Residential School - the Dirty Little Secret

By Rosanna Deerchild
First Perspective
May 26, 2008

School didn't teach me about it. I was a teenager before even hearing the word and an adult before I knew my own mother went. She didn't talk about it. No one did. It was a story told in bits and pieces. People wouldn't make eye contact when they said it. They whispered the word like some kind of dirty secret: residential school.

By 1948 there were 72 church run, federally funded schools operating with a single objective: assimilate the Indian. Children were stripped of their home, family, community, culture, language and their identity. Imagine that. Really imagine it. You're five years old and suddenly you are nothing but a number. But that wasn't the worst thing to go on behind those doors.

In 1990 those doors were opened in a very public way when Phil Fontaine told CBC's Barbara Frum that sexual and physical abuse was prevalent in the schools. The country was stunned. Aboriginal people were not. Residential School was a dirty secret ready to be told and a flood gate opened.

My mom told me about her time in the schools. She was four when she was taken. She would spend the next 12 years at three schools, the last, Guy Hill Residential School near The Pas. She told me about a nun cutting off her braid and telling her all Indians had lice; about being forced to kneel on a row of pencils for hours because she spoke her language; and about being locked in a closet for days with no food or water when she tried to run away.

When she finally did leave, she thought it was over that it was behind her. But it wasn't. Residential School cast a long shadow over my mother's life, over our entire family. It's cast a long, dark shadow over the entire Aboriginal community.

Since, there've been lawsuits, a statement of "regret" from the government, more lawsuits, deals, apologies from church and another deal.

Ottawa signed the latest and most comprehensive deal with the Assembly of First Nations last fall. The first phase, the Common Experience Payment paid each survivor $10,000 plus $3000 for every year spent at school. Lately, it has faced some criticism because some people were not paid for all the time they spent there. Day schools were also left out of the deal and the government could face further lawsuits.

The second phase is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It will start an investigation of the residential school legacy on June 1. Canada will finally hear about what really happened in the schools from the people who where there. The commission will document testimony from survivors, former staff, and government and church officials. It will also have full access to any documents pertaining to residential school. The TRC will shine a light into one of the darkest parts of our history.

Perhaps the most anticipated part of the deal will happen on June 11. Prime Minister Stephen Harper will stand up in the House of Commons and say Canada is sorry for imposing Residential Schools on Aboriginal peoples.

For the first time ever.

We've come a long way from whispered words. But some people are wondering if survivors will accept the apology or take part in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They ask can there really be truth and reconciliation between Canada and Aboriginal peoples? Maybe not.

But I do know a little about telling secrets. The best reason to tell a secret is to stop it from happening and to make sure it never happens again.

To any of our children.


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