EMOTIONS Run High As Residential School Survivors Await Report

By Peter O'neil
Vancouver Sun
May 29, 2015

Emotions run high as residential school survivors await report

Many of B.C.’s top aboriginal leaders have a personal and deeply emotional stake in the release Tuesday of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s initial report into the federal government-funded, church-run attempt to “kill the Indian in the child.”

They are among the estimated 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Metis, 80,000 of whom are still alive, who attended 132 residential schools across Canada that were run by the Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and United Churches from the 1870s until the 1970s — though one remained open until 1996.

The official attempt by the Canadian government to assimilate aboriginal children was a form of “cultural genocide,” Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said in a speech this week.

Grand Chief Ed John, a member of the B.C. First Nations Summit, recalls getting on the school bus in his remote village one September in the late 1950s to begin a year of schooling at the Le Jac Indian Residential School near Prince George.

His tearful sister, then just five years old and a year away from making the same sad sojourn, was standing outside the bus utterly distraught over her slightly older brother’s departure.

“And she ran onto the bus, and lo and behold they took her as well to Le Jac. She wasn’t slated to go but ended up going, and spent the entire school year there. … I have no idea how my parents dealt with that.”

Sto:lo Hereditary Chief Ken Malloway, president of the First Nations Fisheries Council of B.C., went as a young teenager to the St. Mary’s school in Mission City.

An older student approached him to advise that it was wise to go to bed with swimming trunks under his pyjamas, with the drawstring tied tightly to try to guard against molesting hands of school staff.

Malloway was strapped so badly once by a St. Mary’s teacher that his forearms swelled “like Popeye’s,” but he luckily avoided the sexual molestation that was a regular occurrence for some St. Mary’s residents.

Robert Joseph, hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation near Alert Bay and founder of Reconciliation Canada, shared on Friday a more recent anecdote about one of his last conversations with an older brother who is now deceased.

“He said, ‘Bro, I want to tell you how sorry I am that I was never able to protect you. I wanted to but I just couldn’t’,” said Joseph, a survivor of sexual abuse that began shortly after his arrival as a six-year-old at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School near his home community.

Those three and many other victims in B.C. and across Canada will be watching closely to see how Canadian governments and society respond to the recommendations to be released Tuesday in Ottawa.

The release will follow a number of ceremonial events here involving chiefs Joseph and John, and other leaders and supporters, including former Olympian Clara Hughes and ex-NHLer Joe Juneau.

The commission was set up as part of a 2006 settlement that led to a powerful apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper — often called the best speech of his career.

“This Commission presents a unique opportunity to educate all Canadians on the Indian residential schools system. It will be a positive step in forging a new relationship,” Harper told the House of Commons in 2008.

The settlement also included the establishment of compensation funds that have so far distributed $4.4 billion to former residents.

The commission is expected to call on provincial governments to make residential school history a mandatory part of school curricula, and appeal to Ottawa to make take substantial steps to end socio-economic disparity that many blame on assimilationist actions like the school program.

Several B.C. aboriginal leaders expressed skepticism that Harper will respond to recommendations if they far beyond the original scope of the 2006 settlement.

But they say that signals of public support, including a Vancouver solidarity walk in 2013 that drew thousands despite pouring rain, suggest there could be pressure on all parties heading into the fall election campaign.

“Canadians care. We’ve been out in community engaging in deep dialogue with Canadians about our history. And there hasn’t been a person who disagrees with reconciliation,” Joseph told The Sun. “So it won’t matter what this government or any government thinks. When the populace believes it’s time to make things right, that’s we’re going to get there.”

As for the B.C. education curriculum, several leaders expressed hope that the story of the residential school story will be a mandatory part of the curriculum.

A spokesman for the B.C. Education Ministry said Friday the government is already headed in that direction.

“The current B.C. curriculum was drafted about 10 years ago and since then, we as a society have gained an even greater understanding of the impact the residential school system had — and continues to have — on individuals, families and communities here in BC and across the country,” said Ben Green. “This is in no small part due to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the experiences shared by residential school survivors.”

He said the current social studies curriculum includes the subject as a “suggested topic” for teachers to consider exploring. The curriculum revision is intended to ensure “the history and legacy of residential schools is covered even more thoroughly.”









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