Righting a great wrong

Observations on Canada

Diana Billy is a tiny woman of 50 with a soft voice and a talent for metaphor. She is the daughter and sister of hereditary chiefs of the Squamish Nation, whose traditional territories are scattered in the region north of Vancouver, British Columbia. She lives in a mobile home on the Waiwakum Indian Reserve No 14 near the town of Brackendale.

The reserve is sandwiched between the town and the salmon-rich river that bears the name of her people, and sits under the shade of snow-coated Mount Thyestes, named after the cannibalistic son of Pelops, from the Greek myth of the House of Atreus.

The topographical maps of the region do not note the Squamish Nation names of the mountains, or give any hint to a history of thousands of years of wilderness living and rich native mythology.

Billy, like 80,000 other aboriginal people across Canada, is due to receive compensation from the federal government for being forced into a Catholic residential school as a teenager in the early 1970s. Stuck 135km away from Waiwakum, she was expected to drop everything that made her who she is.

Now considered by many as a nationally implemented racist policy of cultural and actual genocide, residential schools took children away from their families, their languages and histories, and often left them to the mercy of sadistic guardians, subjected to widespread sexual, emotional and physical abuse. Native activists believe up to 50,000 children died at the schools, which were first operated in Upper Canada (now Ontario) in the 1840s, while Canada was still a British colony.

In 1928, a government official predicted that the country would end its "Indian problem" within two generations. Church-run by various denominations, including Anglicans and Presbyterians, the government-funded residential schools for native children were supposed to prepare them for life in white society. But the system backfired, of course, the aims of forced assimilation leaving deep and abiding scars.

By 1898, there were 54 schools nationwide, which increased to 74 schools in 1920. In the same year, the Department of Indian Affairs decided to make such schooling mandatory for children aged seven to 15. The 1950s were the peak of the residential school era, with 76 schools in operation. However, the numbers started to go down as rumours about the treatment of the children spread.

Billy recalls being abused by the nuns at St Mary's Mission Indian Residential School over several months. "Something happened to me. When you're young you don't know what that is. But I felt crushed," she said.

She and another girl decided to run away. When they were turned in by the mother of a white girl they had befriended, Billy was delighted to find she was expelled and could return home. Others, she said, stayed on for years. The school was not closed until 1984, one of the last to do so.

For the time (less than one year) she stayed at St Mary's, Billy will receive C$10,000 (£5,040). Others who suffered sexual and physical abuse over longer periods will get more.

Aboriginal people have demanded, and received, official apologies from the Anglican, United and Roman Catholic churches for their treatment. As more former pupils come forth with stories about abuse, some religious authorities who administered the schools are being criminally charged.

In November 2005, a truth and reconciliation commission was established with an aim similar to that of the South African commission established a decade earlier: to allow native people to tell their stories of almost 500 years of oppression.

As part of this, a final compensation package worth $2bn came into effect last autumn for those who attended the residential schools, settling dozens of class-action lawsuits.

But no money can remove for Billy the knowledge that her elderly father has never spoken to her about his experience at residential schools in the 1940s, nor that her late mother never explained to her what to expect at St Mary's but just one day dropped her off at the threshold of the facility. The experience was never spoken of.

And there is her cousin, Arnold Williams, a man Billy describes as a "true warrior". Williams fought successfully for their traditional territories against ski-resort developers, and travelled across Canada to take part in the famous Oka land dispute crisis of 1990 when native activists from around Canada confronted armed police near Montreal, Quebec.

According to Billy, Williams never got over the sexual abuse that he suffered at residential school and struggled with alcoholism all his life. Eventually, he committed suicide.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Naughty nation