By Mike De Souza
OTTAWA (Reuters) - A Canadian policy of forcibly separating aboriginal children from their families and sending them to residential schools amounted to "cultural genocide," a six-year investigation into the now-defunct system found on Tuesday.
The residential school system attempted to eradicate the aboriginal culture and assimilate children into mainstream Canada, said the long-awaited report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
The commission was launched as part of a settlement with survivors, hundreds of whom gathered at a ballroom in downtown Ottawa to hear the report's findings.
In prepared remarks unveiling the report, Justice Murray Sinclair, who headed the panel, acknowledged "that what took place in residential schools amounts to nothing short of cultural genocide – a systematic and concerted attempt to extinguish the spirit of Aboriginal peoples."
The report documented horrific physical abuse, rape, malnutrition and other atrocities suffered by many of the 150,000 children who attended the schools, typically run by Christian churches on behalf of Ottawa from the 1840s to the 1990s.
Children as young as five years old were removed from their families and ancestral lands and sent to schools far away.
Sinclair said between 5 percent and 7 percent of students who went to the schools died there, although the commission was only able to document about 3,200 of those deaths. Most were buried in unmarked graves on school property.
Regarded as heathens and savages by the system's architects, they were beaten for speaking their native language and often forced to accept the Christian faith.
The legacy of the residential school system persists as many Canadian aboriginals struggle to recover from generations of family separation.
Aboriginals, who make up 4 percent of Canada's population, have higher levels of poverty and a lower life expectancy than other Canadians, and are more often victims of violent crime, addiction and incarceration.
While Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to the survivors of the schools in 2008, relations between his Conservative government and Canada's 1.4 million aboriginals are strained.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt attended the presentation of the findings and applauded at times. However, he also shifted in his chair and looked down as others stood to applaud recommendations for the government to do more to promote reconciliation, including calls for it to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
Harper told Parliament his government would examine the report's recommendations before deciding on next steps.
The group made 94 reconciliatory recommendations, including special human rights and anti-racism training for public servants. It also urged the Pope to apologize to survivors and their families for the Catholic Church's role in the schools, as the church had done in 2010 for Irish victims of abuse.
(Additional reporting by Andrea Hopkins and David Ljunggren; Editing by Andre Grenon, Bernard Orr)