10/29/2011 10:31 EDT | Updated 12/29/2011 05:12 EST

RCMP Say They Were Unaware Of Abuse At Native Residential Schools


HALIFAX - RCMP officers usually weren't aware of the need to investigate abuse in Canada's infamous native residential school system because aboriginal families were reluctant to tell them what was occurring behind closed doors, says a report by the police force.

Deputy Commissioner Steve Graham presented the research report on Saturday to the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was holding its final day of Atlantic region hearings in Halifax.

The 457-page report written by Marcel Eugene-LeBeuf said the police acted on behalf of the federal government to track down children who had run away from the schools and to tell parents they had to send their children to the schools.

However, the researchers said police generally weren't aware of abuse, which is defined in the report as "improper physical or sexual behaviour and actions that contributed to the loss of cultural roots.''

"Children would rarely denounce the abuse they suffered, and the school system prevented outsiders from knowing about the abuse that occurred. Discipline was kept strictly internal to the school system and was not associated to the police,'' the authors said in the report's summary.

"The report shows that Indian residential schools were essentially a closed system between the Department of Indian Affairs, the churches and school administrator. The problems within the schools did not attract police attention or intervention because they were mostly dealt with internally or were unknown to the police.''

The report covers more than 100 years and represents the first major study of the RCMP's involvement in the Indian Residential School system.

Government-funded, church-run residential schools operated from the 1870s until the final closure of a school outside Regina in 1996. Ottawa ended its partnership with the churches in 1969.

The researchers conducted 279 interviews and travelled to 66 communities between 2007 and 2009 to examine the police role in supporting the system.

After Graham completed his brief presentation to the commission, he placed the study into the bentwood box, where expressions of reconciliation are placed by those participating in the panels.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has a five-year mandate to document the history of residential schools, inspire reconciliation and produce a report by 2014.

The report said a lack of trust of the police by natives was the biggest barrier to investigations being carried out up until the 1990s. It also notes in its timeline that few students disclosed sexual or other forms of abuse until the 1980s.

"Without public or police knowledge of wrong-doing, there would be no investigation and no charges laid against abusers. This is supported by the relatively small number of files in RCMP records on these matters for the period covered by the research project,'' said the report.

The appendices of the report summarizes 60 investigations between 1957 and 2005 from B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, the three territories and Manitoba.

It says there were 619 victims who appeared before the courts and over 40 perpetrators identified with charges being laid for crimes ranging from indecent assault to sexual interference and assault causing bodily harm. Most of the inquiries didn't occur until the 1990s, but the incidents extend back to the 1950s.

Alan Knockwood, a former student at the Shubenacadie residential school in Nova Scotia, said the RCMP report lets the force off too lightly.

The 59-year-old man recalled being frightened of the police because they would routinely pick up aboriginal children in Truro, N.S., and bring them to the school.

"I thought it (the RCMP report) was a bit of a whitewash," he said in an interview.

He said when he attended Shubenacadie school RCMP were heavily involved in ensuring the children were brought to the school.

"What we saw at the residential school was a posse of racists. ... Any child who was seen wandering around off the grounds was immediately snatched up to the RCMP and brought back," he said.

Knockwood said police didn't listen to Mi'kmaq families when they told their stories.

"They would be ignored or accused of making up a story to get the child out," he said.

The report includes one anonymous account by an RCMP officer who said he told an Anglican priest he wouldn't bring children back to the school.

The officer is quoted saying in 1962 that, "there were a lot of parents that were hesitant to send their children to school because of abuse."

"I was aware of what was going on in the school because I conducted an investigation ... in 1959."

However, the report also documents cases where residents were reluctant to tell their stories even when they knew RCMP officers quite well.

In May 2004, former RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli publicly apologized to Canada's Aboriginal Peoples.

"To those of you who suffered tragedies at residential schools, we are very sorry for your experience,'' he said at the time.