Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Open Letter on Canada's Indian Residential Schools

Battleford Industrial School (Battleford, Saskatchewan) (Photo by D. Cadzow)
This open, anonymous letter was submitted to the Foundation for Democratic Advancement. The letter raises a number important questions about human rights and democracy in Canada.

“Schools, by definition, are places of learning; where the minds of young children can flourish in a safe and psychologically constructive environment. Yet some of Canada’s earliest schools were in fact aggressive assimilation camps where Aboriginal children were forcibly placed into, with or without the consent of their parents. Little was truly taught in the schools other than menial work skills and academia sufficient for grade 3 curriculum. Mostly these schools were intended to eradicate the Aboriginal culture and languages of the children and set them on a path of brutal assimilation into a society that did not particular care whether they assimilated or were merely culturally destroyed. The schools teachings were constructed around Christian values and beliefs. Thus much of the lessons taught were in praise of religious doctrine, and the “civilized” ethics and morals of the time. Children who attempted to conduct their indigenous beliefs in the residential schools were punished. So extreme were these restrictions that, even those caught talking in a native language were penalized by having needles stuck in their tongues. These forms of barbarism may seem a horrid and dead ignorance. Yet, many are often surprised to find that the last residential school was shut down in 1996, a mere 18 years ago, and the first residential school, Mohawk Indian Residential School, opened in 1831 in Brantford, Ontario.

The children would hardly see their parents, since the school year lasted 10 months. The schools operated on a half-a-day structure whereby half the day would be spent in the classroom and the other half working. This work was in reality meant more so for the maintenance of the school itself, rather than any legitimate educational value. However, the full horrors of the school were only recently uncovered, thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose goal was to raise awareness of the atrocities of the residential schools, through eye-witness and written testimonies. The testimonies spoke of children who were, physically, psychologically and sexually abused. Others died either from disease or infections, or practical murder. Cecile Ketlo, who attended Lejac Indian Residential School was one of the many to speak of such events:

"We had chores to do. Like you go into the bakery. You go to work as a cook, or work in the egg room. I tried cooking and they kicked me out because I fainted on them. So I didn’t really learn how to cook. I didn’t know how to bake. I never worked in the bakery."

Others painted an even grimmer picture of the untold dealings, such as Grant Severight who attended St. Philips Indian Residential School, stating:

"I was sexually molested by a school teacher, I mean not a school teacher, but the music teacher. He used to take me into piano practice during study sessions. He would come and get me from the classroom and take me to the room and do funny things. He used to pay me. He used to give me money for it. I didn’t really like it. For a while I thought I was the only one that he was doing that to, so I kept it kind of to myself. I never told anybody because of the shame and maybe the boys would make fun of me. But then I started noticing he was taking other boys and one day I kind of followed, just kind of sneaking behind. I was peaking through the curtains to see if that boy was actually having piano practice but he wasn’t. That man was sexually fondling him and kissing him."

Countless others have told their story, many of which can be read or heard on wherearethechildren.ca. The original number of the victims that died was 4,000 but in light of recent testimonies, the numbers may be higher.

Despite the horrid atrocities the biggest issue of the residential schools, lies in the here and now. It lies in an Aboriginal culture forever scarred by the travesties forced upon them. Many Canadians don’t fully grasp the generational impact such systematic brutality has on the later generations. Even today's Aboriginal youth still suffers from the aftereffects of the residential schools in forms such as grief and hopelessness and loss of self-esteem. No one can change the past, yet we all have a responsibility as Canadians to change the present. We all have a responsibility to realize what truly went on within Canada’s residential schools and consider how it impacts the contemporary Aboriginal society of Canada. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and others like it are an important branch of education in this manner, and should continue to be supported by Canadians, coast to coast."


How can a similar tragedy be prevented in Canada again?

What are the flaws in the Canadian federal system that allowed the residential school system to exist for 177 years?

Further reading

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The Indigenous Foundation of the University of B.C.

Where are the Children 

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