Aboriginal residential schools report just the beginning: survivors

WATCH ABOVE: New report to highlight shameful past of Canada’s residential schools. But as Jacques Bourbeau reports, the head of the commission is already speaking out saying it’s estimated at least 6,000 children died in these institutions and it’s inexcusable nobody has ever found out the exact number.

Mike Cachagee was just four-and-a-half when he was taken from his home and sent to a residential school in northern Ontario.

For the next 12 years, he never celebrated a birthday.

He was never hugged. He never heard “I love you.” He was never encouraged or praised.

He was beaten and sexually abused.

When he and his younger brother finally returned home, his mother had remarried and started a new family. She barely recognized her sons.

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It took Cachagee two failed marriages, years of alcohol and drug abuse and therapy before he started to come to grips with what happened to him.

His brother never did. He descended into a life of addiction on Winnipeg’s streets.

“He was only three years old when he went there,” Cachagee said. “He came out when he was 16 and the rest of his life was just a mess with alcoholism. Just horrid. He never had a chance — all because he was sent off to a residential school.”

BY THE NUMBERS: A look at residential schools

The brothers rarely speak now.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission examining Canada’s Indian residential schools is to release a summary of its final report Tuesday after hearing testimony from 7,000 survivors. The final report marks the end of a five-year exploration of one of the darkest chapters in Canada’s history.

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About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were taken from their families and forced to attend government schools over much of the last century. The last school closed outside Regina in 1996.

For survivors such as Cachagee, the torment doesn’t abate with the commission’s report.

“We don’t need to heal, we need to rebuild,” said Cachagee, who now counsels other survivors in Sault Ste Marie, Ont.

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Ken Young remembers the day in the 1950s when he was taken from his home at age eight along with his brothers and sisters.

He remembers boarding a train with other aboriginal children and the laughter while on the novel journey.

Then they reached the Prince Albert Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.”We were lonesome,” Young said. “I remember a lot of us crying a lot.”

READ MORE: Residential school survivors have respiratory damage, broken bones

There were public floggings in the dining hall.

Children had their heads shaved and their legs shackled in pyjamas because they had tried to go home.

The school was more like a prison, he said.

“I thought it was normal because I was just a young guy. Later, I realized how bad that was that adults would treat children like that,” said Young, a Winnipeg lawyer.

It took a long time to let go of his anger.

Young is hoping the commission will recommend a healing strategy developed by survivors that will address the aftermath of Canada’s failed policy to “take the Indian out of the child.”

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But he suspects the commission’s report will go the way of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

READ MORE: Aboriginal adoptees suing Ottawa for ‘cultural genocide’

“There’ll be recommendations made and then it will go on a shelf like all the other reports that have been sanctioned by government.

“I’m not overly optimistic.”

David Harper is more interested in what happens after the final report.

Harper’s mother was in a residential school, but the first time he heard details of her abuse was at her compensation hearing with adjudicators before she died.

“Every word that came out of her mouth, I kept thinking, ‘How dare you Canada, allowing this to happen to my mom.'”

Just recently, Harper, who is the grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak representing Manitoba’s northern First Nations, learned one of his uncles was in a residential school and was whipped until he defecated.

Those stories are just starting to be told, Harper said.

Harper points to Israel where one of the Holocaust memorials includes an eternal flame.

“I would like to see something like that for our First Nations, where they could go and sit down and tell their stories to their children,” he said.

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“We want to make sure we don’t pass on this generational curse.”

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