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The myth of Canada’s residential schools for native children holds that the schools had a paternalistic purpose, and that even after all is revealed about them — the physical and sexual abuse, the forced relocation of children, the ban on speaking native languages — Canada meant well. The country was simply limited by the assimilative vision of the times.
That myth may at last fall when Canadians take a close look at the abysmally high death rates among children, from tuberculosis and other causes, at the schools. They did not die in one great epidemic; they died over many years — at least 40 — as the federal government ignored warnings from its own medical advisers.
The full story of those deaths has not entered the Canadian consciousness. The Canadian Encyclopedia says nothing about tuberculosis under “residential schools” or “native education.” When the Canadian government apologized in 1998 for sexual and physical abuse at the schools, it said nothing about the deaths of children.
Uncivilized. Primitive. Inferior. Apparently, that is what the rest of us Canadians think of First Nations’ people.
I am not sure that is entirely the case but that at least is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported last month after hearing the testimonies of many of those native people who went through the now discredited residential school system.
One thing for sure, most of us newer Canadians had probably never heard of the controversial residential school system until that boil was lanced a few years ago, and the federal government offered a formal apology and established the reconciliation commission to help chart a new future.
Most Canadians, I’d hazard a guess, had never realized that between the 1840s and 1996, more than 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, aboriginal and Metis children were taken from their families by law and shipped to the residential schools, the majority of them against their will.
We were never really aware of the long history of emotional, physical and, sometimes, sexual abuse that confronted so many of these children, causing a long ripple of destructive behaviour within the aboriginal community, which they, and the rest of us, don’t know how to fix.
But, how would we know how to fix a problem that we didn’t really know existed, at least to the extent that we do now?
Truth and Reconciliation Commission Chair, Justice Murray Sinclair holds a copy of the commission’s interim report during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday February 24, 2012. (Canadian Press)
It is not like we were taught about it in school — which is something the reconciliation commission now wants to change.
Its first interim report last month asked provincial governments to examine their school curricula to make sure this sad chapter of Canadian history is well documented.
But is that enough? If we are going to retell our history from the human perspective, maybe we shouldn’t just stop there, or with what we learn in school.
When I came to Canada as a girl in 1987, I remember feeling as if we were moving to a modern Europe, where everyone was white, spoke European languages — English and French — and the biggest concern in my family was to become Canadian, in the white, Protestant work ethic sense.
As best as I can remember, no one suggested during the immigration process that we might want to learn Ojibwe, or where the Cree lived.
We had only a romanticized sense of North American Indians in those days anyway, probably from TV.
We weren’t expected to know anything about the ongoing struggle for aboriginal rights and land treaties, or about residential schools.
The daily lives of aboriginal Canadians were pretty much a non-issue in our introduction to this country. What’s more, it’s not like many of us gained a better understanding of these things once we entered the school system.
Reflecting back on it, Canadian history, as it was taught to those of my generation anyway, only began once the Europeans arrived and was seen through that prism.
Aboriginal Canadians, in particular, seemed to be frozen in time. We never learned much about the pre-contact period, nor about their modern-day tribulations, or contributions such as building big-city skyscrapers in the 1960s and ’70s, or fighting in the World Wars.
The chairman of Canada’s truth and reconciliation commission says removing more than 100,000 aboriginal children from their homes and placing them in residential schools was an act of genocide.
Justice Murray Sinclair says the United Nations defines genocide to include the removal of children based on race, then placing them with another race to indoctrinate them. He says Canada has been careful to ensure its residential school policy was not “caught up” in the UN’s definition.
"That’s why the minister of Indian affairs can say this was not an act of genocide," Sinclair told students at the University of Manitoba Friday. "But the reality is that to take children away and to place them with another group in society for the purpose of racial indoctrination was — and is — an act of genocide and it occurs all around the world."
About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were forced to attend the government schools over much of the last century. The last school closed outside Regina in 1996.
The $60-million truth and reconciliation commission is part of a landmark compensation deal between the federal government, the Crown and residential school survivors. It is about halfway through its mandate and has visited about 500 communities, where it has heard graphic details of rampant sexual and physical abuse.
The commission has taken 25,000 statements from survivors so far and has heard from about 100 people who worked in the schools, Sinclair said.
Their legacy has left an indelible impact on Canadian society, he added. The commission has heard stories of survivors continuing the cycle of abuse with their own children.
Even those who worked at the schools are not immune. Many of them were victims, too, and suffer lingering guilt and shame.
"We’ve had teachers come forward to us and spoken to the commission … about how they so hated the experience of teaching in a residential school that they quickly left," Sinclair said. "They never put the fact that they worked at a residential school on their resume and they always kept that fact hidden from everybody, even from their own families."
Just as children of school survivors suffer with their parents’ pain, so, too, do children of those who worked in the schools, Sinclair said. Children of staff members also attended the schools and still grapple with what they saw and experienced there. Some watched their parents become deeply depressed later in life as they came to realize what they had been a part of.
"In many ways, they also feel victimized by having been in residential schools. There is a great mixture of experiences here."
The commission is expected to release an interim report shortly about what it’s heard so far. But even halfway through its mandate, Sinclair said, it’s clear work will take much longer to complete.
There are between 200 million and 300 million government documents on residential schools policy and about 20 million photographs. The commission has only managed to copy about 14,000 photos for the record, he said.
Canada will have to work hard to undo the damage done by the schools long after the commission has finished its work, Sinclair suggested. Generations of children — both aboriginal and non-aboriginal — have been brought up on a curriculum that dismissed aboriginal culture and history as worthless and inferior.
Another consequence is that there is a spiritual void in many aboriginal communities, Sinclair added. Churches that once had strong congregations in aboriginal communities have moved out and elders who could pass on traditional spiritual teachings are no longer living.
"It took 130 years to create this problem. It’s probably going to take us 130 years to undo it."
Not a form, it is genocide.