For those wanting to better understand First Nations people in Canada, it is extremely important to recognize the history of colonization and the residential school system. This history has had a profound impact on First Nations communities.
In the mid-1700s European explorers arrived and began to establish land claims. In 1763 King George III recognized Aboriginal rights and title to land through the Royal Proclamation. However, the new settlers were given permission to colonize and purchase First Nations lands. The settlers and other colonizers brought disease that spread to even remote First Nation’s communities and there was massive loss of life. Around 1820 Industrial and residential school systems began and were run by Christian churches. Reserves of land were set aside for ‘Indians’ to live on. Both the residential school systems and reserve systems were created with the intention to civilize and Christianize Indians. The 1867 Indian Act was created as a policy that focused on the assimilation of Aboriginals into society. The Enfranchisement Act of 1867 legally enables this assimilation.
History of Residential Schools
Church run residential schools begun in the early 1820s and in the 1880s the federal government began to establish residential schools across Canada. In 1920, under the Indian Act, it became mandatory for every Indian child to attend a residential school and illegal for them to attend any other educational institution. Children were taken from their families and if family members tried to intervene they were subject to imprisonment. These children were as young as 4 or 5 years and their stay in residential school could last up to they were about 16 years of age. Some of the children depending on where they were from returned home for the summer or holidays. Other children didn’t get to leave the school and stayed there full time.
Prior to residential school, some children had very limited experience with non-indigenous people. They were used to a more traditional lifestyle and some only spoke their native language. After being taken from family and a life that was familiar to them, they were transported far from their home and exposed to a way of life completely foreign to them.
Residential School Abuse
I’ve heard from some residential school survivors who described sexual abuse that began as they were being transported to the school. These children were already frightened and grieving after being separated from their families and community. Many have told me that upon arriving at residential school they experienced further trauma. I’ve heard of children thrown into dark closets, physically beaten and brutally sexually assaulted on the first day of their arrival at the residential school. For those who weren’t immediately abused in these ways, almost all experienced delousing treatment, their hair being cut and being placed into institutional clothing and were given a number rather than a name. If they arrived with siblings who were older or siblings of the opposite gender, they were separated and placed in different parts of the school.
The children slept in large dorm rooms. Terrified children would lie awake listening to other children crying through the night. For many the sexual abuse would come in the night when someone would either climb into their bed or take them into a staff person’s bedroom. Some of the sexual abuse was initiated as if from a caring place as the child was comforted and given treats. Some of the abuse that occurred was brutal with forced oral sex and sodomy.
The abuse that existed in many residential schools across our country was horrific. In the years I’ve worked as a therapist, I’ve heard no description of abuse more terrifying that those I’ve heard from residential school survivors. I’ve heard of a young child who witnessed another child kicked in the face because she was crying for her parents. That child flew down a flight of stairs, hit her head and died in front of the other child. I’ve seen survivors with their teeth knocked out or who’ve had damaged eardrums from being struck. Although the physical scars and damage are significant, many focus on the overall experience of living in an environment with no compassion or caring.
The frightened grieving children were beaten for crying, beaten for speaking their language and given very negative messages about their ethnicity. The children were underfed and fed terrible foods. For some the physical and sexual abuse that they endured, went on for years. Some children were abused by priests, brothers, nuns, principals or other school staff. Some children were abused by older children who passed on the learned abuse they had lived through.
Once released from residential school, many of the children who were now young adults felt alienated from their families and communities. Some drifted to the streets and sought to numb themselves with alcohol and drugs. Some died at a young age through violence and suicide as they could not live with the pain of what they had endured as a child. The schools had done little to educate many of the children and some adults I’ve worked with are illiterate and this had dramatically affected their ability to secure employment, a driver’s licence and handle many of the day to day tasks we take for granted. I’ve worked with adults who are haunted with the sounds, smells and horrifying images forever imprinted on their soul. They see children who hang from rafters in the school or who jumped from the top of the school to escape their daily torment. There are adults who live with the shame of what they endured or who live in fear of being close to others and have not learned how to be in relationship with others. The disease of residential school got spread to communities where incest, alcohol abuse and domestic violence became rampant. Children who were abused, not nurtured and made to feel ashamed of themselves; did not learn the skills they needed to go on to be loving parents or spouses.
Overcoming the Legacy of Residential Schools
I have sat in awe in hearing not only of the horrific abuse that some children have endured, but also at the courage and compassion that many were able to demonstrate while living in the darkest of environments. In spite of everything that was being done to them, many children tried to help or protect other children in residential school. As adults some First Nations people have moved on to heal themselves and to be inspirational forces in their families and communities. The courage, strength and wisdom I have witnessed is a testimony to the capacity of humans to overcome even the most devastating of experiences and to emerge as examples to all of us of our capacity for greatness.
The End of Residential Schools
As the Canadian government continued to receive reports of mistreatment of children in residential schools, they began to disconnect their partnerships with churches. However in the 1960s a large number of First Nation’s children came into care through the child social welfare system. Children were taken from their families for reasons that they wouldn’t have been in non-indigenous families. This period of time often referred to as “the sixties scoop” illustrated the continued lack of recognition of the differences in First Nation’s communities and lack of respect for their culture. Concerns regarding First Nation’s children in government care continue to this day.
The last B.C. residential school closed in 1984. The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996. In 1998 the Canadian government’s statement of reconciliation and Aboriginal action plan includes $350 million in healing funds. In 2002 the Government announces an alternate dispute resolution framework to provide compensation for residential school abuse. In 2008 the government launches the Indian Schools Truth & Reconciliation Commission. The documentation of neglect, mistreatment and abuse continues. The aftermath of the residential school will be felt for generations to come.
John Hayashi is a Registered Clinical Counsellor. He is an approved Indian Residential School Counsellor. He has also helped provided residential treatment groups for residential school survivors and been a health care provider at Truth & Reconciliation national events.