Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Examining, or Re-Writing History?

Where Are The Children? The Exhibition
Though some students have spoken of the positive experiences of residential schools and of receiving an adequate education, the quality of education was low in comparison to non-Aboriginal schools. In 1930, for instance, only 3 of 100 Aboriginal students managed to advance past grade six, and few found themselves prepared for life after school – on the reservation or off.
As late as 1950, according to an Indian Affairs study, over 40 per cent of the teaching staff had no professional training. This is not to say that past experiences were all negative, or that the staff were all bad. Such is not the case. Many good and dedicated people worked in the System. Indeed, their willingness to work long hours in an atmosphere of stress and for meager wages was exploited by an administration determined to minimize costs. The staff not only taught, they also supervised the children’s work, play, and personal care. Their hours were long, the pay below that of other educational institutions, and the working conditions exasperating.
Legacy of Hope Foundation extract

"In order to educate the children properly we must separate them from their families. Some may say that this is hard but if we want to civilize them we must do that."
Public Works Minister Hector Langevin, 1883

"When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with his parents who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write."
Sir John A. Macdonald, Prime Minister of Canada, 1883

"I don't think I had a childhood."
"We were always fearful. I think we lived with fear all the time. Fear of being beaten or of being abused in different ways."
Doris Young, Manitoba
My mother is 75 and attended the Cecilia Jeffery School outside Kenora, Ontario. In the 60-some years that have passed since her experience, she has become a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She lives in a small house on a reserve outside Kenora.
When you enter my mother's house, there's one thing more than anything that strikes you. It's incredibly neat.
She cleans fastidiously. Every surface in her home gleams and everything is organized and arranged to make the most out of the living area.
There is a cross on the wall, a Bible by her bed and a picture of Jesus in the living room. It's a home not unlike the home of any grandmother anywhere in Canada.
She credits the residential school experience with teaching her domestic skills. While she was at the school, she learned how to cook, sew, clean, launder and take care of a home. Her house on the reserve is known as the neatest and cleanest and even though she's an elder, she takes care to maintain it. Her lawn is the only cultured lawn on the whole reserve, shorn, immaculate, stunning.
My mother has never spoken to me of abuse or any catastrophic experience at the school. She only speaks of learning valuable things that she went on to use in her everyday life, things that made her life more efficient, effective and empowered
Richard Wagamese, writer, Calgary Herald
Dene children at work in this undated shot from the Catholic-run residential school at Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories. The academic quality in most of the schools was very low.
Dene children at work in this undated shot from the Catholic-run residential school at Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories.  Canada. Dept. of Mines and Technical Surveys / Library and Archives Canada

Canada has been struggling for the last few decades with the knowledge that well-intentioned people a hundred years ago felt it was important to give aboriginal children the opportunity to have an education that would benefit their future years. The government of the day, when it initiated the first of the residential school programs exhibited a breathtakingly arrogant, Euro-racist attitude toward Canada's First Nations peoples in wishing to expose young aboriginals to European culture to pattern them as European-extracted future citizens, while hoping to expunge the 'Indian' in them.

An undated class photo at St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Mission, B.C.
Courtesy of Mission Community Archives    An undated class photo at St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Mission, B.C.

To that end, young children were taken from their families to be enrolled in a school system that was to teach them European values and customs with the purpose of draining their aboriginal culture from their immediate consciousness. The children mostly attended their residential school during the week, and returned home to their families on week-ends, although for some, returns home were far less frequent. When one thinks of the upper-class British social custom of sending young children off to boarding school it was a privilege of the wealthy, but a miserable experience for British children.

When Prime Minister Macdonald had a cabinet decision passed to create the initial three residential schools they were to be operated in conjunction with the Catholic and Anglican churches out West; the rationale was for complete assimilation of the indigenous youth into the European-based culture that prevailed in Canada. From the 1880s forward until the last of the 130 residential schools that were operated over the years closed in 1996, 150,000 indigenous children were placed in the schools. For some the experience was a worthwhile one, for many others it was a dramatic shift in their lives that left them devastated.

It is estimated that some 80,000 former students of the residential schools are still living. Estimates also give a figure of 7,000 for children who died at the schools, from accidents, from illness and diseases such as tuberculosis. Some researchers contend that deaths like those from tuberculosis were not more numerous among residential school children than they were among the general population of the time. There are accusations of underfunding of the system, of food in short supply, of children inadequately nourished. With no fire escapes and locked windows it was said that if fire consumed some poorly constructed buildings, children perished in them.

Much of the problems seen in aboriginal communities, on reserves, have been attributed to the culture shock and trauma experienced by former residential school students, unable to find their place in life, incapable of functioning normally, finding themselves confused and unsettled by their experience, turning to alcohol, struggling with suicidal tendencies, ignoring and failing in their duties as parents toward their own children whom they left to their own devices. And the violence in aboriginal communities where women are targets and children's lives totally neglected, also attributed to the residential school experience.

In the attempt to rid the children of the appeal of their aboriginal culture in favour of the European-based culture, children were forbidden to speak their aboriginal languages, their long hair was cut and tidied, many had their names changed, siblings were separated and many claim to have suffered physical and sexual abuse. Claims that their experience led to their later living in poverty and being the cause of social problems that plague reserves, from alcoholism to the commission of crimes all attributed to the residential school system.

Apologies, official in nature, from the government to the aboriginal community, by both Prime Ministers Jean Chretien and Stephen Harper have acted as admissions of wrong-doing by previous administrations. Financial settlements were sent to former students of residential schools, in a broad effort to bring about a sense of closure through moral and financial restitution. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was launched that criss-crossed the country to hear first-hand accounts by former students, and the anguish they suffered in separation from their families; in other instances, how well the residential school system had prepared them for their future lives as adults.

While we can decry past decision-making impacting on the lives of so many we cannot change what has occurred. Clearly, for some among the aboriginal communities their experience was a positive one, one that enhanced, not degraded their lives. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission made no effort to probe whether testimony they heard reflected the truth, or was in some instances a reflection of a robust imagination by people eager to be seen as entitled to restitution. Alcoholism among First Nations people was not a voyage of discovery dating from the residential schools; it existed long before.

It is not quite possible to separate out the dysfunction that exists among aboriginal families on reserves, to determine how responsible, as it claimed it is, the residential school system was in the outcome that is now largely attributed to the experience of young aboriginals in that system, or whether the entire episode, unfortunate as it was for so many, simply serves as a handy excuse for a people insisting it has the right to live with its heritage and traditions, while living largely backward lives, where achieving an education and striving for a profession to be independent and have pride in themselves remains on the back-burner of the future.

An historical shot of the Anglican-run residential school in Alert Bay, B.C.  Natives have filed lawsuits alleging abuse while detained in the school.  An undated photo from the book, Shingwauk's Vision by J.R. Miller.
An historical shot of the Anglican-run residential school in Alert Bay, B.C. Natives have filed lawsuits alleging abuse while detained in the school. An undated photo from the book, Shingwauk’s Vision by J.R. Miller. Vancouver Sun

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