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.
The 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.
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 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