I don’t know the full details of what happened to my family in the residential schools. I know that one of the members who attended doesn’t talk about it. I’m aware that they testified before the court during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and told their story. I know that they still wake with night terrors, decades later, and that they suffer from PTSD and depression. I know that what happened to them in the system was awful.
In high school, I was determined to push that part of history into the spotlight, into a curriculum that didn’t require it and didn’t care for it. I begged my Canadian history teacher for even a ten minute synopsis of the residential school system. I presented on it for a book project. Before I got up, a boy asked why I felt it was such a heavy topic, since he understood it was “free education”. It was not the first time I’d heard the schools described that way.
Something else I hear quite often when residential schools are brought up is the following question:“Why don’t Indigenous people get over it and move on?” Most often, I am too angry to answer calmly, but I’m going to try now.
I can understand where that ignorance comes from. As mentioned previously, the history of Indigenous people in Canada isn’t high on the priority list of any Canadian school curriculum. Also, there are still harmful stereotypes perpetuated in the media about Indigenous people. Many Canadians think that they are freeloaders, or that they are lazy, alcoholics, and sore losers. They think Indigenous people are holding a grudge, but that isn’t the case.
The TL;DR version? Indigenous people can’t “get over” residential schools, because their practices are still ongoing. The schools themselves may be closed, but the issues that arose from them are very much alive today. I’ve broken these problems down into three interconnected key points: the treatment, the education, and the children.
Let’s start with the treatment. Residential school survivors, when recounting their experiences, describe sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, the erasure of their culture, and in some cases, even death. According to CBC News, the chances of dying in residential schools were a shocking 1 in 25. An article for The Star describes how Indigenous children in schools across Canada were deliberately starved as an experiment.
Today, the mistreatment of Indigenous women, men, and children is still frighteningly common. It still happens, residential schools or no residential schools. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women issue—something I will discuss more in depth another time—is a testament itself to how Indigenous people are neglected.
The reservations, where nearly half of registered status Indigenous people live, are—for the most part—in pretty terrible shape. As of 2017, there were more than 140 First Nations without clean drinking water. According to Statistics Canada, 1 in 5 Indigenous people lived in a home that was in need of major repairs. That statistic is from 2016. Places like Attawapiskat in northern Ontario are losing high numbers of youth to suicide because that’s how bad it is up there.
So some ask, if life is so bad on reservations, why wouldn’t Indigenous people leave? A few reasons, in no particular order:
This last point brings me to my next key factor, education. Education on reservations is awful. Schools are quite literally falling apart and lack basic supplies. In terms of how much the government is spending on their education, Indigenous students receive 70 cents for every dollar spent on non-Indigenous students. This leads to a lack of supplies and fewer resources in Indigenous schools. Some Indigenous children have to leave the reservation to pursue an education.
Residential schools were also designed to quite literally kill Indigenous culture, a practice that is still common within the Canadian education system. For example, a revision to the Ontario curriculum that would have included more Indigenous content—something recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—was cancelled in July of this year. Education on Indigenous history, culture, issues, etc. is not a priority to those currently in power, and this course of action only strives to ignore, neglect, and forget Indigenous people.
The third factor. The children. Between the years 1831 and 1996, it is estimated that 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and placed in residential schools. Survivors that lost their culture and experienced abuse within the schools would develop depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and alienation from their Indigenous culture. This would often lead them to try and cope in ways that involved alcohol and drugs. Their mental illnesses and addictions were passed down to their children. This pattern of trauma, coupled with the deteriorating conditions of housing and basic resources on reservations, has continued the cycle of lost children in Canada. This time, however, it’s disguised in the foster care system.
As of 2016, over 50% of the children placed in Canada’s foster care system are Indigenous children. Manitoba’s numbers are staggering. They have an approximate 11,000 children in their foster care system, 10,000 are Indigenous. Just as children in the residential schools were abused, ran away, died, etc., the same happens in the foster care system today. Look at cases such as Tina Fontaine, Kanina Sue Turtle, Cameron Ouskan, and Phoenix Sinclair. The list is a long one. For young Indigenous girls like Tina Fontaine, the care system is a road that leads to the issues of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
It would be easier to “get over” the trauma left behind by residential schools if the fundamental issues that occured while the schools were still running had died with them, but they haven’t. They just don’t all happen in the same place anymore and are now spread out across the country. You could even say, given some of the numbers, that they have gotten worse. This is not something Indigenous people can “get over,”—it’s something that still needs fixing.
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