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1899 and After

Residential Schools: The Legacy

The story of and continuing debate around the topic of Residential Schools in Canada is highly contentious. The residential school experience continues to haunt First Nations peoples and, according to some, has led to a general indifference towards the education of many First Nations youth today. Many of the people 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.

cree mission studentsThe school environment was a stark contrast to the home environment where aboriginal children were important contributing members of their family - expected to help with the work of day to day life -- tending the nets, feeding the dogs, cutting and hauling wood, cutting up meat and fish for drying. The school demanded very little in comparison. A child had no responsibility for the well-being of others. At residential school, the aboriginal child became no one's keeper, not even his own as, in many cases, all movements were monitored and children were expected to adhere to strict guidelines of conduct. 

The schools were very difficult and lonely places for many children but they affected the entire family. If children returned home for the summer months in many cases, their parents found that they had significantly changed. They were no longer interested in helping the family with daily tasks and rather than spending time with their families, who were no doubt becoming more foreign each passing year, most 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 sharing 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 without the residential schools, most First Nations youth would never have learned to read and write, or learn about the world and other ways of life.

By the 1950s, the Canadian government 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.

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