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What You Must Know About The Residential School System

TRIGGER WARNING

While I am not a journalist, I think it’s important to give people an opportunity to understand what they are walking into when they read content that can be potentially harmful or traumatizing. This post speaks candidly about the residential school system, stories I’ve been personally told by Indigenous people, and a conversation around the recent residential school murders that were discovered in B.C. 

Being from Edmonton, I’m fortunate to have grown up around many First Nations and Indigenous peoples, many of whom I’ve had the pleasure of calling friends. Many of the stories I was told by the elders in my life were full of laughter and light. They would tell me about going to sweat lodges and pow wows, and whose Kookum made the best bannock. I learned about how they used dancing to tell stories (hoop dancers are my favourite). But I also learned that many of the people I knew (or their parents) had been victimized by the residential school system. 

The first time I’d ever heard about residential schools was sometime in my teen years from the mother of one of my Dad’s good friends. I learned that when she was very young, somewhere around 8 years old, she was taken away from her parents and put into a residential school, where she lived nearly year-round. At the time, she spoke only the Cree language and in her school, they would push needles through the tongues of children who continued to speak their native language after they had learned English. This story is just one example of the abhorrent and despicable atrocities that were committed in the genocide against Canada’s First Nations and Indigenous people. 

It did not escape me at this young age that what I was being told by these elders was also something I could see the lasting impacts of with my own eyes, particularly as it came to the people that I knew who were affected by this. I saw it in the youth that I knew and/or worked with at one point who were homeless or in abusive familial situations. I saw the intergenerational trauma manifest itself in the form of addictions, violence, and a general loss of culture in the people that I knew. 

If you’re not familiar with the Indian Act, you should familiarize yourself with it. It was created in 1876 and is the reason that residential schools existed. It’s also why in 1920, they became compulsory for all Indigenous children. To give you some context on the sentiment about Indigenous people was back then, here’s a quote from the mouth of the Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott in 1920 when he mandated attendance at residential schools in Canada:

“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone. . . . Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill.”

If it’s not clear to you by this statement alone, the goal of residential schools was to commit a cultural genocide against Canada’s First Nations and Indigenous people. “To eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will”. Multiple generations of First Nations and Indigenous people have been affected by the abuses of the Residential School system, which started in the 1870s, the last of which closed in 1996 — I was 9 years old. That’s 7 generations of people who went through that system. 

SEVEN GENERATIONS. 

The intergenerational impacts of this trauma are unspeakable and what’s worse is that so many survivors are being re-traumatized and forced to relive these experiences with the recent discovery of the bodies of 215 murdered children in BC. 

I’ve spent a lot of time listening to stories about Residential Schools and learning about them in University, and it never gets easier hearing about the abuse and degradation that our First Nations People have suffered at the hands of their Colonizers. To be honest, I could probably write you a thesis on this subject, but a thesis won’t undo this pain and trauma. 

What I think is important to talk about is our responsibility to speak up and educate ourselves about the history of our country and the treatment of our people. We have a responsibility to use our voices and to be mindful of not re-traumatizing the survivors who are still with us. So, I encourage all of us to take the time to not turn away from the discomfort and pain that learning about residential schools causes. I encourage all of us to use our privilege to learn how to be a better ally to First Nations and Indigenous people. I encourage all of us to amplify First Nations and Indigenous voices and creators.

Here are some incredible resources for anyone interested in learning more on how they can help or where to donate:

The National Centre For Truth and Reconciliation

The Healing of Seven Generations

On Canada 

Settlers Take Action by On Canada

Ways to be an Indigenous Ally

Indian Residential School Survivors Society

First Nations Child and Family Caring Society

Here are a couple of really great Indigenous content creators you should be following. I’ve learned a lot from them: 

Shina Nova 

Chelazone Leroux

Shayla Oulette Stonechild

Notorious Cree — shout out to James, who I knew from my teenage years back in Edmonton

Michelle Chubb

xx

Cleo

(Image Source: The Conversation)

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