Draft residential school speech blaming Ottawa for abuse: documents


Ottawa was careful to avoid admitting that the abuse suffered by Indigenous children in residential schools was “in the hands of the federal government” in remarks prepared for a Liberal minister after the discovery of unmarked graves last year, according to reports. documents.

The Canadian Press obtained documents through the Access to Information Act that show a draft of a speech written for Carolyn Bennett, who was then Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, contained at the origin of these words before they were deleted.

“It makes me realize that they are still in a position to defend themselves,” said Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.

In May 2021, the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation announced that ground-penetrating radar had found what are believed to be the unmarked graves of approximately 200 children at the site of a former boarding school near Kamloops, in British Columbia.

The revelation prompted nationwide consideration of the legacy of residential schools, which were government-funded, church-run institutions that approximately 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend. in Canada for more than a century. Thousands of children have been victims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect, and even died.

The discovery also sparked questions about what Ottawa was going to do about it.

Days later, the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations was drafting a speech for Bennett ahead of a possible emergency debate on the issue in the House of Commons.

It never happened. Another form of debate took place and it appears that the draft speech, as written in the documents, was not the one Bennett ended up delivering.

A section of the draft remarks discusses the suffering endured by children in residential schools, originally saying “they suffered unimaginable trauma, including physical, mental and sexual abuse at the hands of the federal government, simply by attending school”.

Speech writing can be a long process. The text is often drafted by the department, then sent to the minister’s office staff and to the minister, and then sometimes back and forth.

The changes contained in the 17-page drafts show that the words “federally owned” have been deleted. The reason for the review was redacted before the documents were released to The Canadian Press.

“The government, they talk a lot about reconciliation,” said Eleanore Sunchild, a Saskatchewan lawyer and advocate for Thunderchild First Nation, who has represented many residential school survivors in cases of physical and sexual abuse.

“That, however, does not speak of reconciliation at all, removing those words.”

The Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations has yet to respond to a request for an explanation of the change. But current minister Marc Miller’s office said in a written statement that the federal government “takes full responsibility” for its role in the residential school system, “including the abuses suffered by Indigenous children in these facilities.” .

Former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for Canada’s role in residential schools in 2008 as part of the historic Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

In his speech, Harper apologized for the government’s “failure to protect” children in institutions, which he said “has too often resulted in abuse or neglect.”

He also apologized for the separation of children from families and acknowledged that this has consequences for future generations.

Last month, Pope Francis came to Canada to apologize for residential schools on behalf of the Catholic Church, which ran more than 60% of the schools.

The pontiff asked for forgiveness for the “evils” committed by “many Christians” against indigenous children in boarding schools. Many indigenous leaders said they had hoped for an apology that spoke specifically to the role of the Catholic Church.

Bill Percy, a Winnipeg-based attorney who has represented survivors seeking compensation for sexual and physical abuse, said it was possible the government took issue with the words “in the hands of” in the draft.

“It implies that they were the physical aggressors,” he said.

“Most of the direct attackers would be church-related employees, not federal government employees.”

Either way, he said Canada paid out most of the billions of dollars distributed to abuse plaintiffs as part of the settlement.

“When needed, in court cases, the federal government has always assumed its responsibilities.”

Blackstock said she sees where Ottawa has “wiggle room,” given the federal government hasn’t directly perpetuated the abuses.

“What the federal government has done is knowingly left children in situations where this was happening and chose not to step in to save them from death and save them from abuse,” she said.

She said whether it be the Vatican or Canada, the institutions have shown a reluctance to take full responsibility for residential schools.

“What worries me basically is the representation by the feds because it’s a ‘dark chapter in history’ and not really acknowledging the fact that they knew what they were They were doing was wrong. They knew it was leading to child deaths.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 10, 2022.

With files by Jim Bronskill


If you are a distressed former residential school survivor or have been impacted by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24 hour residential school crisis line: 1-866-925 -4419

Additional mental health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.