Indigenous peoples throughout English-speaking countries have had their children taken away by the state for generations. Most countries have faced up to this legacy but New Zealand has been in denial about its own Stolen Generation – a group now known as Ngā Mōrehu (The Survivors).
The new Labour government has agreed to set up an inquiry into historical abuse of children in state care between the 1960s and 1990s as one of its priorities in the first 100 days.
In this three-part series Aaron Smale looks at stories from New Zealand, Canada and Australia, and asks what New Zealand can learn.
Part one: remembering Canada’s residential schools.
Wilton Littlechild doesn’t remember the details but he remembers the cold of a Canadian winter.
“It’s a bit of a vague memory but at the same time it’s in my head in terms of being taken on a team of horses. It was in the middle of winter, in fact it was January according to the records, that I was taken to the school. I think like everybody else, your first day of school, so-called school, was a memorable day for all of us.”
“According to the files I’ve seen on myself I was six years old when I was taken. I went to three different ones over a period of a total of 14 years, different residential schools.”
Littlechild was one of over 150,000 indigenous children who were forcibly taken and sent to residential schools from the 1870s through to the 1990s. Part of their official purpose was to strip the children’s indigenous identity, which was regarded as inferior. One of the first things Littlechild remembers is having his name taken away.
“Your name was immediately replaced by a number. My number was 65. So I was never called by my name in school, it was a number, ‘number 65, come here, 65, why did you do that stupid, 65 you dummy, why didn’t you do your homework’. So everyone experienced a loss of not only self-identity and self-awareness but self-esteem. Many of our children or students of the time had long hair, braided hair, which was culturally and spiritually significant. If you had long hair it was cut, your hair was cut. If you had any traditional clothing, it was taken, like footwear, a jacket. Any cultural manifestation of our Cree tradition was removed the first day of school.”
“So you grew up without any parents, you have an institution that is supposed to be your parent.”
The abuse he suffered over that period instilled an anger in him that even now, at the age of 73, he struggles to deal with.
“I dedicated myself to run away from the abuse by participating in competitive sport and that was what got me into college and university and in fact into law school. It was always through sport that I was able to deal with some of that history.
“I remember one of my counsellors said to me, ‘Why do you like hockey so much?’ I said, ‘Well I feel good physically, it’s good exercise.’ ‘No, no, no, why do you like it?’ I said, ‘I just told you!’”
“He kept challenging me. He said, ‘You know why you like hockey? The reason you like hockey is because you are allowed to hit people. You’re allowed to be violent. What you’ve been doing is you’ve been suppressing your own anger inside of you by playing a sport where you can hit people. It gives you a false release, a false belief that it was good for you. But you’ve been hiding your anger and you’ve been participating in violent sports because you think that makes you feel better but you’re hiding your own emotion, you’re hiding your own abuse that way.’”
“It took a long time and good counselling advice from him to actually deal with that. But I didn’t realise that’s what I was doing. I didn’t understand myself that well, to be able to figure that out.”
Littlechild said sport saved his life and it opened doors that might have otherwise be closed, including a career in law and as a politician.
This background and his first-hand experience of the residential school system also meant he was a logical choice when Canada launched a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2010 to investigate the residential schooling system. It published its final report in 2015.
The Commission got off to a rocky start and wasn’t exactly welcomed by the federal government. It was only after protracted civil litigation that its hand was forced.
“There was a great amount of resistance. It resulted from the largest class action lawsuit in Canadian legal history. There were almost 15,000 cases across the country once they started. The judges were overwhelmed by the number of abuse cases. So the judges asked the plaintiffs collectively if they were willing to settle out of court. After many months of negotiations between the plaintiff lawyers and the defendants, the government and the churches, there was an agreement, a settlement was made to settle out of court on four conditions.”
One of those conditions was the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“The survivors argued that this story is the darkest chapter in Canadian history, the most unknown chapter. We need to have Canada become aware of what happened to children, to come to know this sad history of Canada. We need the truth-telling process, then after that the reconciliation – how do we restore the respectful relationships where they’ve been harmed so much?”
Despite the formation of the commission, the government still tried to undercut its authority.
“Even after we were established as a commission, we had to go back to court to get a court order to order the government of Canada to release documents to us. Because we couldn’t tell the complete truth, knowing that documents were being shredded, being burned or being hidden. So we went to court and we won each time. So the courts ordered Canada to release the documents to us that they were holding. And very reluctantly, they did.”
But that wasn’t the only hurdle. Possibly more difficult was building trust with the victims. Littlechild said it was crucial for the commission to not only be technically independent but perceived to be independent by those who had gone through the institutions.
“I remember being asked quite angrily, ‘What makes you think you’re going to believe my story? I’ve told it seven times, nobody believes me’”
“At first I felt I was being personally attacked. They didn’t know I was a residential school student for 14 years. So I told them I really appreciated their testimony, their lived experience because they were telling me my story. Many times. The experience they were talking about was my story. That’s why I felt that I could believe their story.”
“When that got across on the moccasin telegraph, as we call it, that here was a former student sitting as a commissioner, they opened up. They were quite willing to tell me their experience once they knew I had been down that path myself. It was very helpful. But it started out with a level of mistrust. We had to build that trust and it took us about a year actually, to build enough trust for the survivors to be willing to come forward and tell us their experience.”
The other two commissioners didn’t have direct experience of the residential schools but they had close personal connections.
“Justice Sinclair, the chairperson, she didn’t go to residential school but her parents did. And Marie Wilson, she didn’t go to residential school either, but her husband did. That link, that bond between the three of us, I think was really helpful to make sure we strengthened our foundation of independence.”
One of the arguments of the Waitangi Tribunal claim in New Zealand, taken by Auckland University law lecturer Andrew Erueti on behalf of Ngā Mōrehu, is that the government’s handling of the claims has been woefully inadequate.
The claim states that the government process for dealing with victims is “not independent” and is “neither transparent or open.”
The claim is not the only source of such allegations.
Judge Carolyn Henwood was asked to chair a panel that heard from victims, the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service, set up in 2008, but from the outset she was skeptical of the terms of reference set out by the government that she considered extremely limited in scope.
The panel heard from over 1100 victims over five years.
“We were so astounded, dumbfounded you might say. The degree of physical violence, just how harsh it was. Nobody came about trivial things. When we’re talking about violence we’re talking about beatings, punchings, whacking with pieces of wood, jug cords, really extreme violence.”
“Then there was sexual abuse. We thought it would be rape of girls, of which there was a lot, hundreds. With the men however: exactly the same.”
One of her recommendations was that there should be an independent inquiry and there should also be an independent body set up to hold the government department accountable. She also called for the government to make a formal state apology.
So far the New Zealand government has ignored these recommendations. Judge Henwood later said she had lost faith in the government’s handling of the issue.
Littlechild says one of the important things the commission achieved in Canada was making the wider public aware of the damage the state’s removal of indigenous children did to indigenous society over many generations.
“One of the big impacts now is the curriculum change that’s happening across Canada to ensure that from kindergarten to grade 12, every class, every school, every student across the country has to learn about this now.”
The extent of what happened at the residential schools is not universally accepted.
“There’s still a level of denial going on, I would have to say, and then there’s a bit of a backlash where some people are saying, ‘why do we have to learn this, this history, it was our forefathers that did that, we don’t need to know about it’. The flip side of that is for all of our lives, from kindergarten to grade 12, we had to study their society. Now it’s about time they studied about us.”
An ongoing outcome of the commission and the space it created for people to tell their stories was that it helped indigenous Canadians begin to understand the intergenerational impact it has had on their communities. Littlechild often recounts the testimony of a man’s conversation with his son.
“His 12-year-old son asked him, ‘Dad, how come you always beat me up when you’re drunk?’ He said, you know I couldn’t answer my boy. I knew I did it but I couldn’t answer him. But I remembered my dad used to beat me up. So I said to my son, let’s go see grandpa. Let’s go ask him your question. So they both went and talked to the grandfather.”
So they asked him but he didn’t have an answer either. Fortunately, his father was still alive.
“So the three of them went to the great grandpa and asked him, ‘why is it that we beat each other up when we’re drunk?’ He told them a story about when he turned 16, he couldn’t run away fast enough from residential school and he ran right towards the bar in town.”
He couldn’t buy alcohol legally but convinced someone else to buy it for him.
“He said, ‘I went home, the first thing I did when I was drunk was I beat up your grandmother, your great-grandmother, I beat her up. Because I was so angry at what happened to me in residential school’.”
“When that happened the three older men understood why they were passing this violence internally in their family. But they didn’t understand it, they didn’t make that link until that boy asked the question.”
Littlechild says the intergenerational impact of the institutions on indigenous communities has manifested in many ways, ways that are common to other indigenous peoples.
“In a prison the inmates were asked how many of the them were impacted by residential school legacy. One hundred percent of them raised their hands.”
“In Canada there’s an inquiry going right across the country right now on the murdered and missing indigenous women and girls. That’s linked to the residential school story as well. The child apprehension, the murdered and missing women and girls, and men in the prison system especially, are all linked to the residential school legacy.”
The child apprehension rates for indigenous Canadians are now higher than ever. But Littlechild says the residential schools didn’t set them up to be good parents.
“We didn’t come out of those schools knowing how to parent. We didn’t grow up being raised by our parents. The lack of parenting is also a consequence of the residential school policy.”
Littlechild has struggled to deal with his own experience of the residential schools, and this was amplified during his time on the commission as he heard many stories similar to his.
“For me it was a very difficult journey many times. Especially when I was saying to them at the outset that this is my story. I went through the same abuse as you just described in terms of the physical or the mental or the sexual abuse. I was one of those. When that happened I was reliving my own abuse. Emotionally it was very difficult. So I had to have counselling every day to debrief with a counsellor when there were some really heavy, heavy stories that were being told to us. Some of those were just horrific, horrific abuse stories.”
“Then we heard stories about children burying children. A farmer who had a farm by one of the schools said he used to watch the children bring a coffin to the graveyard and bury one of their own classmates. That impacted me because I still carry those stories, I haven’t completely unloaded myself personally. The weight of the horrific stories. It’s still in my mind and in my body some of those stories that I’ve heard.”
A significant step in his healing journey was the formal apology given in parliament, although there were some who found it difficult to accept.
“I was in parliament when the prime minister gave his apology. We had invited some survivors to come and listen to the apology and hear the apology from the prime minister and there were a lot of tears. There were a lot of tears in the chambers. They cried because they couldn’t deal with it yet. Some literally left the room when the prime minister started speaking.”
“It was shown across the country in community halls and conference buildings, through television. I myself went right down to the floor and thanked the prime minister. I said, ‘As a former student myself for 14 years I want to thank you for the apology because I accept it.’ Because I felt I had to do that for myself.”
“I sensed it was genuine, others felt no it wasn’t and didn’t accept it.”
The apology was a milestone that showed how far Canada had come, but it was also a benchmark for future generations to measure themselves against.
Littlechild says he talks to leaders in all sectors of society and is heartened by the shifts in thinking and the efforts at reconciliation and healing.
On a structural level the Canadian government has moved to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and acknowledge the legacy of residential schools throughout the public service.
But the results are still mixed. The impacts of residential schools and similarly racist policies are still being felt generations later.
“In our culture, it’s a part of our tradition that grandparents can raise the grandchildren, like I was. I was raised by my grandparents. But in Alberta law if a parent, especially a mother, says I want my children to be raised by my mother, the grandmother, it constitutes child neglect. So children can be removed just because of a cultural clash, in a way.”
Policies like this, combined with the damage done to generations of indigenous Canadian families by the violence of residential schools, has seen an escalation in child apprehension.
“Seventy percent of those children being apprehended today are indigenous children. So it’s actually getting worse.”
to our journalism!Find Out More
Aaron Smale @ikon_media
A version of this story also appears on AlJazeera.com
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and carry out more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.