“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of though are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian Children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.” – John A. MacDonald 1879
Many still do not understand the depths by which the Canadian government intended to erase our Indigenous culture. There is much lack of education on this subject.
The law gave government authorities the right to forcefully take native children away from their families and communities to place them in boarding schools run by nuns whose cruelty, coupled with sovereign contempt for indigenous culture, provoked trauma that is still being felt.
Approximately 150,000 Native, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their families and forced to attend government schools. In these numbers were my daughter’s paternal great grand mother.
The last residential school only closed in 1996. That’s not so long ago. I had graduated from high school the previous year. So don’t be surprise that the effect of trauma is still so very fresh.
Let me be clear, these weren’t social workers taking away children from bad homes. These children were in healthier and happier than the government authorities who came for them. These children didn’t want to leave their families and their communities. They resisted. They fought them, trying to escape.They wanted to run away. The simple act of kidnapping these children was traumatic enough to cause post traumatic disorders.
“The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.” – John A. McDonald 1887
The government didn’t care about our children well-being or about the damage it was doing and it showed in the way our kids were treated in these residential schools.
Native children were asked to clean their brown skin as it had to be dirty. This absurd demand, was but one example that shows the degree to which racism was prevalent within the institution ruled with an iron hand. The children were told they were dirty and bad. It stayed in their heart and minds.
Native children were regularly sexually, physically abused, and neglected.
Equally symbolic was the cut of girl’s long hair. In many native communities, this practice was associated with the mourning of a loved one. We didn’t cut hair lightly. They were rubbing us of our identities.
Their language was depreciated, they were not allowed to speak at the boarding school.
The lost of traditional food also cause health issues. The diet was meagre and of poor quality compared to what we were used to in our communities. The schools were poorly funded and couldn’t afford to fee the children properly and most probably didn’t really care that much about feeding “savages”, as they called us. The children were taken from their homes were they were loved, taken care of and well nourished to schools were they were mistreated and starved.
Some hoarded food, a practice that they carried into adulthood. As a small child, we discovered our child doing the same thing, even though she had never missed any food. It made us wondered if the trauma had been passed through genetically somehow.
They made us feel ashamed of their race and culture. They broke the children’s heart and spirits. It fuelled anger and rage.
“Insufficient care was exercised in the admission of children to the schools. The well-known predisposition of Indians to tuberculosis resulted in a very large percentage of deaths among the pupils. They were housed in buildings not carefully designed for school purposes, and these buildings became infected and dangerous to the inmates. It is quite within the mark to say that 50% of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education which they had received therein.” – Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs 1914
It was an approach based on the principle of colonisation, assimilation. This reality spared no region.
They eventually returned these children home, but by then, the damage was already done. The children didn’t speak their native language anymore, which made it very difficult to communicate with their loved ones and communities.
Child sexual abuse is a disturbing reality in many of Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities. Sexual abuse and the cycle is prevalent in many communities because this is the result of the residential school and the sexual abuse and abused that these First Nation children faced on a daily basis. We need to STOP the evil that prevail in our communities.
Trauma leaves a person feeling overwhelmed by a perceived threat to life or survival. Their brains responds to the threat by pumping the body with hormones to help them react. The brain becomes focused on survival instead of learning and growing. Untreated trauma can lead to heave substance abuse and eventual problems with the law.
It is a painful legacy that must not be ignored. The effects o f the Aboriginal Residential Schools are still felt among native families. The psychological damage that it did to the children who grew up and became parents was passed on to the next generation.
I applaud those who stand up to speak the truth. The ugliness of the residential school system is a blight on Canada, and no amount of “they-meant-well” proclamations will correct this. Let’s face it, they didn’t mean well at all. We must face it head on, and make it right.
“The way to kill a man or a nation is to cut off his dreams, the way the whites are taking care of the Indians: killing their dreams, their magic, their familiar spirits.” – William S. Burroughs