If you are a non-aboriginal Canadian, you need to hear some things about residential schools. Perhaps you have just heard of residential schools or have even known of them for a long time, but don’t understand why aboriginal people don’t just get over it already. Maybe you even think they deserved it, or that someone was trying to help them. If you are one of these people, you really need to read this blog post.
1. Residential Schools Were an Act of Genocide.
In 1948, prompted by the fact of the Nazi Holocaust, the United Nations gathered and defined various forms of genocide. Canada agreed to accept these definitions within two years, and yet continued to run residential schools for over 40 years after the fact. Cultural genocide is the removal of children from one cultural or ethnic group to be placed in another for the purposes of assimilating them. And that’s exactly what residential schools were — “to kill the Indian in the child” — or, in other words, taking steps to actively bring about the extinction of aboriginal cultures. In fact, the idea that this constitutes a form of genocide was proposed to the international community as early as 1933.
Starting in the 1850s and for well over 100 years in Canada, racially segregated boarding schools — which were sanctioned by the federal government and run by various churches in remote locations throughout the country — took aboriginal children away from their families and far away from their home communities for up to ten years at a time. These boarding schools were a systematically orchestrated attempt to indoctrinate aboriginal children into thinking of themselves as less than fully human because of their race, but they were just one aspect of a greater attempt to completely wipe out all aboriginal cultures by treating them as fundamentally inferior and therefore disposable. Hundreds of thousands of aboriginal children were removed by force and placed in these institutions, and up to a third of them died there. In addition to horrendously abusive racial and cultural brain-washing, many children in residential schools also faced physical battery, sexual abuse, and severe forms of neglect or isolation. Some residential school children were deliberately exposed to life-threatening communicable diseases and others were sexually sterilized. Several residential schools have also recently been publicly implicated in running unethical experiments.
The last residential school in Canada finally closed its doors in 1996. Not 1896. I was entering grade 8 that year, and I’m currently approaching my 30th birthday. It hasn’t even been 20 years.
2. Get Over Yourself.
You are being presented with powerful new information with the very real potential to make immediate but lasting changes to the rest of your life, including the way you look at aboriginal people and your own government. At times, this new information is utterly horrendous. It is often emotionally overwhelming, scary, unbelievable, and deeply unsettling. But unlike the roughly 80,000 residential school survivors currently still around today, you haven’t had to live through it yourself. You’re merely being told this new information. You are not being held to blame for what happened, being asked to apologize for it, or being told that you need to fix it. It is offensively inappropriate to react to being told about this as if you have been personally slighted by it, and it is outrageously wrong to tell anyone to just “get over it”. Get over the fact that you’re being told about it—then maybe we can work on what survivors and their children can do.
I was in high school when I found out about residential schools, and I was immediately shocked, horrified, and angry that this happened, and was even happening in my own lifetime. Had I grown up in a loving home, I probably would have gone straight home and hugged my parents, grateful for the fact that I hadn’t been taken away from them and indoctrinated to be ashamed of who we are and where we come from. But I grew up in an extremely abusive home, and that allowed me very little room to experience anything other than anger over what I had learned. I didn’t know what to do with the anger for a long time, either. And then I had another experience that put it into perspective: I was in my third year in college before I learned for the first time that light has mass. It radically changed everything I thought I knew about the physical universe I interact with every day. And within a couple of years, once I finally took the time to really think about what I had learned about residential schools while I was in high school, it had a similar effect of radically changing the way I view and interact with the very world I live in. Suddenly, I could see direct concrete evidence of racism everywhere, because even the very infrastructure of our society — the roads, bridges, and concrete buildings — are evidence of the forced displacement of aboriginal peoples from their homes, where from their children were stolen and told to be ashamed of who they are and where they come from.
When I found out that the history of residential schools has been deliberately left out of public education curriculum across Canada, I might have overreacted a bit (but is it even possible to “overreact” to the fact that your government committed genocide and teaches you to pretend it never happened?)
3. It Could Have Just as Easily Been You or Your Children Elsewhere.
First of all, Canada is not the only country in recent history to have had these institutions. Similar racially segregated boarding schools for the racial and cultural indoctrination of aboriginal peoples were set up across the United States, in Australia, and in New Zealand, and were all running until fairly recently in history. These schools are one of the products of thousands of years of violence, occupation, and warfare in Europe—much of which ended several centuries ago, with the formation of independent nations, and eventually the formation of the League of Nations (and subsequently the United Nations) to bring representatives together for peaceful negotiations and international conflict resolution (prominent notable failures of “international conflict resolution”, both before and after the formation of international committees, are WWI, WWII, and the Nazi Holocaust). For thousands of years, various European peoples were actively trying to wipe each others’ cultures and languages out in order to establish powerful regimes and empires, many of which are openly acknowledged in our history textbooks today. Our ancestors essentially took that knowledge, refined it, and perpetrated the world’s largest genocide in all of history, starting about 500 years ago with the first contact between colonists and aboriginal people on North American soil. Unlike the current state of most of Europe, much of the structural violence that came to define the relationship between European colonists and aboriginal peoples still persists to this day, and the legacy of residential schools is just one example. If by the same chances that resulted in your birth as a person of non-aboriginal heritage, you had been born into an aboriginal family, it could have just as easily been you or your children who went through residential schools.
Secondly, gender-segregated work houses where girls and women who had been accused of promiscuity were indefinitely detained and condemned to slave labour, for merely showing interest in boys, having premarital sex, or sometimes even for being raped; were also running in several European countries, such as Ireland and Scotland, throughout the same time period as residential schools in Canada and similar racially segregated institutions throughout the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. These Catholic-run work houses in Europe were also notoriously abusive, but unlike residential schools, it was the families of these girls and women who were voluntarily incarcerating them, because they believed it was congruent with the culture they were raised in that these girls and women were forced to work off their transgressions. Gays and lesbians have also faced horrendous institutional abuses throughout recent North American history, as same-sex love was still criminalized in Canada until 1969; and was still classified and treated as a mental illness analogous to pedophilia, all across the continent until 1973. Many religious institutions called “straight camps” are still running throughout Canada and the United States, in which gay and lesbian children and adults are brain-washed into being ashamed of who they are and who they love in order to “correct” them into becoming straight, and despite how unethical this is, it’s still completely legal.
And finally, but perhaps most importantly, a vast majority of aboriginal peoples today are of mixed ancestry, having descended from ancestors of both aboriginal and European, Asian and/or African heritage. There’s actually a chance that some of the aboriginal people you meet could be your distant family members, or share part of your ethnic heritage, and you might not even know it yet.