In explicit apology to all the victims
In response to the Royal Commission Report, the Canadian government issued a Statement of Reconciliation in 1998. In it the government acknowledged that the Canadian residential school system separated many children from their families and communities and prevented them from speaking their own languages and from learning about their own heritage and cultures. The government further accepted the key role it had played in the development and administration of the schools. Children who were the victims of sexual and physical abuse were singled out for special mention.
The statement included the Canadian government’s explicit apology to all the victims of the residential school system. In addition, the Minister of Indian Affairs announced the availability of $350 million for community-based healing, earmarked for those who suffered the effects of physical and sexual abuse. No monetary compensation was offered for individual victims, however. In reaction, victims of the residential school system turned to the Canadian courts. By June 1998, approximately 1,000 lawsuits were filed.It is estimated that by early 2004, more than 5,000 people may have entered into litigation for damages against the Canadian government. It has also been reported that by March 1999, some $20 million had been spent by the Canadian government in settling residential school claims.
It is not clear how the state is likely to deal with these cases in the future, however. It may opt for out-of-court settlements in order to avoid setting legal precedent for the concept of monetary reparations. Residential Schools and the Crime of GenocideAlthough the term genocide was raised during the hearings of the Royal Commission, the remark was dismissed as a “rhetorical flourish,” It can be argued, however, that this dismissal was at least premature.
Article III of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide to include the causing of serious bodily or mental harm to members of a national, racial, or religious group, and the deliberate infliction on the group of conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.Using this definition, most of the criteria can be substantiated from the testimony presented before the Royal Commission. The difficulty lies in establishing the element of intent.
It can be argued that residential schools were not calculated to bring about the physical destruction of the aboriginal people, but might instead have been a well-intentioned plan for the good of the people that went awry through inept administration and implementation. The Royal Commission appears to lean to this view.Nonetheless, the Commission’s report does call for further public inquiry, the establishment of a university for aboriginal peoples that would be dedicated to researching and documenting the residential schools, and compensation for communitybased healing programs.
These recommendations appear to aim at arriving at some kind of truth surrounding the residential schools with a view to implementing a program of action. Some, however, charge that the Royal Commission’s recommendations are dilatory tactics intended to frustrate those who seek to resolve the damage done by the residential schools.In this view, the aims and objectives of the residential school plan were clearly calculated to destroy the cultural and physical life of Canada’s aboriginal peoples and to replace the traditional way of life with a new set of values that were more acceptable to the white people. As a direct consequence of this policy, the residential schools brought about the physical destruction of most of Canada’s aboriginal peoples, and, according to this perspective, the actions of the Canadian government did, in fact, constitute genocide.The Australian Experience: In her article “Squaring the Circle: How Canada is Dealing with the Legacy if its Indian Residential Schools Experiment,” Pamela O’Connor draws attention to the striking similarity between the Australian aboriginal “stolen children” experience with Canada’s residential school system. The assimilation of indigenous children in Australia was undertaken under child welfare laws supposedly to protect aborigines.It called for the permanent separation of aboriginal children from their families and communities, placing them in the care of foster homes, church missions, state- or church-run children’s homes, boarding schools, and workplaces.
Many of the children who were removed were brought up in complete ignorance of their aboriginal identity, parentage, or community affiliations. In 1995 the Australian government asked the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission to conduct a national inquiry into this situation.After conducting hearings around the country, the Commission reported in 1997 that the policy of assimilation through the forced removal of aboriginal children had given rise to gross violations of human rights law. The Commission’s recommendations included reparations through a government cash-compensation scheme and an apology to Australia’s aboriginal peoples. The Australian government, however, has refused to apologize or to pay compensation.
Instead, it proposed to spend $63 million on the preservation of records, language and cultural maintenance programs, family reunification services, counselling, therapy, and vocational training for victims of its policy of forced removal. It is thought that the refusal to pay reparation may be based on the fear of opening a torrent of claims against the state. The Australian response, like that of the Canadian government, is defensive and appears to be aimed at minimizing future claims of liability. Neither government, however, has effectively denied the legitimacy of the complaints of their respective aboriginal victims.