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Residential Schools

Cree Mission Students

The residential school experience continues to haunt First Nations peoples today. Many believe that their experience even led to a general indifference towards the education of Aboriginal youth today. Many Aboriginals who experienced a residential school "education" are now parents and grandparents and many possess deep biases against education for their children because of what they experienced. It is a difficult subject for many to understand because the residential school experience was not the same for everyone involved. Clearly, some schools were better maintained than others while some staff members more benevolent than others. Although a difficult subject to broach, the story of the residential schools has become an important part of not only First Nations history but of Canadian history.

Separated from their family, friends, and in many cases the only home they had known, First Nations children were taken together, according to age level, to the residential school in the fall of each year. Once at the school, they were not permitted to speak their native tongue and the supervisors spoke only English to them, punishing them if they reverted to their own language. In many cases, the children knew nothing of the English language upon their arrival and this meant that many spent several years in silence until they were even able to express their needs.

The school environment was a stark contrast to the home environment where Aboriginal children were important contributing members of their family and community. At home the children were encouraged and expected to help with the daily work – tending the nets, feeding the animals, cutting and hauling wood, or cutting up meat and fish for drying. In contrast, the schools demanded very little of these types of tasks. The children were not taught to take care of others in their community. In fact, often times the children were discouraged from developing their own ideals. Their movements were monitored and they were expected to adhere to strict guidelines of conduct.

The schools were very difficult and lonely places for many children, but their effects reached all the way into individual communities. Often times, children returned home for summer vacation completely changed. They were no longer interested in helping with daily tasks and rather than spending time with their families, who were no doubt becoming more foreign each passing year, they preferred to spend time with children their own age who also attended residential school.

Perhaps the most detrimental effect of the schools was the children's loss of all ability to speak their own language – effectively breaking the means of communication and traditional knowledge shared between parents and their children. Furthermore, children were taught at school that their culture was somehow inferior and not worth preserving. As a result, the residential school disrupted the passing of traditional beliefs, skills, and knowledge from one generation to the next, and deliberately separated the children from their heritage by encouraging them to resent it and embrace a more European outlook and belief system.

While the cultural shock was immense, residential schools did provide an opportunity for some of the Aboriginal youth to learn how to read and write in English, which some believe has aided the two cultures in gaining a better understanding of each other today.

By the 1950s, the Canadian government finally began to realize the residential school policy was a failure. The last residential school in Canada was closed some 30 years later.

Today, Aboriginal people want recognition of what was done to their communities as a result of the residential schools. Aboriginal people have demanded, and received, official apologies from the Anglican, United and Roman Catholic churches which operated residential schools. As more and more former students of residential schools come forth with stories about the sexual and physical abuse they experienced, several religious authorities who administered the schools are being charged criminally. The far-reaching effects of the schools are impossible to measure. For the hundreds of Aboriginal Peoples who went through the residential school process, the most important work lies in healing. The process is ongoing, but communities are working both with Elders and institutions to bring justice and peace to those who were hurt.


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