My daughter Storm and her classmate Charity did a presentation to their class about Residential Schools in Canada on March 7, 2011. Storm and Charity are both 13 and in grade 8. Both are Cree girls who had the a choice of the topic to research and do an oral presentation and chose this to speak about. I thought I would share this with you. It’s a good starting point for them. It takes so much courage to talk about this with a majority of kids who have no idea about Residential Schools. Thank you to Storm and Charity for raising awareness.
What are Residential Schools?
The first Residential or Boarding Schools were opened in the late 19th Century in Canada. These were no ordinary schools though. These schools were for First Nations, Metis (mixed bloods), and Inuit children, otherwise known as Aboriginal, between the ages 7 to 15 years of age. The Canadian government with the aid of many churches, including the Roman Catholic Church and the United Church, ran these schools. The main purpose of these schools was to force assimilation, in other words, to forcefully “remove” the Indian spirit from the children.
The European settlers wanted to make the Aboriginal people more apart of their society. To achieve this they made the children learn European ways including hairstyles and clothing, religious practices and the English language. In order to “remove” the Indian from the children they were not allowed to speak their own languages, practice their spiritual and cultural ways because they thought these ways were evil, backwards and uncivilized. The government and churches really thought they were doing a good thing and were helping the Indian people.
Residential Schools were operated mainly by Catholic Churches and by the missionaries. Their teachers, nuns and priests in the schools had no respect for the Aboriginal children because they believed them to be lesser than themselves. This belief caused the children to have very bad experiences. In these schools there was severe psychological, physical and even sexual abuse. The children were yelled at and beaten by teachers, nuns, and priests when they were caught speaking their languages. The children were forced to get their hair cut short and to wear European style of clothing. Other major issues were over-crowding, poor sanitation, and lack of medical care, which led to high rates of tu-ber-cu-lo-sis (TB), and death rates rose up to 69%.
And what was the point of all this if there were little learning resources and teachers without passion, understanding or respect? Along with being notoriously under trained? Imagine yourself at 7 years of age and taken away from a loving and caring home and led to a group of strangers. And forced to live in a strange place, eat strange food, and get all your hair cut off. And at this place you are forced to give up your beliefs, your language, and your cultural ways until one day you don’t even recognize yourself anymore. And imagine this place, this school where you are not respected and talked down to and beaten on a daily basis till you learn to stay quiet, or the most horrific being sexually abused. This happened to both boys and girls anywhere from 7 to 15. And all this happened because you were seen as different, and brought up speaking another language, following your own cultural ways, all these things you were brought up since you were born. And imagine this happening on your own land and territory. Everything that made you who you were as an Aboriginal person was taken away. And each night you went to bed dreaming of being back home with your family and your community then only to wake up to another day and to start it all over again and again and again. These were everyday hardships that Aboriginal children in residential schools had to go through. Everyday.
Overall these residential schools caused Aboriginal people a lot of pain and hardships. Not only those who had been affected first hand by the abuse and experiences, but all Aboriginal people as a whole. Many people are still greatly affected since it was a very traumatic experience, which makes many afraid to speak about it because of those harsh memories. Now those who had been targeted or abused in the residential schools have lost their way of life and strayed from their path and have turned to alcohol or drugs because they are trying to forget.
Today Aboriginal people are still angry with the Canadian government, even after the “Apology” for causing so much pain at the schools. Some people have accepted the apology while others are still angry and demanding more from the government. They feel that the government could never truly understand what the children at such a young and innocent age had suffered. They feel that government needs less letters, speeches, and apologies and take more action because the affects are still unraveling. The lack of traditional languages, culture and spirituality is widespread. This affects the Elders, parents and children to this day.
In conclusion, Residential Schools caused a great deal of pain, hardships and anger for Aboriginal people everywhere. And it’s important to point out that Residential Schools were located all across the United States as well. And the last residential school closed their doors in 1996. We think that all Canadians and the Canadian government should not overlook this critical part of Canadian history. It should be taught in schools and we should all know this history no matter how painful it is. Maybe people now are too ashamed to bring it up in schools, books, speeches, or even in everyday chat. But light has to be shined on this issue, including all of the other problems that have happened when dealing with and concerning Aboriginal people in Canada. Our government shouldn’t think of Aboriginal people coming in second or putting off investigations, and neglecting or face our Aboriginal concerns. Aboriginal people were the first people on this land and this should be enough to gain respect and this has to happen in order for real change to happen. Better sooner than later. Our people have a saying, you have to know your past, your history so that you learn from it and not make the same mistakes so that we can learn from it, grow from it and move forward together to a better place.