Mr. Speaker, it is with both emotion and a sense of shame that I rise today to speak to the NDP motion concerning residential schools.
I said emotion because I am from a riding where there were no residential schools and there are no indigenous communities, and I have to humbly admit that I was unaware of this dark period of our history, which was uncovered by the media.
In rising today, I had to find out more about why our NDP colleagues decided to move this motion, a motion that I support because it is the right thing to do. I read articles and reread the testimony and the apology of the previous government. It is not easy reading. We should never have had to read about this history; it should never even have had to be written.
I would like to briefly outline this history for younger Canadians and Quebeckers who may not know about it.
The historical persecution of first nations peoples during the conquests is not something that can be forgotten, even centuries later. From Australia to Mexico to Russia, indigenous peoples all share a common history that was unfortunately forced on them by the Europeans and by us Canadians. Residential schools are a dark legacy in Canadian history.
In an attempt to convert and assimilate indigenous peoples, Canada passed laws, in collaboration with religious institutions, to create residential schools. One hundred and fifty thousand first nations children were taken from their communities. I repeat, 150,000 children. That is five times the population of Thetford Mines. That is equivalent to the entire population of cities like Sherbrooke or Trois-Rivières.
The Indian Act of 1876 required the government to educate indigenous children so that they could integrate into Canadian society. The children were meant to receive an education that would help them develop skills to fit more easily into a society dominated by foreigners.
However, the reality was very different. Residential schools subjected first nations children to degrading, abusive treatment that was designed to isolate them. Through testimony from survivors of these residential schools, we have learned the heart-wrenching truth about the horrors that took place within the walls of these schools and that continue to plague generation after generation of indigenous peoples.
Here is an account from Lucie, an Atikamekw woman who was in a residential school until 1958. She was speaking about her experience at a residential school in Amos:
“It was very hard, both physically and spiritually,” she said with sadness in her voice. The plump little girl who had run free all her life grew thin, beaten into submission. She learned to sleep in the broom closets where she was shut up as punishment. The nuns called her a “savage” and forced her to forget her mother tongue. During her residential school years, Lucie suffered contempt for her culture and experienced physical and sexual violence.
The horror did not end there. Not only were the children abused, their living conditions were deplorable. They were vulnerable to disease because the lack of sanitation and poor air quality left them prey to every germ and virus. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada learned that, between 1941 and 1945, the death rate for indigenous students was nearly five times higher than the general death rate for Canadian schoolchildren. The commission also reported that nearly 50% of cases where a cause of death was identified were attributed to tuberculosis. Many deaths were not even recorded. Upwards of 1,000 indigenous children died in complete anonymity. Their names do not appear on any list. They have been completely forgotten.
Life outside the schools has not been easy for residential school survivors. Many have struggled with psychological problems caused by mistreatment and abuse.
Studies on residential school survivors living in Canada show that 64% suffer from post-traumatic stress, 21% have substance abuse problems, and 21% struggle with depression.
Worse yet, many experts confirm that the adverse effects are passed down from the victims to the younger generations.
Drugs, school dropout rates, and mental illness are destroying some reserves. To what degree are today's problems related to residential schools? I do not know. I am no expert, but the reality of the past has left deep wounds that time seems unable to heal.
In Opitciwan, in Mauricie, only 10% of young people will graduate from high school. This colonization also had an adverse effect on first nations peoples, who were robbed of their identity through a forced assimilation that sought to eradicate the culture of their nation.
As a Canadian, as a Quebecker, the idea of being forced to forget my French language that I am tremendously proud to speak, or the customs that my parents passed on to me, is simply unimaginable. Asking me to forget these things and not live by the values I was taught is also unimaginable to me. I could not accept that. First nations children had no choice.
Indigenous heritage is an integral part of Canada's history. It was and still is incredibly important in the eyes of the Conservative Party. On June 11, 2008, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper was the first to apologize to residential school survivors, their families, and their communities for the role that Canada played in the abuse of residential school students.
I would like to quote part of his apology:
The Government of Canada built an educational system in which very young children were often forcibly removed from their homes, often taken far from their communities. Many were inadequately fed, clothed and housed. All were deprived of the care and nurturing of their parents, grandparents and communities. First Nations, Inuit and Métis languages and cultural practices were prohibited in these schools. Tragically, some of these children died while attending residential schools and others never returned home....The government recognizes that the absence of an apology has been an impediment to healing and reconciliation....You have been working on recovering from this experience for a long time and in a very real sense, we are now joining you on this journey.
The following is his apology:
The Government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.
Those were the words spoken by the prime minister, Stephen Harper, in 2008. Those eloquent words opened the door to reconciliation through the acknowledgement of harm done, particularly through the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada as part of the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The commission recognized that the residential school system had profoundly harmful and lasting repercussions on the culture, heritage, and languages of indigenous peoples.
Following a rigorous study, the commission's report reflected the hard work and determination of the previous government in terms of raising public awareness about residential schools and encouraging reconciliation, understanding, and respect. It is crucial that Canadians and first nation peoples continue to strengthen ties for future generations.
Today's motion has three components. The first part relates to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's call to action 58, calling on the Pope to issue a formal apology to Canada, the survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church's role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse suffered by first nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.
I sincerely believe that any group or institution that had a significant role in the residential school system should apologize in order to help Canada follow the path of reconciliation. That is why the former prime minister of Canada gave an historic apology in the House of Commons in 2008.
The second and third parts of the motion concern the 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement and a call for transparency.
I also believe that the people involved in this dark period in our history must do everything possible to help turn the page so that the victims, their families, and their descendants can finally find peace.
The people of Lac-Mégantic recently experienced a tragedy. Although it took place five years ago, the wounds have not yet healed. When I compare our tragedy to that of indigenous families, and I see how long it takes to heal, my hope is that certain people will hear this invitation to make every effort to ensure that these people can finally find the road to recovery.
We are bound by the past forged by our ancestors. However, here, in the House of Commons, we have the ability and the opportunity to forge our future.