AFN Chief urges action on upcoming residential schools report
Sonja Puzic, CTVNews.ca
Published Monday, June 1, 2015 1:42PM EDT
Last Updated Monday, June 1, 2015 7:34PM EDT
A day before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is set to release its highly-anticipated report on Canada’s residential schools, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations said he hopes the report’s recommendations will be “respected, honoured and implemented.”
Perry Bellegarde said there is no point in producing the report if no one acts on it. He told a news conference Monday that he wants Canadians to put pressure on provincial and federal governments to improve the lives of aboriginal people and help build a “better relationship.”
“We have a shared history and we have a shared responsibility going forward,” he said.
Speaking to CTV’s Power Play later, he said he hoped the federal government would act. But if not, he said First Nations would mobilize for the fall election.
“Because if we do get out to vote, there are 51 ridings that could be affected,” he said.
The TRC’s final report on the residential school system will be released Tuesday. The commission has been travelling the country for nearly six years, collecting testimony from thousands of survivors of the residential school system, many of whom were physically and sexually abused.
Bellegarde echoed Supreme Court of Canada Justice Beverly McLachlin and others who have called the residential schools a form of “cultural genocide.”
He said that residential schools and the Indian Act have “really hurt our people.”
“The cultural genocide via the residential schools was basically a recognition from the government, the Crown that indigenous peoples were pagan and savages,” he said.
Asked whether he hopes for the inclusion of the term “cultural genocide”in the report, Bellegarde said people shouldn’t shy away from it.
“It’s a very important word because everyone was scared to use that word in the past … but the definition does fit.”
Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told CTV’s Question Period that the report will show the residential school system had an impact on nearly all of the social markers used to measure the state of affairs for aboriginal people in Canada.
Bellegarde said that governments now must “close the gap” and address the ongoing problems plaguing First Nations communities, including poverty, lack of education, poor housing conditions and efforts to secure justice for missing and murdered aboriginal women.
“When we close the gap, that’s good for everybody,” Bellegarde told reporters in Ottawa. “When we win, everybody will win.”
He also said the impact of residential schools on aboriginal people should be taught in all Canadian schools.
Historian John Milloy, who described the horrors of the residential school system in his book, “A National Crime,” said he’s looking for a “blueprint for steps that can be taken toward reconciliation.”
Rodney Seward, a man of Coast Salish decent, told CTV Power Play that his grandfather’s painful experiences in a residential school affects him too.
“I haven’t gotten to know my grandparents the way I should have,” he said, with his grandfather Glen Seward sitting in the studio beside him.
Rodney Seward also said that his language had been decimated and that he’d like to see it brought back to life.
Glen Seward said he hoped “something good” will come out of the commission, but that “there won’t be enough compensation for what they (did) to us in the school.”
Milloy told CTV’s News Channel he hopes the report will “take Canada in a new and certainly much more positive direction than we have been going for over a century.”
Milloy said the report is expected to gather most of the available documents relating to the abuse and neglect suffered by aboriginal children in the school system, as well as “a huge oral databank” detailing their often horrific experiences.
During question period in the House of Commons Monday, opposition parties demanded to know how the Conservative government will respond to calls for action from aboriginal communities.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt noted that Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized in 2008 to aboriginal people and residential school survivors on behalf of the Canadian government.
Valcourt also said the government welcomes the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and looks forward “to receiving the full report in order to be able to fully understand and respond to the recommendations.”
NDP MP Romeo Saganash, a survivor of the residential school system, later delivered an emotional statement in the House calling for change in the wake of the TRC report.
“Change and reconciliation go together,” he said, noting that reconciliation is not possible “in the absence of justice.”
He said the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was the first chance for many survivors and witnesses to come together and share their stories.
“We are still here. We made it,” he said.