Mr. Speaker, today I would like to begin with a story, but first I want to talk about what happened in the 1960s.
In 1960, I was living in Amos, where I am from. It is a small municipality that, at the time, was the regional centre for education. In Abitibi—Témiscamingue, Amos was where students went to learn the liberal professions. They were going to be lawyers, priests, notaries and so on.
Not far from Amos was the little town of Saint-Marc-de-Figuery. Around the 1950s—I am not sure of the exact date—the federal government decided to build what we called the Indian residential school there, on the edge of a lake.
We here are all young. We can remember when, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we played with the Indian children, and that was okay. Near Amos there was an Algonquin village called Pikogan. We wondered why the Indian children were taken to the residential school in Saint-Marc-de-Figuery instead of to Pikogan, close to Amos, which also had schools. We did not know. I did not know.
But not knowing is no excuse for not acknowledging today what happened at that little residential school. This is what happened there.
At the residential school in Saint-Marc-de-Figuery, the students were Indians. They were called that. They were even called redskins. They were taken from Obidjuan, an aboriginal village closer to Lac-Saint-Jean. At the time, the Grand Trunk railway connected Cochrane, Ontario, to Quebec City and Montreal. The railway passed through the Gouin reservoir, where the Algonquin people fished and hunted.
What happened in the 1950s and the 1960s? At the end of the summer, someone from the Department of Indian Affairs would travel by train, arrive in the villages, collect the Indian children and take them to the Indian residential school in Saint-Marc-de-Figuery.
They even collected the Indian children from Pikogan, an Algonquin village five kilometres from Amos, and took them to the residential school so that all the Indians would be cared for and educated at the same place and in the same way.
What happened to the Indian children when they were taken to the residential school in Saint-Marc-de-Figuery? I can attest to that, because I saw it. We were young. At that time, in the 1960s, I was in scouts. We would go to the residential school to see the Indians and talk to them about scouts. When we arrived we saw that they were all Indian children. They all had black hair and it was short. The first thing that happened when they arrived at the residential school in Saint-Marc-de-Figuery was that their hair was cut off, under the pretext that they had lice.
Their heads were completely shaven and kept that way for the entire school year. These children were taken to the residential school in Saint-Marc-de-Figuery in August or September and they stayed there until the end of the school year. That was where they were educated.
Here is what used to be done. First their hair was cut. Then their traditional clothing was taken away—because the authorities at the time felt this needed to be done—and they were given white man's clothing. What else happened? They were prohibited from speaking Algonquin. I am talking about the residential school that I knew, the one in Saint-Marc-de-Figuery, near Amos. Their Indian clothing was taken away and they were formally prohibited from speaking Indian, as it was called at the time. They had to speak French. All the classes were in French. They were taken away at age five or six from the Obidjuan community or whichever community they were from along the railway line. There were Indians in Senneterre, Amos and all over. The Algonquin were taken to these residential schools to be educated. Their hair was cut, they were prohibited from speaking their language and, most of all, they were prohibited from thinking like Indians. From the age of five they had to think like white people because apparently we were intellectually superior and we, the whites, had to educate them.
I hope the picture I have just evoked here in this House—a picture that is true—will call to mind certain events that happened in Europe just a few decades ago. I would not go so far as to use the word “genocide”. I will not use that word, although I could not be blamed for thinking it. In fact, the Kistabish, the Mohawks, the McDougalls I now know have all lost their language and their culture. They were subjected to things that I will not describe here in this House, horrible things, such as rapping their knuckles because they ate with their fingers.
When they were in their communities for the entire summer with their parents and elders, they learned to hunt and fish. They learned how to gut a fish, how to trap a rabbit, hare, deer or moose, or how to feed wolves, because they learned from the wolves where to find the deer. Yet, they lost all of this as soon as they went to the residential school.
I am sure you can imagine what happened. The children were five, six, seven or eight years old, and we know this happened every year. What happened? Horrible things happened in that Indian residential school. Here in this House, I will not talk about the sexual assaults endured by the Kistabish, the Mohawks, and the McDougalls, and I could name others. They went through some tremendous difficulties, which they hid for the most part. They could not talk about it to their parents.
What did Jackie Kistabish say when she returned to Pikogan? She said everything was fine, that it was not so bad. Her mother and grandmother were surprised to see Jackie or my friend Kistabish come home with their hair cut up to their ears. That was not the aboriginal way. At that time, they typically had long hair, although the children lost their hair in September. Their hair was cut off or shaved. When they returned home in June, they did not even understand their parents and, worse, their parents did not understand them. That is the worst of everything that was done.
I am talking about children of five or six, but this went on for about 10 years, until they were 15 or 16. They lost their whole culture, say the Anishnabe Algonquins from Pikogan and Winneway and Lac-Simon and Obidjuan.
I could name them all, and I will tell you why. I grew up to become a criminal lawyer. It is strange, but my clients included the Kistabish, McDougalls, Mohawks and many others. They wound up in court, and no one could understand why they had become alcoholic and violent. They could not go back to their home communities, places like Pikogan, Obidjuan or Pointe-Bleue.
Some time ago, I asked a question of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. I received the answer today. These are recent statistics. In 2001-02, 738 aboriginal people were admitted to penitentiary to serve sentences of more than two years; in 2002-03, there were 775; in 2003-04, 752; in 2004-05, 802; in 2005-06, 891. These individuals are generally in their thirties and are serving their first sentence. Why? Maybe because they were unable to live in their home communities. Imagine their parents. We are talking about the 1950s and 1960s. These people were deprived of their rights and their culture. They were no longer able to communicate with their own parents because they were forbidden from speaking their own language.
Since 1876, 150,000 aboriginals have experienced what I just described and suffered the hell that was residential schools. Today, there are just 87,000 survivors of these residential schools. Unfortunately, they are disappearing at an average of 30 to 50 a week. Today these people are 70 to 75 years old. Some, but very few, are slightly younger at ages 55 to 60. Most of them are between 65 and 85 and they remember.
I have had the opportunity to meet with a number of these seniors—because they are seniors now—and they congratulate this House for taking provisions to resolve the residential schools issue by financially compensating the communities, and more specifically the aboriginals who experienced this hell. However, I think we need to go further. I am making an appeal in this House today. I am asking that we stop thinking in terms of political parties. Indeed, I am from the Bloc and yes, there are Liberals, our friends the New Democrats and the Conservatives. However, in light of this terrible experience aboriginals had, I think we could pass the motion today.
The motion of the Liberal member for Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River asks that this House apologize to the survivors of Indian residential schools for the trauma they suffered as a result of policies intended to assimilate first nations, and so forth.
In my speech, I do not want to blame the government for its inaction nor blame the previous government, which may have done nothing for 13 years; that is not what we are debating. Today, the issue is that the first nations experienced horrible things on our soil. We must not only recognize that fact and compensate them for it, but I believe we should also apologize. We did not know. We did not think this was going on. We never believed that this could have gone so far.
Unfortunately this went as far as complete assimilation of a people and as far as offensive sexual assault against children between the ages of 5 and 10. One of them told me that at the Indian residential school he saw a young boy—whom I will not name, but whom I know personally—leave the brother superior's room bleeding from a place that decency prevents me from naming in this House. But we are old enough to understand that what he experienced was appalling. This went on night after night for days and months.
How do we think these people survived for all these years? For they are people, despite the fact that for many years, right into the 1950s, some believed that Indians were not people.
Enough is enough. The Bloc Québécois and I think that the House should say enough is enough.
Apologizing will not erase what happened, nor will it make these communities forget what they went through. Suicide rates are high. One man told me that his father committed suicide and that he did not understand why until his mother told him what his father had told her—until his mother told him that his father had gone to the Saint-Marc-de-Figuery Indian residential school.
This kind of thing happened all over Canada. We have to acknowledge it, and I believe the day will come when Canada will admit that it made a mistake. Canada must apologize for what it did to the first nations, and I think the time to do so is now.
I think that with all due respect, the first nations now have everything they need to take charge of their future and to grow. The Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, of which I am a member, is studying bills, such as Bill C-44. It is not perfect, but are working to improve it.
We acknowledge the rights they have won. They had to fight the government for their rights.
I will end by saying that overall, the report submitted to the committee was based on recognizing aboriginal peoples as self-governing nations that occupy a special place in Canada. However, before we can truly acknowledge that, the House must apologize sincerely to residential school survivors for the trauma they experienced.