Residential Schools: Canada’s Dark History – Tiffany Lee, Canada

When asking a foreigner what they know about Canada, they may talk about the Rocky Mountains, igloos, the commonality of hearing ‘eh?’, multiculturalism, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police force or how French is our official second language. However, many do not know about the indigenous people of Canada, called the First Nations people. It won’t come as a shock when it is said that historically, they were not treated well. Indigenous populations all around the world have received the negative end of the stick; in the colonization of the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. While it is common knowledge in most countries that they were treated badly, outside of Canada, the mistreatment of the First Nations is not widely known

 First Nations dancers gather on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to rally for the “Idle No More” movement. (source: Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)


First Nations dancers gather on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to rally for the “Idle No More” movement. (source: Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A Brief Summary of The First Nations People

The First nations people are Canada’s indigenous population. In the past, they were known as Indians due to their darker skin, and are currently also known as Aboriginal people. They have been living on Canada’s land for thousands of years and have a special way of life, centered on their relationship to the land. Due to Canada’s vast geography and landscapes, the First Nations communities across Canada have varied cultures. Their relationship to the land they consider sacred shapes their languages, traditions, spirituality and culture. The different nations have different political systems and lifestyles, as some communities have historically hunted, while other grew crops on farmland. The First Nations people believe that the Creator had given them their land as a gift, and therefore, treat it as sacred.

From the 16th century to the 19th century, the Europeans interacted with these indigenous peoples through trade. While relations were not always positive, the British and French created alliances with the different nations. In the late 1700s, things began to change as Canada was under Britain’s complete control. As more and more immigrants came from Europe, the imperial power began to rethink their relationship with the Aboriginal people. They wanted to have complete and full control of the land so therefore brought in many techniques to assure the First Nations people were either assimilated into the British culture, or were rid of. To ensure they wouldn’t get in their way, the government began to sign treaties with the First Nations people to ensure they would have their own reserved land.

This agreement may see nice at first sight. However, the First Nations people were often given unproductive land, therefore inflicting on their ability to be self-sustained. Furthermore, these treaties were negotiated orally and later written down by the government so many promises were not included in the written treaty and not fulfilled. During Confederation in the 1860s, they focussed on increasing immigration as Canada’s government to maintain the sovereignty of the country. The government saw the First Nations people as a nuisance in their pursuit of creating their ideal of a eurocentric Canadian nation, so they took assimilation further by introducing the Indian Act. In this statute, many laws were passed encouraging the First Nations people to join this new society. One of these laws was mandatory residential school attendance for all First Nations children.

What are residential schools?

Students at a residentail school being taught to sew (source: CTV News)

Students at a residential school being taught to sew (source: CTV News)

Residential schools were boarding schools in which the government and church had created a specific lifestyle and education for the First Nations. Attending school, as mentioned before, was mandatory. In some regions of Canada, the only option for schooling was the nearest residential school, which was generally far from home. Government officials would enforce this attendance by taking the children, sometimes forcibly, away from their homes.

When they arrived at the school far, far away from their homes and families, the children were stripped of their culture, just as planned. They were given new English names, new English-style clothes and new English haircuts. For many, they had never spoken a word of English nor French and were expected to pick up the two languages immediately. Even upon arrival, they were punished for speaking their native language. In these schools, emotional, physical and sexual abuse was abundant.

By the time the children went back home, they had changed. They were disconnected from their heritage; they lost their language, their culture, and just as the government planned, they were assimilated into the heavily European influenced Canadian society. Some saw their “Indian” ethnicity as something to be ashamed of and many could no longer connect with their parents. They had been forcibly converted to Christianity, as the schools were often run by nuns and priests, therefore losing the spirituality that connects the First Nations people to each other and to their environment.

This conversion to Christianity was all in the goal of “civilizing” the children to fit into the Canadian society. They were taught to farm and other tasks deemed necessary for them to be “productive citizens”. Approximately 150,000 were enrolled in the 80 residential schools throughout Canada and at least 4,000 died while attending. The reason for most of these deaths were disease and unfortunately, deaths were not uncommon.

The schools were overcrowded, lacked adequate sanitation, heating and health care. Day schools were far more common than residential schools, however, the impact of the residential schools were far reaching. While we know much about what occurred at these residential schools, we are still discovering more heinous acts. At some schools, children were forcibly sterilized. It is difficult to say how many were sterilized, but it is clear that this did occur. For more information on life in residential schools, I would suggest watching the 1989 movie Where the Spirit Lives. It is quite an accurate representation of the residential schools and clearly portrays the emotional trauma.

As mentioned before, the residential schools were included in the Indian Act. Since first enacted in 1876, it has been amended several times. However, the fact that this act still exists today tells you that the relationship between the First Nations people and the Canadian government is still unhealthy.

The racist laws pitted against the First Nations can no longer be implemented. By the 1980s, only 15 residential schools remained open, only to soon be closed and the last school finally closed in 1996. Throughout the 80s and 90s, the churches who ran the schools delivered official apologies to those who attended their schools, as they acknowledged that their students had faced abuse that created psychological suffering that lasted their entire lives. However, it was not until 2008 the government issued an official apology.

Truth And Reconciliation Canada began to work in 2008, and later in the year, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper publicly apologized on behalf of the government, which was a significant event in this process of reconciliation. Since then, the government has provided funding to give compensation plans to those who attended the schools.

First Nations people and supporters march in Vancouver, BC during the Walk for Reconciliation (source: The Canadian Press)

First Nations people and supporters march in Vancouver, BC during the Walk for Reconciliation (source: The Canadian Press)

While the government has taken steps to attempt to reconcile with our indigenous neighbours, it is not enough to heal the emotional, psychological, social and economic damage that has been left behind, which no money can buy. It is difficult to track specifically the damage residential schools have caused because the legacies are so widespread and therefore significantly shape the First Nations communities today.

As I have already explained, those who attended the schools left with abuse imprinted on their minds. They left emotionally and psychologically damaged, and furthermore, experienced serious physical, emotional and even sexual abuse. To deal with such pain, the students turned to alcohol and drugs. What is even worse is that the students did not learn of love. They did not learn to be able to care for family members and did not experience nurturing because many were not able to visit their own family members.

So what does this mean for the current situation? Well, unfortunately, this lead to a cycle of abuse; of substance abuse and relationship abuse. Between the years of 2008-2010, a national survey was conducted by many First Nations communities, asking the residents to identify the largest problem facing their community. A whopping 82.6% of the correspondents said that alcohol and drug abuse was the biggest problem. Furthermore, in 2002-2003, it was found that more than a quarter (26.7%) of First Nations adults were using marijuana. With that many adults using drugs, it says a lot about the youth. Marijuana is used by 8-9 out of 10 young men between the ages of 15 to 24, and is commonly used by teen girls, as well.

The root of addiction in First Nations communities are the residential schools because the students had to turn to substance abuse to deal with the pain and abuse. If these students had not become addicted to relying on such substances to wipe away their pain, their children and their children’s children may not have followed their same path. This pain completely took over what little nurturing the students could have received in the short visits with their families or the exceptionally rare kind teacher at the school. The abuse they received started a cycle of abuse later on. The students were abused and some did not know how to nurture and love their children later on, which lead to the children being abused and neglected, and this continued on as their children did not know how to raise their children, which lead to the abuse and negligence of their children’s children.

It is important to note that this is not the case for every First Nations family. I am pointing this out only because the rate of such maltreatment is much higher for Aboriginal people than those who are not Aboriginal.

Finally, I would like to truly stress how all of this ties back to the government trying to assimilate the First Nations people. The Canadian government wanted to strip them of their culture. The students soon were unable to teach their own children their peoples’ traditions, customs and language. This caused great discomfort for First Nations people as some had been assimilated into the Euro-Canadian culture but were still targeted for being of First Nations descent. They lost their identity and are still struggling to maintain it.

First Nations parents may find it troubling to raise their children because if they are out of touch with their own culture, how can they be expected to teach their children about their heritage? The discomfort caused by the loss of culture may also lead to further substance abuse, deepening possibilities of depression, suicide and other psychological problems.

The Debate of Genocide

 Cree students at the Anglican-run Lac la Ronge Mission School residential in Saskatchewan in 1945 (source: Archives and Library of Canada)


Cree students at the Anglican-run Lac la Ronge Mission School residential in Saskatchewan in 1945 (source: Archives and Library of Canada)

On Monday, October 14th 2013, Professor James Anaya, the Special UN Rapporteur for Indigenous people received a submission of material from former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (an organization of Aboriginal chiefs working for their rights) Phil Fontaine, businessman Dr. Michael Dan, elder Fred Kelly (who survived the residential schools and was subjected to many nutritional experiments conducted at at least 6 schools) and First Nations advocate Bernie Farber. Many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people have called for the United Nations to recognize the treatment of the First Nations people as a genocide. It is clear that the actions committed by the Canadian government were so horrific and detrimental to the First Nations people that it has left a significant impact on their current society.

However, these actions were in the clear purpose to assimilate the Aboriginal society into Canadian society, which raises questions on whether or not it qualifies as genocide. In the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), Genocide is defined as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”.

So how do the residential schools fit into this definition? According to this definition, “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” is considered genocide. As mentioned previously, these children were overcrowded into a boarding school and kept in unsanitary conditions, which lead to a high death toll. They did not bother taking proper care of them to ensure the school was sanitary and healthy, which completely contradicts their desires for the “savages” to be “civilized” and doesn’t being civilized mean being clean? When you see the contradiction in their actions, then you see that these group conditions were “calculated to bring about its physical destruction… in part”. When Peter Bryce, Canada’s first Chief Medical Officer recommended Furthermore, some schools enforced sterilization of the children, therefore building the case of genocide as they are “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group”.

It is clear now that these children were sometimes forcibly taken from their families, as once the First Nations families had heard of the horrors of residential schools, how could they possibly want their children to be taken to these places? As a result, this forced transfer from the family to the residential school teachers, nuns and priests can be considered genocide. Within the residential schools were serious abuse and experimentation, as highlighted previously. The children were used as lab rats for nutrition and mental experiments, as they were starved and obliviously took ESP experiments.

The government completely exploited these children. They were starving and were willing to do anything for food. If a white man in a lab coat offered you a lollipop in return for answering his questions and you had nothing else to eat and were 6 years old, of course you would accept his offer. This can then translate to causing serious bodily and mental harm. However, residential schools are not the only instruments that can be considered genocide. The forced transfer of children between the Aboriginal family to a new “adopted” family was also a recurrent occurrence.

During the 50s to 60s, the Canadian government began to abolish mandatory residential school attendance. They believed that the students would get a better education in the public education system. However, they still did not trust the First Nations parents to raise their children, as they were still as eurocentric as ever. As a result, what is known as the ‘sixties scoop’ began in the early 1960s and continued into the late 1980s. An estimated number of 20,000 First Nations children were taken from their families and brought to another family. The children were fostered or adopted out to families that were primarily white middle-class. The same effects as the residential schools were felt because they lost their culture, families, access to their medical history and their Indian status.

The ‘sixties scoop’ was not a specific policy. However, the number of Aboriginal children being fostered or adopted was alarmingly high during this time. In many, if not most, circumstances, the children were literally taken without either the family or the band council’s knowledge or permission. A social worker in British Columbia disclosed to Patrick Johnston in his 1983 report Native Children and the Child Welfare System that it was common practice in the mid 60s to “scoop” from their mothers on reserves almost all newly born children.

20 years later, she realized what a mistake that had been. Just as the residential schools had been an example of this forced transfer included in the definition of genocide, the ‘sixties scoop’ is a prime example of such. There are multiple other incidents that qualify as a genocide, such as Canada’s beloved John A. Macdonald forcibly starving the First Nations people to make way for European settlers, or simply the policies set in place to encourage the First Nations people to assimilate such as only allowing them to vote if they abandoned their Indian status, as that constitutes as cultural genocide. According to the UN, the intent of genocide qualifies enough as genocide. While the Canadian government did not succeed in fully assimilating all First Nations people, nor did they kill the entire population, it is clear that they did commit genocide, as outlined by the United Nations.

Should the United Nations recognize it as a genocide?

In my opinion, absolutely. The Canadian government has significantly wronged the First Nations people and while they acknowledge this, they refuse to acknowledge it as a genocide. It clearly follows the guidelines of which comprise what a genocides. However, could you bring those responsible to justice? Those guilty of committing genocide are tried by the International Criminal Court. However, who is guilty of such? John A. Macdonald? The teachers at the residential schools? Former Department of Indian Affairs chief Duncan Campbell Scott? What good would it do?

I hate to burst this bubble, but they’ve passed away from this Earth. However their legacies still remain strong. This then brings up the question: why do we need to recognize this event as a genocide if we are not able to try those guilty of carrying out the acts? It is important for us to acknowledge that the treatment towards First Nations people historically was a genocide to further the reconciliation between the First Nations and the Canadian government. This is about healing and justice for those who have been wronged.

In my opinion, if we were to declare the treatment as a genocide, more people within Canada and internationally would be aware of the history and therefore press for more steps in the reconciliation process. It is that reason which I would like to see the United Nations recognize it as a genocide. While there is much debate on whether or not they should recognize it, there should not be a debate as to if it is a genocide. Genocides need healing. It is time we step up, as fellow human beings, to defend indigenous rights.

2 responses to “Residential Schools: Canada’s Dark History – Tiffany Lee, Canada

  1. Pingback: Demanding Justice for Canada’s Indigenous Women – Tiffany Lee, Canada·

  2. Pingback: Demanding Justice for Canada’s Indigenous Women – Tiffany Lee, Canada | United Youth Journalists·

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