Editors’ note: This piece was written by someone who did not experience the intergenerational effects of the residential schools, in an effort to encourage non-Indigenous people in Canada to think about what happened to children at the schools and why reconciliation is needed. It may be disturbing for those directly impacted.
Imagine that you’re a child between the ages of seven and 15 and you’re forced to leave your home, your parents, your village, and everything you’ve known all your life, so you can attend a school far away in a place you neither recognize nor know as familiar.
Imagine you’re given no choice because your parents have been given none. If they refuse to let you go, you are forcibly removed, and they, in turn, are punished and sent to jail. Even though you have a loving family and home, you are treated as a ward of the state and school administrators are assigned guardianship and have full parental rights over you. Their one and only job? “To beat the Indian out of you.”
Imagine that once you get to these government-sponsored, church-run schools, you’re stripped of your traditional clothing and your long hair is forcibly cut. Imagine you are made to feel shame and disgust for your culture. The words your mother first spoke to you with love and kindness? You’re told they’re dirty and vile and you’re now forbidden from speaking them. You’re no longer allowed to practice your culture and spirituality, no longer permitted to sing or dance to your tribal songs. Failure to comply is met with corporal punishment, relentless verbal and physical abuse, including being shackled to your bed, needles shoved into your tongue. Above all, you are faced with the constant reminder that you are a “savage” that needs saving.
Imagine that when you get to these new schools, 40 per cent of the teaching staff don’t even have any professional training, but what motivates them most are religious zealotry and a steadfast belief that they are doing God’s work. When you are not getting the most substandard of educations, you are forced to perform manual labour.
Imagine you are forced to sleep in overcrowded and cold dorms (the fire escapes have been sealed to prevent you from escaping), and fed rotten food (when you are fed). You are told it’s for your own good. That, if you just listen and learn, you too can advance and be assimilated into the much superior Euro-Canadian culture. Government documents at the time call the process “aggressive civilization.”
Imagine you feel so hopeless, so exploited, so terrified, and so abused (sometimes sexually, sometimes physically, or psychologically, sometimes all three) that you can’t fathom one more day in their care, one more hour in their presence, so you kill yourself, or you walk out the door on a freezing Canadian winter morning to desperately find your way back home. You’re 11 years old and you’re flimsily dressed in summer clothes, you don’t even have shoes on your feet, and it’s -30C, but you keep walking.
They find your body days later, frozen on a lake. You are buried in an unmarked grave. Your parents never find out what happened to you. They will never know where you were buried.
Imagine that you somehow manage to survive all of this, but despite the testimonies of sexual and physical abuse, no one believes you or even really cares. As one by one the schools are closed, the stories of abuse are buried with them.
“They didn’t know any better back then,” “They meant well,” everyone whispers, as an absolution in hushed tones, as they sweep all this uncomfortable ugliness under the rug.
Even though you know this chapter is an integral and shameful part of this country’s history, you watch as schools gloss over it. The denigration, the isolation, the abuse, the systemic and structural racism, the death and the disease — it’s like they never happened. The part we keep, the part we teach is pristine and pure and whitewashed and makes no mention of colonialism, cultural genocide, racism or forced assimilation. The part we keep makes Canada look good.
Imagine that the government never acknowledges the terrible damage residential schools have reaped until much later, and the Vatican still refuses to publicly apologize for the long-lasting trauma you carry in your psyche that now affects your children’s lives and your children’s children. Over and over, you are denied your truth.
The truth is, over 150,000 Aboriginal children were forced to attend Indian Residential Schools across Canada, with the last one closing in 1996. (In the United States they call them Native Boarding Schools. How quaint.)
Today, it is estimated that there are 80,000 living survivors. We will never know the exact number of Aboriginal children who died as a result of these schools — whether through malnutrition and disease, through suicide and even murder, or while trying to escape, because too many records and evidence were destroyed. The recently released 3,231-page final Truth and Reconciliation Report records the deaths of more than 3,000 children, but Justice Murray Sinclair, who headed the report, expects it was much closer to 6,000.
The residential schools era is one of shame. It is a gaping wound that has been allowed to fester and now has been opened. There is nothing honourable about a legacy that includes unmarked graves and missing children. Nothing truthful about pretending it never happened. Nothing honest about denying that the past treatment of Indigenous people mirrors in many ways the dismissal and treatment of them today.
Last week this country took a monumental step towards truth and reconciliation, towards forging a new relationship that aims to reconcile the vision of the “benevolent” Canada we were taught about in school, what it actually is, and what it can be.
Acknowledging a wrong done, staring at it with unflinching eyes is, perhaps, the first real and necessary step towards accountability, responsibility, and solidarity as a country. Imagine that.