Residential schools engaged in "cultural genocide," former prime minister Paul Martin said Friday at the hearings of the federal Truth And Reconciliation Commission, adding that aboriginal Canadians must now be offered the best educational system.
"Let us understand that what happened at the residential schools was the use of education for cultural genocide, and that the fact of the matter is — yes it was. Call a spade a spade," Martin said to cheers from the audience at the Montreal hearings.
"And what that really means is that we've got to offer aboriginal Canadians, without any shadow of a doubt, the best education system that is possible to have."
The residential school system existed from the 1870s until the 1990s and saw about 150,000 native youth taken from their families and sent to church-run schools under a deliberate policy of "civilizing" First Nations.
Many students were physically, mentally and sexually abused. Some committed suicide or died fleeing their schools. Mortality rates reached 50 per cent at some schools.
In the 1990s, thousands of victims sued the Canadian government as well as churches that ran the schools. The $1.9-billion settlement of that suit in 2007 prompted an apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the creation of the commission.
But the government has clashed with the commission and recently had to be ordered by an Ontario court to find and turn over documents from Library and Archives Canada.
"Every document is relevant," Martin said. "We have hid this for 50 years. It's existed for 150. Surely to God, Canadians are entitled ... aboriginal Canadians and non-aboriginal Canadians, to know the truth. And so let the documents be released."
New Democrat MP Romeo Saganash also testified on Friday about the damage he suffered in a residential school.
Saganash, who was separated from his family and sent to a residential school in the Quebec town of La Tuque, cried as he described the death of his brother Johnny, whom he never met.
He said his family still doesn't have a death certificate or know what really happened, and that he wasn't even allowed to return home for his father's funeral.
Saganash told the audience at the Montreal hearings that he might look like a normal person but isn't.
'I can never be normal'
"I can never be normal," said Saganash, who for the first few years of his life spoke Cree and lived in nature.
"And none, none of those kids who were sent to residential schools can claim to be normal today. It's impossible."
Like several others who spoke at the hearing, Saganash said injustices to aboriginal peoples did not stop with the closing of residential schools.
"There are still racist policies against aboriginals," said Saganash, who referred to the federal Indian Act.
"Even when we get a victory before the courts, the government continues to fight against our fundamental rights."