Inquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Phoenix Sinclair Released



The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Eighth session, held in New York, the 18th through the 29th of May, 2009, produced an extensive historical report entitled Indigenous Peoples and Boarding Schools: A Comparative Study. The report was prepared by Andrea Smith for the Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

At that time, the First Nations people were – for lack of a better term – still decompressing from the impacts of the forced removal of their children from their homes and communities, for purposes of placement in residential schools. The report explains the dynamics of the era:

In 1991, the Indian Affairs minister refused demands for an aboriginal inquiry into residential schools. He said there would be no apologies, no compensation, no admission of government liability, and he said he would shelve any recommendations from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples which was conducting a report that included residential schools. Instead, rather than focus on government accountability, the government strategy would focus on community healing from abuse. This focus was criticized by many as an attempt to allow the government to escape accountability by framing the issue as one where indigenous peoples were “sick” and needed healing.

By 1992, most churches began issuing apologies for their complicity in residential school abuses, but also demanded that the Canadian government also take responsibility for its role as well. Soon, the level of lawsuits filed against churches threatened some churches with bankruptcy. In 1995, the federal government began to quietly pay out of court settlements to 50 former students in government-run schools without formal acknowledgment of an apology. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples 1996 report which included five years of research, including research of over 60,000 school files, concluded that there should be public hearings across the country, and that remedies should include compensation to enable communities to heal.

In 1997, a May inquiry into abuse in Alkali Lake and the suicide of one activist, helped prompt more federal intervention. Finally, in 1998, the government set aside $350 million to support community-based healing initiatives to be administered through the independent Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

Among the apologies was that of the Anglican Church of Canada. The apology was delivered by then-Primate Michael Peers to the National Native Convocation in Minaki, Ontario, on August 6, 1993. The apology candidly explained:

I know how often you have heard words which have been empty because they have not been accompanied by actions. I pledge to you my best efforts, and the efforts of our church at the national level, to walk with you along the path of God’s healing

Among the apologies offered by the churches was that of the Presbyterian Church, which issued The confession of the Presbyterian Church as adopted by the General Assembly, June 9th, 1994. The apology stated, in part:

We confess that, with the encouragement and assistance of the Government of Canada, The Presbyterian Church in Canada agreed to take the children of Aboriginal peoples from their own homes and place them in Residential Schools. In these schools, children were deprived of their traditional ways, which were replaced with Euro-Canadian customs that were helpful in the process of assimilation. To carry out this process, The Presbyterian Church in Canada used disciplinary practices which were foreign to Aboriginal peoples, and open to exploitation in physical and psychological punishment beyond any Christian maxim of care and discipline. In a setting of obedience and acquiescence there was opportunity for sexual abuse, and some were so abused. The effect of all this, for Aboriginal peoples, was the loss of cultural identity and the loss of a secure sense of self. For the Church’s insensitivity we ask forgiveness.

It was against that backdrop that the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report people to people, nation to nation: Highlights from the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was released in 1996. That report explained:

Abuse and family violence are the most dramatic problems, but they are the tip of an iceberg that began to form when Aboriginal communities lost their independent self determining powers and Aboriginal families were deprived of authority and influence over their children.

The source of social dysfunction we heard most about in public testimony was residential schooling, but inappropriate child welfare policies have also been a persistent and destructive force. The effect of these policies, as applied to Aboriginal children, was to tear more holes in the family web and detach more Aboriginal people from their roots.

Authorities had only one remedy for children thought to be in need of protection -removal from their families. Authorities were not able to alleviate family poverty, fix crumbling houses, or support young parents who had themselves been raised in institutions, without parents as models. They made little or no attempt to place children at risk with members of their kin network or with other Aboriginal families who could help them hold on to their culture and identity.

Child welfare is one of the services that Aboriginal people want most to control for themselves. In 1981, the federal government signed the first agreement authorizing a First Nations agency to deliver child welfare services. Since then, some three dozen Aboriginal agencies have been authorized. They have revised the rules of placement, to recognize the capacity of kin networks to protect Aboriginal children, and emphasized the importance of cultural continuity in placements.

Even so, the well-being of the children is not assured. Aboriginal agencies have inherited many of the problems of the agencies they replaced. They struggle with illfitting rules made outside their communities; with levels of family distress and need beyond their limited resources; and with the challenge of finding ways to protect children at risk while respecting extended family networks that resist interference. Not all Aboriginal child welfare agencies have achieved the high standards to which they aspire.

In June of 2008, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a heartfelt and passionate apology on behalf of his nation for the Indian Residential School System.

“The treatment of children in Indian Residential Schools is a sad chapter in our history,” said thePrime Minister in his opening remarks. He continued on to say:

For more than a century, Indian Residential Schools separated over 150,000 Aboriginal children from their families and communities. In the 1870’s, the federal government, partly in order to meet its obligation to educate Aboriginal children, began to play a role in the development and administration of these schools. Two primary objectives of the Residential Schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, “to kill the Indian in the child”. Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.

Fast forward to 2014, and we find ourselved awaiting a report on the death ion a child of aboriginal descent to be delayed because it may affect the outcomes of some elections by serving up a painful reminder of words long-ago spoken, and long-ago forgotten.

The Inquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Phoenix Sinclair was released to the general public by the Attorney General on behalf of the Province of Manitoba on January 31, 2014.

I am almost finished reading report number one of the three volume set. Over the next few days, I will be sharing some excerpts not only from the report, but also some observations about what perhaps should have been given more weight than it was based on my reading of the inquiry transcripts.