“It is time for healing to start and the only way that will happen is if we acknowledge the past, face it, understand it, deal with it, and make sure nothing like that ever happens again.” — Bev Sellars 1
The legacy of the residential school system is one that has had profound effects on the Aboriginal peoples of the Treaty 6 area and beyond. The first residential schools in Canada began operation in the 1860s. They were but one of many projects resulting from the government’s assimilationist policies of the time, and were framed as an attempt to help Aboriginal Peoples better adapt to rapidly-growing Euro-Canadian society.
The schools were often places where Aboriginal cultural values were discouraged and even suppressed in favour of a European value system. Following contact, the traditional hunting and gathering lifestyles of the Aboriginal peoples were phased out, both because of rapidly dwindling resources and because Aboriginal communities were strongly urged to adopt the traditionally European agricultural system. The residential schools provided yet another means of promoting the European value systems to Aboriginal children – agricultural training was part of their everyday schooling, as were religion and English classes.
Over the years, close to twenty schools opened and closed their doors in the area of Treaty 6; the majority operated by Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches and one by the Methodist Church. The Aboriginal schoolchildren resisted their new education, as well as their forced assimilation into the Euro-Canadian system. As a result, around the 1950s, it became apparent that the residential school system was a failure. Over the next few decades, the schools began to close their doors for good or were repurposed for other uses. Unfortunately, for many survivors of the system it was too late – the devastating effects of the residential school system could be seen and felt in Aboriginal communities countrywide.
Children were removed from their families and placed into large, daunting, brick school buildings far from home. And where once they had been regarded as important contributing members of their communities; helping their families with daily chores and learning traditional skills, they were now expected to adhere to strict codes of conduct or face punishment. Siblings were often separated from one another, and children were denied the right to speak their own language. Those unable to speak English were often left with no choice but to remain silent until they learned to do so. Students who disobeyed, even unknowingly, were humiliated in front of the other students; stories of malnutrition, physical, and sexual abuse are common.
The cultural loss for the Aboriginal peoples is part of a deplorable legacy of the residential school system. Many children returned home no longer able to speak their language or unfamiliar with the cultures they came from. The school system had deliberately and systematically separated children from their own cultures, presenting their culture as inferior and unworthy of preservation. The dissemination of traditional beliefs, skills and knowledge from one generation to another was broken. The effects of this disruption radiated across communities and are one of the causes of the social problems faced by Aboriginal peoples today.
Today, much work is being done for the individual and cultural healing of the survivors of residential schools. Official apologies have been issued from the government and the Anglican, United, and Roman Catholic Churches, though numerous litigations are still pending. Special organizations and foundations have been created to offer support to the survivors. The healing process is difficult and ongoing, but it is vital to the cultural survival of the Aboriginal peoples.
Feature Video: "Pelican Falls"
The Heritage Community Foundation, with the kind permission of Mr. Cal Kenny, is proud to present the following video segment, created by Mr. Kenny as part of the First Nations SchoolNet/RMO Initiative. The filming took place during the 2004 Pelican Falls Residential School Gathering, hosted by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council. Here, residential school survivors offer their thoughts regarding the residential school system and their experiences within it.
Jaine, Linda, ed. Residential Schools: The Stolen Years. Saskatoon: University Extension Press, 1993.
Milloy, John S. A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.
CBC Archives, http://archives.cbc.ca/index.asp?IDLan=1 “A Lost Heritage: Canada’s Residential Schools.” http://archives.cbc.ca/IDD-1-70-692/disasters_tragedies/residential_schools/ (accessed July 2006).
Assembly of First Nations, www.afn.ca “Indian Residential Schools Unit” http://www.afn.ca/residentialschools/index.html (accessed July 2006).
National Residential School Survivors’ Society, www.nrsss.ca “Survivor Photos” http://www.nrsss.ca/nrsssphotos/ (accessed July 2006).