Haunted by grief

Every August when he was a young boy, the Reverend Andrew Wesley would follow his family - members of the Cree First Nation - into the wilderness to live and hunt along a trapline. When Andrew was six, his father told him he was not coming with them; he would go to school. 'I didn't even know what that meant,' Mr Wesley, now 62, recalls.

Mr Wesley is an aboriginal priest and survivor of Canada's residential schools - church-run, government-funded institutions opened in the 1870s to 'civilise' native children as part of Canada's 'aggressive assimilation' policy. As the deputy superintendent general of Indian affairs in 1920 put it, the goal was 'to kill the Indian in the child'.

From 1870 to 1996, more than 150,000 native children were taken from their families and placed in the schools. Attendance was mandatory, with agents employed by the government to ensure all aboriginal children attended.

Once there, students were forced to forget all aspects of their culture - language, customs and even ways of thinking. Often, they did not receive adequate clothing, food, or shelter. Many experienced physical and sexual abuse.

The result was a generation stripped of their identity and disconnected from their communities.

'Not knowing who they were' and dealing with emotional and physical trauma, many survivors were left unable to raise their own children adequately.

'In our homes, there's lots of violence,' Mr Wesley said, 'and it has to do with residential schools; many of us never dealt with our grief, and we carried this on in harming our children. There's lots of alcohol abuse, lots of sexual abuse.'

Mr Wesley does not remember much of the boat ride to Bishop Hordon Memorial, an Anglican residential school in Moose Factory, Ontario, but he does remember waking up in his school bed after the trip, his surroundings completely foreign to him, not knowing a word of English. He would not see his parents until Christmas.

A year later, he was moved to a Catholic school, where he experienced physical abuse for the first time.

'There had already been mental abuse, emotional abuse and also spiritual abuse, because we weren't allowed to practise our beliefs,' he said, 'but many of us also suffered physical abuse at the Roman Catholic schools.'

On his second day at his new school, he was eating in the dining hall when he vomited. The nuns came over, slapped him across the face and ordered him to eat his vomit off the floor. He obeyed, was sick again, and was forced to eat that, too.

He remembers days filled with 'child labour', collecting firewood to heat the school, picking potatoes for their meals. Some students were sexually abused - many of them tried to escape.

When caught, they were whipped, the other children forced to stand and watch.

Mr Wesley remembers at least four classmates running away, never to be seen again. 'Probably drowned, because they'd often run away during the springtime, when the rivers are no good.'

In 1990, Phil Fontaine, then leader of the Association of Manitoba Chiefs and now leader of the Assembly of First Nations, called for the churches involved publicly to acknowledge the physical, sexual and emotional abuse suffered by residential-school students.

A year later, the government convened a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. It published a report in 1996, dedicating an entire chapter to the devastation caused by residential schools.

The report recommended a separate public inquiry into the issue, but the recommendation was never followed.

In 1998, the government made a Statement of Reconciliation and established the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. In 2006, a C$2 billion (HK$13.5 billion) settlement compensation package for aboriginal people forced to attend residential schools was approved. Former students were eligible for C$10,000 for the first year they attended school, plus C$3,000 for each subsequent year. An independent assessment process was set up to address cases of sexual or serious physical abuse.

According to the terms of the settlement, any survivor who decided to accept the payment released the churches and government from all further liability relating to their experiences at residential school, except in the case of sexual or serious physical abuse. The Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission was also set up as part of the agreement, with the objective of 'informing all Canadians about what happened in Indian residential schools'.

Despite all this, the government did not make an official apology until June last year when Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologised to the approximately 80,000 living survivors and their families and communities.

'I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian residential schools,' Mr Harper said in a speech in Parliament. 'The government now recognises that the consequences of the Indian residential schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language.'

For many aboriginals, it was too little, too late. The United Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Anglican Church had all apologised, between 1986 and 1994, for their involvement.

The Catholic Church remained silent until April 29, when Pope Benedict met Mr Fontaine and expressed 'sorrow for the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the church' at residential schools. Mr Fontaine admitted it did not amount to an official apology but said he hoped it would nevertheless 'close the book' on the issue of apologies.

Some aboriginals were upset with him for accepting the apology, accusing him of buckling to government pressure. In an open letter written before Mr Fontaine's meeting with the Pope, 12 elders in council representing the Cree, Squamish, Haida, Metis and Anishinabe aboriginals stated they would not accept the Pope's apology, 'for genocide and mass murder cannot be apologised for, or made better with words'.

Although individuals who took part in the previous settlement are no longer permitted to sue the federal government for experiences relating to the residential-school system, several weeks ago, a class-action lawsuit was filed in Ontario Superior Court alleging that the federal government - which had constitutional responsibility for aboriginal people - committed cultural genocide between 1965 and 1985 by delegating child-welfare services to Ontario. As a result, the claim alleges, children were stripped of their aboriginal identity by being placed in non-native foster homes.

Mr Wesley was 17 when he finally returned to his people. Like many survivors, he was angry.

'We felt abandoned,' he said. 'When you feel abandonment, that feeling destroys your inner self. We were angry with our parents for letting us go. We thought we weren't valued, that our parents didn't care for us, that our communities didn't care for us. So we journeyed with hatred for our own people, so many of us came to urban settings, where we tried to find love ... people didn't know their traditions any more, they were lost, stuck in the middle of society.'

So how did Mr Wesley escape the cycle of self-destruction? 'I was fortunate to be able to listen to my elders. I was on the journey with the rest of the survivors, but somehow the elders started talking to me.

'The church never came to help me with my issues ... but the elders did. I started learning my traditional ways, learning my spiritual ways, and became strong.'

Mr Wesley uses that strength every Saturday morning when he meets homeless aboriginals and residential-school survivors on Toronto streets. One morning, Mr Wesley led us to a group waiting for him in a car park.

He introduced us to John, a 48-year-old Cree who was sent away when he was five. He has lived in Toronto for 30 years, and has not seen his mother for 20, 'stranded in the city' as Mr Wesley put it. He does not have a house or a job.

Mr Wesley's forgiveness seems overwhelming. How did he manage to embrace the religion of his abusers and become an Anglican priest? 'I managed to forgive but I'll never forget,' he said, 'and neither should Canada.'