Residential Schools an " Assault" on Aboriginals, Says Commission

By Kevin Ma
St. Albert Gazette
February 29, 2012

Residential schools were an assault on aboriginals and local schools should teach students about them in order to affect reconciliation, says a federal commission.

The federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its interim report last weekend. The report, part of the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, is part of an ongoing effort to reveal the truth of Canada's residential school system to the public.

About 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were taken from their homes and placed in residential schools, the commission found, where they were forbidden to speak their own languages and often mentally, physically and sexually abused. "Generations of children were traumatized by the experience," the report read.

It was a deliberate plan brought in by the government to "kill the Indian in the child," said commissioner Wilton Littlechild, the former regional chief for Alberta's First Nations.

"It was direct assault on language and a direct assault on culture," he said. "Many witnesses have told us that it was a genocidal practice against them."

Amongst the commission's 20 recommendations was a call for provincial and federal leaders to create public education campaigns about residential schools and to ensure their history was included in school curriculums.

Maggie Hodgson, former CEO of the Nechi Institute near St. Albert and founder of the National Day of Healing and Reconciliation, said she hoped St. Albert schools in particular would follow through on this recommendation.

"How can you not teach about residential school history and teach about Athens? Athens is a long way away from St. Albert, and the residential school was right here."

Lasting scars

Residential schools were federally funded, church-run boarding schools built throughout Canada after the late 1800s for aboriginal students. The Grey Nuns ran one out of a two-storey brick building in St. Albert, according to historians, while the Methodist and United churches ran another at what is now Poundmaker's Lodge just outside of town. Both buildings have since been destroyed.

Residential schools are part of the shared history between settlers and aboriginals in St. Albert, said Hodgson. "It's not them and us. It's us and us."

The commission has spent the last two years touring the nation interviewing those touched by residential schools, Littlechild said.

"One of the striking things is the depth of the abuse that has occurred."

While some students spoke well of their experience, according to the report, many spoke of being treated "like animals in a herd," stripped of their names and belongings and forced to eat strange, sometimes spoiled, food. Others spoke of beatings and sexual abuse.

"What's serious about that is we've passed that onto children and grandchildren," Littlechild said. "If you grow up with no parents and you don't know how to be a parent you tend to pass on that violence."

The results have been devastating. One parent told the commission that she was such a poor mother that she drove her child to commit suicide, Littlechild said.

"I killed my child," she said. "I killed my child by suicide."

Another young woman told the commission about how she hated her parents for committing suicide, Littlechild said, only to learn years later that they did so because of their time in residential school.

"Once she found out, she went to the gravestone in tears and apologized at the headstone of her dad."

Healing through teaching

Residential schools started with education, Littlechild said, and their solution comes back to education.

"We need to get this history of residential schools into mainstream schools," he said. "It's the children who will need to have a large role in reconciliation."

The report calls for all schools to receive and display copies of the federal government's 2008 apology for the residential school system for teaching purposes. It also calls for greater support for aboriginal mental health and the creation of early childhood and parenting programs for affected families.

Reconciliation is about building a shared understanding of the world, said Hodgson. Groups like St. Albert's United Church are doing much on this front by holding talks on the schools and events with local aboriginals.

Education will help Canadians turn away from the bad side of residential schools and look ahead to the future, Littlechild said.

"It's not only an indigenous story; it's a Canadian story."


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