Residential school survivors and hundreds of supporters took to the streets of Vancouver, Coast Salish territories last Thursday to honour those who lost their lives and those who survived perhaps the darkest and most overlooked chapter in Canadian history.
Led by a sign reading “Culture Saves Lives,” the procession marched from the Commercial-Broadway Skytrain Station to nearby Trout Lake. Victims detailed heart-wrenching accounts of abuse and neglect.
Though a solemn candlelit vigil ended the day, the tone of the event wasn’t entirely mournful. There was celebration of the people who not only lived through the residential school experience, but were brave enough to refuse its violent erasure of language and culture, making an act of resistance out of simply speaking their tongue and telling their stories.
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“A lot of settlers think that reservations are free land for our people and that the residential school system was meant to educate our people, but that’s not what it was all about,” Kat Norris, the event organizer, told Ricochet.
The myth of free land and education was a carefully crafted and wildly successful way of engineering public opinion to support Canada’s genocidal relationship with indigenous peoples. The idea that the Canadian state created reserves and residential schools to uplift Indigenous communities lies at the heart of many racist assumptions and stereotypes that persist to this day. The true intent was one of assimilation.
“The problem with the Indians is one of morality and religion,” said Reverend A. E. Caldwell of the Ahousaht Indian Residential School in 1938. “They lack the basic fundamentals of civilized thought and spirit, which explains their childlike nature and behaviour. At our school we strive to turn them into mature Christians who will learn how to behave in the world and surrender their barbaric way of life and their treaty rights, which keep them trapped on their land and in a primitive existence. Only then will the Indian problem in our country be solved.”
Indigenous ways of living, protected by treaty in some cases, were a problem that Canada needed to address in order to expand its occupation and exploitation of Indigenous lands.
To solve the “Indian problem,” the state funded church-run residential schools, where students suffered severe physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; starvation; violent experimentation; forced sterilization; and intentional exposure to tuberculosis.
The tragedy of today is that for many settlers, this is not common knowledge. The history of the land I call home is rarely ever acknowledged sufficiently. It hides in streets and back alleys like those of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where 30 per cent of the homeless population is Indigenous. It hides in the prison system, where Indigenous woman make up one third of the female inmate population. It hides in the foster care system, where nearly half of the children are Indigenous, perpetuating the legacy of residential schools by continuing to separate Indigenous children from their families.
But most of all it hides in the hearts and minds of settlers across the country who place the blame for these crises on those least responsible.
It is interesting what bits of Canadian history get the acknowledgement they deserve and what bits don’t. I have countless memories from my school years of solemnly standing in ceremonies of remembrance or watching fireworks for Canada’s role in war, for the birth of the country, even for long-lost colonial figures such as Queen Victoria. Other parts of our history have been consigned to the dustbin, even though unlike those previously mentioned, the wake of death and destruction left in their path continues to be felt by many.
This trend of ignorance was set in motion by the Canadian state and media through films like CBC’s The Eyes of Children, which in 1962 depicted residential schools more like summer camp than cultural genocide.
We proudly acknowledge the birth of the country, the queen who once reigned over it, and the wars fought to ensure its continued existence and freedom. Yet rarely do we give due acknowledgement to the innocent people who lost their lives, and almost lost their culture, to make way for the Canadian state.