by Sydney Bear
Canada operated Indian Residential schools from the 1840s to 1996. That’s right! The last Residential school closed only five years before we were born. Over 150,000 First Nations children attended a Residential school in Canada. It is also estimated that over 4,000 children died, but many suspect this number is considerably higher.
Cultural Genocide of First Nations People
So what is cultural genocide? “Genocide” means an attempt to destroy a people, altogether or in part; it is considered a crime under international law. Many years ago the word used was “assimilation”, which means a process by which a person or a group’s language and/or culture come to resemble those of another group. The objective of the federal government was to “take the Indian out of the child”. The preferred term today is “cultural genocide”.
Indian Residential Schools was one of the government’s solutions, and were administered by religious organizations. Just recently the Chief justice of the supreme court of Canada used this exact term to describe Canada’s treatment of First Nations people.
Just imagine – being at a very young age, laughing, having fun, running in the fields of the reserve. Chasing the butterflies and dogs. Playing with the other children. Seeing your cousins, uncles, aunts, grandma’s and grandpa’s, mom and dad.
Sounds wonderful, right? Now, imagine all this, being snatched away from you in a matter of hours. Forced to say goodbye to your family. Forced to attend a school far away from your home. Screaming, crying, then silence. Silent because you have no more energy to fight, no more energy to get out of bed, no more energy to get back up; you are completely emasculated.
That’s what life was like for Brenda Bignell Arnault. She is a residential school survivor from, 1959 to 1967.
Brenda Bignell Arnault
Brenda spent 8 years of her childhood at Dauphin Mackay Indian Residential school with her brothers and sisters. She clearly remembers the white picket fence and the sterile environment of the school.
“I wouldn’t leave that bed. I didn’t want to go anywhere for about a month. I just about starved to death. They couldn’t pull me off the bed to go and eat or do anything. I hated that place from that day. I hated the food. I hated starving. That’s the worst part, besides the second thing of being there was not having your family, not having anybody to hug you and tell you they loved you. I guess they finally took me off the bed somehow. I don’t know how they did that. I think I was really really really sick because I wouldn’t eat. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to go to school. I didn’t want to do anything. I just died on that bed.”
These were just a few emotional words of what Brenda endured. She says that they taught the children how to lie, to steal and now the government is locking them up in prisons for what they taught and forced into their minds. That’s what Residential schools do, they strip you of your culture, language, rights, and feelings.
First Nations people who attended a residential school have been negatively impacted by their experience. This negative experience has been called the Residential School Syndrome. This syndrome is something a person develops during or after their time spent at residential schools. A person with this syndrome often develops symptoms such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anger management issues, alcohol and drug abuse, nightmares, and a detachment towards others. These are certainly things that children should never have had to experience in a learning environment.
First Nations people who attended an Indian Residential School often refer to themselves as survivors because their spirit was trampled on, their language and culture destroyed, but they managed to survive. Many survivors have testified to being physically and sexually abused while at the schools.
Abuses that many experienced for over a decade. Abuses that they continue to carry in their minds and hearts. Abuses that they can never forget.
Indian Residential School affected many generations of First Nations people. My grandmother, my great aunties and uncles, my great grandmother and great grandfather all attended an Indian residential school.
My point here is that if Canada’s policy on Indian residential schools was still in existence today, I would not be standing in front of you today.
Many who have had been negatively impacted by their experiences have testified to having poor parenting skills, struggling with drugs and alcohol, have poor education, high suicide rates, and have struggled to escape poverty.
Truth and Reconciliation
Many Canadians today are unaware of Indian Residential Schools. This needs to change. In the words of Edmund Burke, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”
The first solution would be to educate the younger generation about the history of Indian Residential Schools and its lasting impact on First Nation People. Teaching them at young age will result in awareness and appreciation of Canada’s First Peoples.
The second solution is that the government needs to do something more than just saying they are sorry and paying money to the survivors, they need to implement the 94 Recommendations proposed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which includes the signing of the International Declaration for Aboriginal Rights. The Commission was established by the Canadian government to explore the failures of Indian Residential Schools.
I am coming close to the end of my persuasive speech, and I would like to acknowledge residential school survivors for their teachings and their courage in telling these stories.
As mentioned earlier, my Coco attended Indian Residential School; I was astonished to learn that she did.
Can you imagine if your parents or grandparents went to a residential school? What would life be like for you? Would anything change? Or would everything stay exactly the same?