June 21, 2016 9:59 am
Updated: June 21, 2016 10:50 am

New Heritage Minute highlights shame of Canada’s residential schools


Over the years, Heritage Minutes have celebrated everything from the Avro Arrow to Canada’s role in freeing American slaves via the underground railroad.

But the latest addition to the catalogue of micro history lessons references one of the darkest and most shameful chapters of our country’s history.

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Entitled “Chanie Wenjack,” the minute chronicles the escape of a young boy from Ontario’s Cecilia Jeffrey Residential School in the mid 1960s.

The minute is narrated by Chanie Wenjack’s sister, who takes the viewer through the horrors of the schools, where thousands of Aboriginal children were subjected to abuse, neglect and “re-programming” that has since been deemed cultural genocide.

“I survived residential school,” says Pearl Achneepineskum. “My brother Chanie did not.”

The clip, released on Tuesday to coincide with National Aboriginal Day, ends with a long shot of Wenjack’s lifeless body lying next to railroad tracks.

The 12-year-old’s frozen body was found a week after he ran away from the school in 1966.

READ MORE: Sister of civil rights icon Viola Desmond cherishes her legacy as Heritage Minute is released

In 2008, then prime minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of the government for the multi-generational upheaval caused by residential schools. The last school closed in 1996.

Past Heritage Minutes have similarly tackled difficult subjects, including the harsh conditions experienced by the Chinese labourers building Canada’s rail network and the execution of Métis leader Louis Riel.

A second new Heritage Minute focusing on Aboriginal history was also released on Tuesday, chronicling the signing of Treaty 9.

Trudeau marks Aboriginal Day

National Aboriginal Day was first celebrated 20 years ago, in 1996. Roméo LeBlanc, then governor general of Canada, issued a proclamation declaring June 21 of each year as a day to recognize and celebrate the heritage, cultures and contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.

On Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett attended a dawn ceremony on the banks of the Ottawa River to mark the start of the day.

Trudeau wore moccasins and a buckskin jacket that his office said was owned by his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He did not speak publicly at the event, but issued a statement in which he encouraged Canadians to learn more about the country’s indigenous heritage.

WATCH: Justin Trudeau joins a sunrise ceremony as part of National Aboriginal Day celebrations


“Events over the past few months – including the loss of life to suicide and the feelings of despair felt in some communities – remind us that we must work in genuine partnership with Indigenous peoples, the provinces, and the territories to better support the well-being of children and families, improve the quality of education for Indigenous students, and ensure health services meet the needs of Indigenous communities,” the prime minister wrote.

“No relationship is more important to our government and to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples.”

The Liberals campaigned in last year’s federal election on a platform that pledged to boost support for Canada’s indigenous peoples, and to launch a national public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.

— With files from the Canadian Press

© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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