I am not Aboriginal. I did not go to residential school. But I am Canadian. My family and I have settled on Treaty 6 land whose original First Nations inhabitants were violently and illegally removed. I may not be directly responsible for Indian Residential Schools, but I am responsible to know and understand the truths of these schools as they relate to the experience of survivors and the ongoing impact for Aboriginal Canadians.
I spent much of last weekend in Edmonton at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In the past, I might have referred to what I took part in as “listening to people’s stories.” However, I was poignantly reminded on more than one occasion that, “These are not stories. These are experiences. We can’t make this up.”
On the last day of the TRC’s final public event, I stood in one of the display areas looking at posters describing the 25 Indian Residential Schools in Alberta. Unprompted, a man standing next to me pointed to one of the schools and said, “I spent seven years in that hell hole. 40 years later, I finally told someone about what happened to me.” When I asked him why he had decided to share his experiences after all these years, he pointed to my two-year-old daughter and said, “I spoke out so that what happened to me never happens to any child again.”
Listen to the tears
Residential school experiences take a tremendous amount of courage for survivors to describe, and are extremely difficult to hear. Edmonton’s Archbishop reminded people at the beginning of the event to not only listen to the words spoken by survivors, but also to listen to their tears. It is hard to describe what it is like to do this kind of listening to 70-year-old men as they share — sometimes for the first time — about years of physical and sexual abuse: “I would wake at night to the sound of footsteps in our dorm room. I would pray that they wouldn’t stop by my bed, and then feel so guilty. If those feet didn’t stop by my bed, it meant they were stopping by the bed of one of my friends.”
Each experience recounted was unique to the survivor, and yet in so many ways what was shared was heartbreakingly similar. “We were not nurtured at school,” remembered one woman. “There was no one to tuck us in at night, and no one to read us bedtime stories.” Survivors spoke articulately of the intergenerational trauma that resulted from this lack of childhood love and care. Grandmothers cried as they acknowledged their inability to ever say, “I love you” to their own children, because their experiences in residential schools had taught them that love was an embarrassing word and an even more shameful feeling.
Through his tears, one survivor contextualized the addictions he sees too often among himself and his friends. “I left the school with a lot of hate and anger, and became an alcoholic like everyone else. I tried to kill the pain I was carrying. I never talked about it, I just drank. Alcohol was the only thing that ever told me things might be OK.”
“Kill the Indian in the child”
The first residential school in Canada opened in the late 1870s, with the express goal to “kill the Indian in the child” in order to assimilate Aboriginal peoples into wider Canadian society.
It is estimated that more than 150,000 Inuit, Metis, and First Nations children attended 130 residential schools across Canada. Our high school history classes may have suggested that residential schools are ancient history, but the truth is that the last residential school in Canada didn’t close until 1996.
Children at these schools were forcibly removed from their families, their homes, their traditions and cultures, and re-educated into a world of white Christian Europeans. Most students suffered significant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse perpetrated by the priests and nuns who ran the schools. Many survivors have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), more appropriately termed “historical trauma.” “Remember,” shared one survivor, “that these people being diagnosed with PTSD were not soldiers returning from war. They were children. These horrors were done to children.”
One of the most tragic parts of this history is that the schools were government sanctioned, but run by churches. This abuse and cultural genocide was done in the name of God.
Mutual understanding and respect
The TRC was established as part of the Government of Canada’s apology to residential school survivors, and in response to a class-action lawsuit on the part of these survivors. The commission has travelled across Canada with the goals of learning the truth about what happened in residential schools, sharing these truths with Canada; and guiding a process of healing and reconciliation for all Canadians based on relationships rooted in mutual understanding and respect.
“We heal when we tell about our experiences,” said one survivor, reiterating a common theme. “We can’t change the past, but we can’t let it control us either. We have to move forward and start healing together.”
“Tell your people what you heard here today.”
On the last day of the event, a commissioner urged the non-Aboriginal people in the room to go and “tell your people what you heard here today.”
What I heard this weekend was not just survivors’ past experiences of residential schools. What I heard in a thousand different ways was that Canada still needs a lot of healing and reconciliation when it comes to our Aboriginal sisters and brothers.
We need look no further than the appalling condition of housing, healthcare, and education on many Aboriginal reserves to understand that the legacy of residential schools are only one part of the ongoing and systemic injustices affecting Aboriginal Canadians. Evidence continues to surface of government and police negligence towards the hundreds of cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women across our country. Thousands of Aboriginal children are currently in foster care, in many cases removed like their ancestors from their homes and indigenous culture.
What I also heard and saw this weekend was a tremendous amount of strength, leadership, and commitment among Aboriginal Canadians. This community is committed to continuing to move forward in the process of truth and reconciliation.
I am committed too. I am committed to telling my people what I heard last weekend, and not stopping until I know it has been understood.
Learn more about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Photo courtesy of University of Manitoba.