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

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.