on a government policy, intiated in the 1870s and implemented largely by churches, that took almost a third of aboriginal children from their parents and educated them so they might “acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.” At least 3,201 students died while attending residential schools, many of which were run more like penal colonies to pay their own way. 

About 80,000 Canadians are survivors of the schools today. The abuse, the report found, lingers in generations that “sometimes found it difficult to become loving parents.” 

Reversing this social damage requires first putting a bright light on past errors. “Non-aboriginal Canadians hear about the problems faced by aboriginal communities but they have almost no idea how those problems developed,” wrote Justice Murray Sinclair, head of the three-member commission and the first aboriginal judge in the province of Manitoba.

The report’s 94 recommendations largely seek reforms in areas such as welfare, education, and law to help in the ongoing process to reconcile native people with the rest of Canada. That process has taken firmer root in recent years with the formation of the commission, an official apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the establishment of a special compensation fund for aboriginal groups.

Like other countries, Canada is finding that uncovering dark legacies can be opportunities to more closely bind a people. 

“A moment like this arises very rarely in a country’s history,” said Governor General  David Johnston, the British crown’s representative in Canada. “This is a moment to reflect upon our history, our relationships and our responsibilities towards each other.”

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