Coroner offers reconciliation gesture for residential schools victims
Dr. Andrew McCallum, chief coroner of Ontario, is seen outside his offices in Toronto on Thursday, May 31, 2012. McCallum's office has turned up about 120 possible cases of previously unidentified child and youth deaths linked to the Indian residential school system. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel
TORONTO - Ontario's chief coroner handed over a gift of a small wooden turtle Friday in a gesture of reconciliation aimed at the victims of the notorious Indian residential school system.
Dr. Andrew McCallum told "The Meeting Place" -- a two-day conference in support of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission -- that he hoped the gesture would help see "spirits replenished."
"By this gift, we acknowledge the troubled past we share and express our hope for the better future that we are working to build," McCallum told the gathering.
"I hope that through the Truth and Reconciliation process, you are able to gain peace of mind and find forgiveness in your hearts."
Scores of First Nations people from across the country were attending the two-day event, which included displays devoted to the residential schools.
Some of those present were survivors of a system in which young aboriginal children were ripped from their families and sent to church-run schools. Many died or disappeared.
"It was a really traumatizing experience. It was like being in a hard-time prison," said Leo Loone, of the Fort Albany First Nation.
Loone, who was in a residential school from 1958 to 1965, described how kids were forced to eat their own vomit, and weren't allowed to go to bed when ill.
Three of his brother-in-law's siblings "didn't make it," he said.
"They left in the early morning hours . . . never to be traced. They just perished out there. They never found them."
A cause of death note for the three, according to the records, indicates "drowning?"
Loone said he appreciated McCallum's gesture, and the information the coroner's office has managed to dig up about some of the "missing" children.
An intensive review of Ontario records by the coroner has so far turned up more than 100 possible cases of previously unidentified child and youth deaths linked to Indian residential schools.
The information was gleaned from close scrutiny of about 5,000 death records selected from an initial screening of 250,000 records going back to the 19th century.
"It is a very important initiative," Loone said.
"This will offer some closure to some of the families that are still alive today and what happened to their children."
Andrea Chrisjohn, with the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre which helped organize the event, said the coroner's response "helps legitimize those hurts that are out there."
"It's a start," she said.
But Chrisjohn said she was not about to accept any apologies for what she termed the "atrocities" visited on native children, saying a commitment to change is what's needed.
"It's not about an apology but turning it around in terms of action," Chrisjohn said.
One of the biggest issues relates to the young females who were raped by those in charge of the schools.
"A number of our young women were impregnated in the same way that the young boys were sodomized," she said.
"The young women had these babies and were aborted or when they were born, they don't know what happened to them."