Let’s start with the basic fact: A staggering historic injustice was done to native people by the Europeans who arrived here centuries ago and eventually took over virtually all the desirable land that natives had long occupied. As injustices go, this ranks high by any standard.

Yet, the suggestion that we Canadians bear some sort of collective responsibility for the actions of our forebears seems to rankle some Canadians. Accordingly, there were undercurrents of resentment last week over Ottawa’s announcement that it would pay more than $3 billion in reparations for the harm the federal government did, over a number of decades, in forcing native children to attend the now-notorious native residential schools.

In an editorial, The Globe and Mail complained about “the staggering sum to be borne by the current, blameless generation of taxpayers.”

It’s true that the current generation of taxpayers had no part in the decision to operate these schools. But the decision was made by the government of Canada at the time, and the Canadian government is a continuous entity representing Canadians.

As Canadians, we’ve inherited responsibility for earlier government decisions — whether we like those decisions or not — as surely as we’ve inherited the debt that earlier Canadian governments incurred in building the infrastructure of this country.

If a corporation sells a defective product that seriously injures consumers, the corporation can’t shed its responsibility by noting the company is under new management and no longer sells that product.

It’s good that Canada, now under the management of a new generation of Canadians, has rejected the residential schools policy. But this doesn’t eliminate Canada’s previous actions. As Canadians, we must own up to our collective responsibility toward a group that was grievously harmed by those actions — a group that, moreover, we have a special responsibility toward, given the fact that we occupy their land.

Let’s remember that the residential schools policy wasn’t simply a benign attempt to help aboriginal children. Rather, it was a policy aimed at forcibly assimilating them into what was considered more “advanced” European culture. It was ultimately about eliminating native culture, which was regarded as inferior.

Thus, children were forcibly taken from their families and sent to faraway schools where they were forbidden to speak their language and required to adapt to a foreign culture. Discipline was harsh and there was widespread physical and sexual abuse.

This policy, which operated from the 1920s to the 1970s, had a traumatic effect on two generations of aboriginals, and is widely acknowledged to be a major factor in the social breakdown in native communities today.

Canada’s culpability is clear. The Canadian government took the children of an extremely vulnerable community, whose physical and cultural survival it had already imperilled, and effectively imprisoned them, far from the protection of their families, during their formative years.

I’d say we got off lightly in this compensation package. In a perfect world, we’d actually give them back their land.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...