Facing up to Canada's dark history

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From the late 19th Century up to the 1970s, an estimated 150,000 native children in Canada were seized from their parents and sent far away to state-funded, church-run schools to learn how to think, speak and act like white people. The country is still coming to terms with the disastrous results.

In the coming months, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will start touring the country to heal the scars of the residential schools system, a policy that resulted in thousands of deaths and devastated lives.

With an estimated 80,000 former pupils still around today, many of whom witnessed or suffered sexual, physical and mental abuse, the debate over how much truth will be needed for reconciliation is stirring controversy.

Away from the reserve, in Ottawa, the Canadian capital, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has suffered some loss of face.

Launched last year, it has had trouble getting off the ground. Its chief commissioner, a Mississauga Indian and a judge on the Ontario Court of Appeal, resigned in October after tussles over the body's mandate.

As the politicking over his replacement continues, the public spotlight has been shifting from the healing of the living to the raising of the dead.

But recently, the story has taken a darker turn, as allegations of secret burials in mass graves, death by torture and fatal medical experiments have begun to surface.

The man behind the new allegations is Kevin Annett, a defrocked Vancouver priest who was thrown out of the United Church in the mid 90s for exposing the schools scandal and challenging the clergy's sale of native lands.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission cannot, under the terms of its mandate, subpoena documents or witnesses to investigate the claims. It has, however, ordered research into possible burial sites.

It has also floated the idea of holding traditional ceremonies to ask the spirits of the dead children to return home to communities like Kahnewake.

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