The first Indian residential school in Canada opened in the 1870s. The last school closed in 1996. During that time, over 130 Indian residential schools were located across Canada. More than 150,000 Aboriginal children attended Indian residential schools.
They were forced to attend. They did not sign up.
About 80,000 Indian residential school survivors are alive today.
The Government of Canada funded the schools. Churches ran the schools.
Although Indian residential schools are now closed, generations of Aboriginal people in Canada are still affected by their horrific experiences.
I worked as a Legal Advocate for over 20 years. I helped people in crisis, people with disabilities, people living in poverty, try to access justice, to better their living conditions, to improve their lives.
Then came the Residential School Settlement Process, the result of a class action
lawsuit that was started by a number of Indian residential school survivors against the
Government of Canada and the churches that ran the Indian residential schools. The settlement agreement was an effort to address the damage caused to generations of aboriginal people.
Under the settlement agreement, the government would pay Indian residential school ‘survivors’ for their experiences while they were at an Indian residential schools.
Based on some relationships I has established with Aboriginal community members I was sought out by some Elders involved in this endeavour and part of the requirement was to get their stories down on paper.
It was a series of the most difficult interviews I have ever had in my career.
Firstly, the trust that was given to me was an exceptionally humbling experience.
Secondly, I have never witnessed a person speak such horrors and demonstrate, decades later, that the trauma was as fresh as if it had just happened.
Finally, my experiences is hearing their stories cause me to question the use of the term “survivor”. Their hearts might still be beating but they “survived” only to be remnants of beautiful lives never realized.
These stories go back generations and in my opinion, rival the holocaust.
The legacy of removing children from their families and communities, first though the residential schools and then through the child protection system makes it imperative that we consider the events of the past and why the rates of poverty and homelessness and suicide and addictions and children in care and people incarcerated are so much more prevalent in Aboriginal communities. Generations have come into adulthood from institutional care, abuse, slave labor, no identity, certainly no connection to their heritage, to their kin, to their language.
It was a cultural genocide in a systemic, routine manner.
My client, an elderly woman who possessed a quiet dignity, a grace to her pain as she spoke in whispers about her experiences in a residential school. It was like she was afraid someone was listening in and she would be punished.
She and all her siblings were taken from their mother, had their hair cut off, cold showered, separated from each other, forbidden to speak their language and physically punished if they did, including the use of some kind of electric chair, used on my client when she was 7 years old. She said the adults laughed when the smaller kids were in the chair because their legs wouldn’t reach the floor and would flail around with the electrical current.
She was belittled, lied to, mocked, called a savage, strapped, told she would never amount to anything, raped at age 10, first by a police officer and onwards by priests, staff members and other students.
She told me there was no such thing as love.
If she threw up her meal she would be forced to eat her own vomit. The older children would try to make light of the porridge served with maggots buried in the oats, saying at least it was some protein.
When she got out, at age 15, she went on to have six children who were eventually taken from her by child welfare services because she had a drinking problem and really could not provide any parental role model.
These six, like so many other offspring of residential school prisoners grew under the hearts of mothers whose hearts were crushed long ago. There was little to give.
Their parents were struggling. Their grandparents were struggling. Usually no one asked why. There were very dark secrets that remained cemented in cold stone anguish, shame, fear, and grief. It was better not to speak of it. It was better to numb it.
Some of her children were returned to her on and off, but they themselves grew up disconnected from their heritage, culture, language, looked down upon, and subjected to racial discrimination.
They do not trust the outside world.
They do not trust people in authority.
And the legacy continues, generation to generation.
A broken culture.
Her story will stay with me forever.
I learned we as service providers have to make a shift in our perspective and heal that legacy one person at a time.
One act of kindness at a time.
Show each shattered soul that there is such a thing as love.
I learned some things in the RCMP when working on the Blackfoot Indian reserve.
You have to be honest with Aboriginal people. Never lie to them even if what is going to happen is not something they want. You have to walk the talk and follow through.
They have every right to demand this of us.
You have to listen to them and not fill in the pauses. They have stories, not explanations. Their behaviour might be connected to something outside the immediate situation. They do not move at the same pace as we do.
Let it be.
While most of us have no responsibility for these horrific acts of evil committed by the people in the residential school system, and other systems that crushed the lives of aboriginal people for generations, we have been left with the responsibility to repair that damage, to make amends for those monsters before us, to share our world openly and genuinely with those who are different from, to mourn with them their pasts and work to show them there is such thing as love in their futures.
We just have to show it to them.