Attendees perform a round dance during a press conference and prayer vigil at the former Muscowequan Indian Residential School, one of the last residential schools to close its doors in Canada in 1997 and the last fully intact residential school still sta

Conflict & Justice

What the US can learn from Canada’s commission on Indigenous residential schools

For some, recent findings signal that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission didn’t go far enough to get answers about what took place in the residential schools. 

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Attendees perform a round dance during a press conference and prayer vigil at the former Muscowequan Indian Residential School, one of the last residential schools to close its doors in Canada in 1997 and the last fully intact residential school still standing in Saskatchewan at Muskowekwan First Nation, Saskatchewan, June 1, 2021. The vigil was in response to the remains of 215 children recently found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Credit:

Kayle Neis/The Canadian Press via AP

In Canada, hundreds of unmarked graves have recently been discovered on the grounds of former residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan that operated from 1879 through 1996.

For some, the findings signal that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission didn’t go far enough to get answers about what took place in the residential schools.

Related: Gruesome boarding school discovery forces Canada to reckon with its cultural genocide history 

And now, some who are also pushing for a similar commission to examine Indian boarding schools in the US are watching the news from Canada closely. 

The TRC 

The TRC formed out of a 2006 settlement agreement — stemming from the country’s largest class action lawsuit ever — between the Canadian government and nearly 86,000 Indigenous peoples who attended the schools.

Recognizing the damage inflicted by the residential schools, the court awarded a $1.9-billion compensation package to the former students. Also, over $70 million went to the TRC to acquire records and undergo an investigation.

The commission traveled the country for six years, collecting testimony from more than 6,500 witnesses and survivors who told of rampant sexual violence, physical abuse and malnutrition in the residential schools.

Raymond Frogner, head of archives for the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, said the TRC identified 400 unmarked gravesites throughout Canada.

“[The TRC] did do a little bit of preliminary research into unmarked gravesites and they did submit a report.”

Raymond Frogner, head of archives for the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba

“[The TRC] did do a little bit of preliminary research into unmarked gravesites and they did submit a report.”

Related: Canada’s highest court rules in favor of Sinixt tribal rights at heart of hunting case

But they ran out of resources: “In 2012, [the TRC] actually petitioned the government for more resources to continue their research into this and they didn't get it. So, the scale and scope was just so great that their report on unmarked gravesites was very preliminary.”

Similar stories in the US 

Christine Diindiisi McCleave, who is Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, has family members who were forced to attend US Indian boarding schools where similar events took place.

She wants to see a commission modeled after Canada’s set up to investigate Indian boarding schools south of the 49th parallel.

“We need a commission here in the United States to address the same policies and experiences and impacts that we had as Canada,” she said.

Related: Do US-living descendants of tribes in Canada have rights north of the border?

So, Diindiisi McCleave, CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, helped write HR 8420 — a bill that was introduced in the US House last year to establish a commission.

It was forwarded to both the Committee on Education and Labor and the Committee on Natural Resources but hasn’t moved since.

Diindiisi McCleave said the timing last September was off, with the US presidential election campaign underway and the pandemic. Now, she believes the climate is ripe to reintroduce the bill.

“Just in the last year, since the murder of George Floyd, people are really more committed now to looking at racism and examining this country’s history and examining its policies that were racist or genocidal, and so, I think the climate has changed.” 

Christine Diindiisi McCleave, CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition,  

“Just in the last year, since the murder of George Floyd, people are really more committed now to looking at racism and examining this country’s history and examining its policies that were racist or genocidal, and so, I think the climate has changed,” she said.

But the bill needs to be revised, and she hopes that an updated version can also take into account the lessons from Canada.

Thus far, survey responses on the topic emphasized the need for long-term funding and the importance of collecting the records that expose the full truth about what took place in American’s Indigenous boarding schools.

If Congress does move forward on establishing a commission in the US, Frogner recommends hiring archivists as part of the effort. He said the TRC collected more than 5 million records during the course of its work.

“One of the successes was that the TRC did have a mandate from [Canada’s] Supreme Court to go and request these records,” Frogner said. “One of the weaknesses was they were given a mandate to create as completed historical records as possible, but that was never fleshed out. That definition was never explained.”

Hopes for redress 

Jim LaBelle Senior is an Alaska Native survivor of the US boarding school system.

The day he and his younger brother arrived at the Wrangell Institute back in 1955, he said their heads were shaved, and they were given baths.

“I can still remember a time when a matron ran in and they took a floor brush and they rubbed some lye soap on this floor brush and proceeded to brush this kid vigorously until he bled,” Labelle Senior said. “Parts of his skin were falling off and that sent another message to these children: You better wash up, shower or see the same fate.”

LaBelle Senior, who gets together with others forced to attend the schools, said the conversation has changed through the years.

“Let’s start thinking about why we were sent to these places,” he said.

Like McCleave, he is paying attention to the story unfolding in Canada and hopes that the US will wrestle with this painful past. 

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