Residential Schools: Canada’s Darkest Secret

Residential Schools

What Caused Residential Schools?

Canada’s history contains many amazing achievements that have resulted in a successfully developed economic, “peaceful” and “humanitarian” country. Canadian’s are typically viewed as “nice”, “apologetic” and “kind”. However, Canada’s history is not reflective of these modern words of praise. To achieve this level of recognition horrific injustices were committed and sanctioned by the European colonists and the Canadian Federal Government on the first peoples of Canada. Canada’s darkest moment was the creation of the Aboriginal Residential School system.  When examining the impacts of Residential Schools on the Aboriginal community in Canada, several key issues should be examined to fully understand its Canadian relevance. First, who are the Aboriginal people of Canada and what caused the creation of Residential Schools. Secondly, what specific effects did the Residential School system have on the native community? Finally, outline the healing processes of the indigenous community and what the Canadian government is doing to aid in this process? As the author of this paper, a Canadian from European descent and an individual who has close ties to the First Nation community through personal relationships, I feel compelled to share my first-hand knowledge of the impacts that Residential Schools have had on the indigenous community. This paper is written to share the hardships I have witnessed within the native community; and to bring awareness to issues that have yet to be resolved from the impact of Residential Schools.

The term “Aboriginal” people is used to refer to the original occupants of Canada; it includes the Inuit, Metis and the First Nations. The Inuit, sometimes known as Eskimo’s, are Aboriginal people that occupy the northern Artic regions of Canada, extending from Yukon to Labrador. The Metis’s descended from Aboriginal and European heritage when the first European settlers arrived in Canada from Britain and France. Once settled, the Catholic male fur traders and farmers married First Nation and Inuit women. As a result children with Native and Catholic heritage were produced. The First Nations of Canada are a distinct group of individuals who inhabit Canada from the East coast to the West. Each specific group has their own traditional culture and language. According to the 2011, Government of Canada census “…851,560 people identified as a First Nations person, representing 60.8% of the total Aboriginal population and 2.6% of the total Canadian population” (p. 4)

Residential Schools were a direct result of European capitalism in Canada. In the 16th century European settlers came to Canada in search of gold, silver, fish and furs. When Christopher Columbus set out to discover a trade route to India they accidently discovered what is currently modern day Canada. Assuming they were in India, the first explorers use the term ‘Indian’ to describe the First People of Canada.  As claimed by Ève Préfontaine, in her article titled “The Settlement of Canada: An Overview”; “About 300,000 Aboriginal peoples were living in different areas of [Canada] at that time [of European settlement]”. As European’s continued to arrive on native soil in the search for natural resources, they also brought disease. The introduction of European diseases such as, smallpox, typhus and tuberculosis, syphilis and measles was extremely damaging to the Aboriginal population. As a result, thousands of Aboriginals were wiped out due to the foreign diseases.  Despite disease both colonists and Aboriginals initially formed alliances during times of war and benefited from one another in the growing trade market. However, these alliances did not last. As noted by The Legacy and Hope Foundation (2013);

By the mid-nineteenth century, however, European hunger for land had expanded dramatically, and the economic base of the colonies shifted from fur to agriculture. Alliances of the early colonial era gave way, during the period of settlement expansion and nation-building, to direct competition for land and resources. Settlers began to view Aboriginal people as a ‘problem’.

Colonialism eventually gave way to capitalism, an economic system of trade and industry controlled by private owners for sheer profit. The native population began to be considered a “problem” by the Canadian Federal Government. With this issue impeding economic productivity a plan of action was formed. The Euro-Canadians attempted to assimilate Aboriginal peoples by transforming them into economic farmers and imposing European religions, culture and general practices. The initial attempts to assimilate failed and were met with resistance from the native population. To better combat this resistance, in 1828 the first Residential School opened in Brantford Ontario.

Residential Schools

The sole purpose of the Residential School system was to strip away the traditional language, culture and family connection of the Aboriginal population. In conjunction with the government of Canada, many Christian churches assisted in the assimilation process. Although the earliest Residential School can be traced back to 1828 in Ontario Canada, it wasn’t until the “Indian Act” was implemented that gave “…government exclusive right to create legislation regarding Indians and Indian lands. This act identifies who is an Indian and establishes related legal rights” (Legacy of Hope Foundation,100 Years of Loss, 2013) that native affairs took a dreadful turn. The “1879 Nicholas Flood Davin Report” furthered inequality among Aboriginal peoples when it was “… [recommended] the creation of a system of industrial schools where children are intentionally separated from their parents to reduce the influence of the “wigwam” (Legacy of Hope Foundation, 100 Years of Loss, 2013). A “wigwam” is domed dwelling formally used by the Aboriginal people of Canada. According to the Legacy of Hope Foundation, “About Residential Schools, The 1879 “Davin Report” continued to suggest that native population should;

Be consolidated on few reservations, and provided with ‘permanent individual homes’; that the tribal relation should be abolished; that lands should be allotted in severalty and not in common; that the Indian should speedily become a citizen […] enjoy the protection of the law, and be made amenable thereto; that, finally, it was the duty of the Government to afford the Indians all reasonable aid in their preparation for citizenship by educating them in industry and in the arts of civilization.

After these formal recommendations Residential Schools began to emerge more rapidly. By 1896, forty-five residential/industrial schools were operating in Canada. As time progressed an increasing amount of Aboriginal children were taken abruptly from their homes and placed in Residential Schools. Duncan Campbell Scott, the Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs made attendance of Residential Schools mandatory for native children between the ages of 7 and 15 in 1920.

Effects of Residential Schools

Before and After

When children entered Residential Schools their life was completely altered. Children were forced to cut their hair short, wear required uniforms and keep to a strict regimen, which included forced harsh manual labour, sleep schedules and cleaning. Often siblings were removed and placed in Residential Schools at the same time. Once siblings were admitted they were segregated from one another. Girls and boys were also housed separately and encouraged not to interact with one another. The isolation from ones’ family members within the Residential School system reinforced the breaking of traditional family bonds. According to Eric Hanson of University of British Columbia’s Indigenous Foundation, “…students were strictly forbidden to speak their languages—even though many children knew no other—or to practise Aboriginal customs or traditions. Violations of these rules were severely punished” (Eric Hanson, 2009). The Residential School program was very different from the educational system of the general population. Young boys were forced to participate in agricultural work, craftsmanship and assist in general maintenance duties of the schools. The girls were encouraged to participate in domesticated skills such as sewing, cooking and cleaning. A very limited amount of time was actually spent in a classroom setting. Due to this discrepancy between forced physical labour and intellectual learning most children only possessed a grade five education by the time they were eighteen and released from the program, assuming they survived to the age of eighteen. With this lack of education and loss of their traditional cultural values many survivors of the Residential School system felt and extreme sense of uncertainty. This sense of uncertainty was not limited to the immediate survivors. Parents, relatives and the Aboriginal community were unequipped to handle the return of a child after years of separation.

Lack of education was not the only issue that plagued the students and survivors of Residential Schools. Conditions within the schools were repulsive. As stated by the Legacy of Hope Foundation (2013),

Broad occurrences of disease, hunger, and overcrowding were noted by Government officials as early as 1897. In 1907 Indian Affairs’ chief medical officer, P.H. Bryce, reported a death toll among the schools’ children ranging from 15-24% – and rising to 42% in Aboriginal homes, where sick children were sometimes sent to die. In some individual institutions, for example Old Sun’s school on the Blackfoot reserve, Bryce found death rates which were significantly higher.

Unfortunately abuse was very common within the Canadian Residential School system. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse occurred regularly. Many survivors recall being beaten, raped, whipped, tied to beds and even had their tongues punctured by needles when they spoke their native language. In 1919, the government of Canada ceased all medical inspection of Residential Schools. Without proper medical treatment diseases spread quickly, killing an exuberant amount of children. According to Anett (2010);

Children within the residential schools and Indian hospitals were subjected to routine and systematic tortures, rapes, beatings, involuntary sterilizations, medical experimentation, slave labour, child sex-trafficking and other crimes against humanity by clergy, school staff, and others under a cloak of official secrecy and legal protection.

After years of compiling evidence Anett, also uncovered atrocities such as, but not limited to “…electrical shocks to genitals, tongues and other body parts…applying electric shocks to heads to eradicate memory…killing of new born babies [by fire]…tubal ligation, vasectomies and other intrusive methods to induce sexual sterility” (2010). Young girls who were raped and became pregnant were given forced abortions or murdered. There are at least 28 mass graves across Canada that contains the bodies of children murdered at Canadian Residential Schools. Allegations have always circled if the Canadian government and participating churches truly knew about the incredible severe abuse students received.  Most of the perpetrators were left unpunished. This resulted in distorted perspectives of the justice system and created many unresolved issues for the victims and families of those who attended Residential Schools. The Legacy of Hope Foundation, About Residential Schools (2013) shared;

During the 2005 sentencing of Arthur Plint, a dorm supervisor at the Port Alberni Indian Residential School convicted of 16 counts of indecent assault, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Douglas Hogarth called Plint a “sexual terrorist.” Hogarth stated, “As far as the victims were concerned, the Indian residential school system was nothing more than institutionalized pedophilia.

These facts paint a disturbing picture of Canada’s history. The children of Residential Schools should not be considered “students”. Alternatively they should be considered “victims” of terrible acts of violence, selfishness, pure greed, exploitation, abuse and murder.

As outlined, Residential Schools caused severe emotional and physical pain for those who attended. Due to the high death toll and abuse among Residential School participants the Indian Affairs regional inspector recommended the abolition of Residential Schools in 1958. Despite this recommendation, in 1960 there were still roughly ten thousand students in sixty Residential Schools across Canada. I wasn’t until 1969 that the cooperative between the churches and government ended. The federal government took over the Residential School system and began to slowly transfer control of the schools to Indian bands. This was first step towards productive change, though the damage was already done. The many years of the Residential School system had impacted not only the children directly involved but the family and community as well.

Children lost the meaning of their self, culture and heritage. As a subconscious result of the trauma experienced they became disassociated with their emotions, feelings and physical presence in the world. There entire self-worth was destroyed. Many children also lost their whole childhood to the brutality of Residential Schools. Understanding that a child’s childhood is extremely important to positive cognitive development, irreversible damage was done when they were exposed to dangerous, frightening events both mentally and physically. Children also experienced confusion with the loss of their culture. They were taught to not believe the traditional stories told by their family, furthering confusing when they returned home.

Parents of children who were enrolled in Residential Schools also experienced extreme loss. Children were forcibly taken from their homes. This is especially traumatic to Aboriginal culture. Children are brought up within a close, tight-knit community where family bonds are the foundation of Aboriginal tradition. Teachings and lessons of authentic culture are passed down from one generation to another. With the children removed, possibly never to be seen again, the parents lost much of their hope and faith in society. Traditions could not be passed down from parent to child, resulting in the loss of much of the Aboriginal history. Depression was an additional outcome of children being removed from home. Due to   their senses of worthlessness and inability to help save their children; depression, alcohol and drugs began to become intertwined.  When children returned home they had not only changed but so had their parents, sometimes in very negative ways. The child’s once stable loving home turned into a dysfunctional household where violence, drinking, suicide and depression had grown from the pure emptiness experienced from the loss of the children. Often parents felt they were unable to care for their returned children because their parental skills were stripped of them when the children were stolen. Residential Schools severed the positive attachment between parent and child. What was produced was a revolving door of sadness, addiction and violence.

Residential Schools and their impact where not limited to parents and children. Residential Schools were in operation for such a long period of time, from 1828 to 1996, that multiple generations where affected. There are instances where three or more generations were involved. When multiple generations were unfortunately effected the tendency for family dysfunction increased. “Traumatic experiences endured during childhood or as an adult, might profoundly influence the well-being of their offspring” (Yehuda & Bierer, 2008). In 2009, Bombay, Matheson and Anisman stated in their journal article, Intergenerational Trauma in the Journal of Aboriginal Health that “the majority of adults also indicated that their grandparents’ attendance at Residential Schools negatively affected the parenting that their own parents had received” (p. 16).

Impacts on the Aboriginal people were so severe that they mimic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to Charles Brasfield and his article in the British Columbia Medical Journal, titled “Residential School Syndrome” (2001);

The residential school syndrome diagnosis is different from that of post-traumatic stress disorder in that there is a significant cultural impact and a persistent tendency to abuse alcohol or other drugs that is particularly associated with violent outbursts of anger. The residential school syndrome diagnosis also highlights possible deficient parenting skills… Whether the residential school syndrome describes the children traumatized by the Indian residential school system or those in authority who created the possibility of such traumata, children were damaged. To deny the existence of the damage is to deny these now-adult survivors the possibility of redress and compensation.

The Healing Process

Residential Schools

Between 1986-1994 “the United Church, the Catholic Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Anglican Church and the Presbyterian Church issue formal apologies for their participation in the Residential School System” (Legacy of Hope Foundation , 100 Year of Loss, 2013). Also in 1991, “Phil Fontaine, later the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), speaks publicly about the abuse he suffered at Residential School” (Legacy of Hope Foundation , 100 Years of Loss, 2013). These specific events were precursors of better things to come. Slowly but surely the truth of the Residential School system was beginning to emerge. 1996 was a historical year for Aboriginals in Canada, “the last federally-run Residential School the Gordon Indian Residential School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan closes” (Legacy of Hope Foundation, 100 Years of Loss, 2013).

The first largest step towards healing and untangling the web of injustices incurred by the Aboriginal people was the creation of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation in March of 1998. The federal government issued a one-time grant of 350 million dollars to the foundation to assist in the Gathering Strength: Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan. This action plan was “designed to renew the relationship with Aboriginal people of Canada” (Legacy of Hope Foundation ,100 Years of Loss, 2013). Unfortunately the foundations mandate was set to end in March 2009, after 11 years of raising awareness, supporting Residential School survivors and implementing numerous community-based programs, no further funds were available to assist in the healing process. In 2007 the federal government issued a second payment of 125 million dollars that kept the doors of the foundation open until 2012. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation created a sister foundation, The Legacy of Hope Foundation in 2000, as a way to ensure the continued existence of support for survivors of the Residential School system.

One distinctive trait shared amongst the Aboriginal people of Canada is their incredible resilience. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation defines resilience as “…the capacity to spring back from adversity and have a good life outcome despite emotional, mental or physical distress”. Slowly survivors began to come forward bravely sharing their stories of the abuse and hardships they endure while in Residential Schools. This movement created positive growth within the Aboriginal community. Many individuals began to search for cultural knowledge within their elders. Traditional acts of smudging, using sweat lodges, dances, ceremonies and vision quests and tribal journeys started to emerge from there oppression. Healthy living was a major focus of the healing process. According to The Legacy of Hope Foundation (2013), “Holistic approaches to health, which emphasizes healthy lifestyles, relationships, and communities, together with personal growth programs and traditional spirituality and healing practices have all contributed to the efforts to heal the intergenerational impacts of residential schools”.

What Can Be Done?

With awareness, education and the properly funded resources the Aboriginal people of Canada can continue their healing process. However, the healing process is not solely limited to the Aboriginal people. Canada as a whole needs to heal. Band-Aid solutions such as payouts, short-term programs and the tendency to hide the existence of Residential Schools, undermine the healing process. Finally, in 2008 Prime Minster of Canada, Stephen Harper, formally apologized on behalf of Canada to the Survivors of the Residential School system. Some survivors have accepted the apology, many have not. An article titled “Residential School Genocide: Why “Apology” Isn’t Enough”, written by Rev. Kevin Annett in 2008, outlines the unsettled position many Aboriginals have taken in regards to the federal government’s efforts in aiding the healing process.

Regardless of this, there are things that can be done to overcome the genocidal residential schools legacy, and do justice, for once, to the survivors. Rather than issuing verbal and self-serving “apologies” which change nothing, the government and all of us could take these kind of bold measures:

1. Declare an Official Nation-wide Day of Mourning for Residential School Victims, dead and living.

2. Fully disclose what happened in the residential schools – the crimes, the perpetrators, and the cover-up – by launching an International War Crimes Tribunal with the power to subpoena arrest and prosecute those responsible.

3. Bring home the remains of all children who died in these schools for a proper burial, and establish public memorial sites for them.

4. Create a National Aboriginal Holocaust Museum.

5. End federal tax exemption for the Catholic, Anglican and United Church of Canada, in accordance with the Nuremburg Legal Principles concerning organizations complicit in crimes against humanity.

6. Abolish the Indian Act and Indian and Northern Affairs.

 There isn’t one specific solution to cure the devastation caused by Residential Schools. However, to end the revolving door of pain, loss, sadness and grief significant, large scale actions must be taken. After all, actions do speak louder than words. I have had the wonderful opportunity to sit and learn from native elders, survivors of Residential Schools and the Aboriginal community, both formally and informally. I have sat in their homes, listening to their stories, processed them and came to one conclusion. The effects of the Residential School system are far from over. A monetary pay out and self-fulfilling apology from the federal government is insufficient. In the words of Shirley Williams a Residential School survivor, “We want to take back our education and teach our history, our language and our culture. We have begun to tell our story our history and we want to tell it in our own words to the world, so that this will never happen to any of the other nations in the world” (Legacy of Hope Foundation, 100 Years of Loss, 2013).



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