A quiet genocide: The legacy of stolen indigenous children - Part III

The case for an independent inquiry in New Zealand

Aboriginal Elder Nancy Hill-Wood from Sydney holds a protest banner in front of Old Parliamnt House on February 11, 2008 in Canberra, Australia. [Andrew Sheargold/Getty Images]

One of the arguments of the Waitangi Tribunal claim in New Zealand, brought by Auckland University law lecturer Andrew Erueti, is that the government’s handling of the claims is completely inadequate and isn’t independent.

The claim states that the government process for dealing with victims is “not independent” and is “neither transparent or open”.

The claim is not alone in these allegations.

Judge Carolyn Henwood was asked to chair a panel that heard from victims, but from the outset, she was sceptical of the terms of reference set out by the government, which she considered extremely limited in scope.

The panel heard from more than 1,100 victims over seven 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.”

Solitary confinement of children in prison-like cells was also common, for days or even weeks. In some cases it lasted for up to three months.

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. Judge Henwood later said she had lost faith in the government’s handling of the issue.

So far the New Zealand government has ignored these recommendations, although the recently elected Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has previously promised to hold an independent inquiry.

This promise has been reiterated since the election. But there is a concern among victims and victims’ advocates that the new government will be taking advice on the terms of reference from the very agencies that have often acted with hostility towards victims.

“We were so astounded [by] … the degree of physical violence, just how harsh it was …. Then there was sexual abuse.”
Judge Carolyn Henwood, chair of New Zealand’s Confidential Listening and Assistance Service

The intergenerational impact on indigenous society

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.”

But, Littlechild says, 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. We’re being forced to study this stuff in school now. 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.”

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 [how] 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 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.”

“In a prison, the inmates were asked how many of them were impacted by residential school legacy. One hundred percent of them raised their hands.”
Wilton Littlechild, a residential school survivor and commissioner of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

‘The weight of horrific stories’

Resident of Kohitere Boy's Training Centre in Levin taken in around 1979. [File Photo/Warwick Smith]

Littlechild has struggled to deal with his own experience of the residential schools, and this was magnified 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’s not, so we’re not going to accept it.”

“We heard stories about children burying children.”
Wilton Littlechild, residential school survivor and commissioner of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission