ABA Annual Meeting

Human rights abuses at boarding schools for Native American children must be examined, ABA House says

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CBA President Brad Regehr

Photo of Brad Regehr by ABA

For Brad Regehr, the discoveries of the unmarked graves of hundreds of Indigenous children in Canada hit close to home.

A citizen of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Regehr is the first Indigenous president in the Canadian Bar Association’s history. His voice broke as he spoke to the ABA House of Delegates in August about how his grandfather was a survivor of a system that tore First Nations children from their families and forced them into residential boarding schools. Regehr told the House that he himself is a survivor of the “Sixties Scoop,” a program that took children from their families and put them in non-Indigenous foster homes.

He said the discovery in May of the remains of 215 children outside a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, “hit me hard, and it hits and continues to hit many Indigenous people hard.”

Regehr added, “But it’s also hit many Canadians hard for the first time ever. It made the stories true.”

Kamloops was the site of one of Canada’s largest residential schools for Indigenous children, but dozens more operated across the country, the last closing in the 1990s. Some of the children discovered there were as young as 3 when they died, Regehr said. In the following months, a national search uncovered hundreds of graves at other schools. The discoveries sparked outrage and calls for the United States to launch an investigation into abuses at its own residential schools for Native American children.

They also inspired Resolution 801, which urges organizations and governments to cooperate with the Department of the Interior’s Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative and hand over school records to help uncover the truth of what happened at the boarding schools.

“The forced assimilation and attempted eradication of Native people through compulsory ‘residential schools’ resulted in the loss of life, the loss of a generation of relatives, language speakers and culture bearers,” Resolution 801’s report states.

Mark I. Schickman, a delegate with the Civil Rights and Social Justice Section, introduced the resolution. He noted how children were ripped from their homes, many never to be seen by their parents again. The children lived in appalling and unsanitary conditions in schools riddled with communicable diseases, Schickman said. They suffered sexual and physical abuse. He said children were sometimes tasked with building coffins for other children who died and were then buried on school plots.

“Putting a light on what is occurring here is so critical because we know that if we do not learn from this history, we are doomed to repeat it,” Schickman said.

The resolution passed 293-10.

U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative in June.

An enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe and the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, Haaland had maternal grandparents who were forced into boarding schools when they were children.

“Though it is uncomfortable to learn that the country you love is capable of committing such acts, the first step to justice is acknowledging these painful truths and gaining a full understanding of their impacts so that we can unravel the threads of trauma and injustice that linger,” Haaland wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post.

The schools were conceived in the 1800s to assimilate Native American children. There were more than 175 boarding schools and 300 day schools in the U.S. by 1909, the resolution said.

In July, the remains of nine children who died at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania more than a century ago were returned to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in Mission, South Dakota, and they received proper burials, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported.

“Many of these children died of illness, owing to the unsafe, unsanitary conditions which were commonplace at such institutions. Others died attempting to escape the abuse endured at Carlisle,” Resolution 801’s report states.

Lawmakers should fully fund the initiative and give it subpoena power to investigate, the resolution adds. It also urges Congress to enact a bill called the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy Act and create a commission to lead an investigation.

Resolution 801 also calls for the repatriation of “all relevant items and remains.”

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