Marta Iwanek / Toronto Star / Getty Images

The painful legacy of Canada’s residential school system

Final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on indigenous people and the schools is released

OTTAWA — Doris Young was 3 years old when she was forced to leave her family and attend a church-run school in central Canada. If she spoke her native Cree language, she was beaten, she said. If she disobeyed any authorities at school, she was beaten. She was separated from her siblings, who also were forced into the schools. She also suffered sexual abuse.

“It was pretty bad. I was very angry all the time, and I was always lonely, because you didn’t really develop relationships in those schools,” said Young. “Even when we went home to our parents in the summer, there wasn’t really time to bond because we were there for so little time. I spent a lot of time crying ... I was just so lonely.”

Indigenous children in Canada suffered similar experiences from the late 1800s to 1996, when the schools operated. Funded by the Canadian government, they were known as Indian residential schools. The idea was to assimilate indigenous children into a Christian society. But the students — about 150,000 children attended residential schools — often endured physical, emotional, spiritual and sexual abuse.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established in 2009 as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, acknowledged the residential school experience and its consequences. The commission strives to promote awareness and education to the general public.

Doris Young, right, a residential school survivor, and her daughter Lorena Sekwan-Fontaine went to Ottawa for the presentation of the final Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.
Nina Devries for Al Jazeera America

A final report from the TRC on the legacy that residential schools had on Canada’s indigenous people was released Tuesday in Ottawa, the capital. Hundreds of people attended, including residential school survivors like Young. It was an emotional moment for her and other former students. Some could be seen crying quietly, wiping away their tears. Those feelings of loneliness and abandonment can easily resurface, said Young.

The report is massive: seven volumes, including six years of residential school survivors’ testimony from across the country and research from the TRC. It states that at least 3,000 children died in the residential school system, and it’s estimated the number could be larger. They died from diseases that could have been prevented, such as tuberculosis, according to the report. A TB vaccine was created in 1921.

Many of the deaths were not properly documented. The report states that 32 percent of the deaths did not record the name of the victim. And the schools did not record a cause for just under half the deaths. The TRC has called on the government to provide more information and assistance to identify the missing students and bodies in unmarked graves.

In June in a previous summary of the report, the TRC called the government school system a cultural genocide. It offered 94 calls to action, including officially implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The commission says it’s a crucial step in moving forward and building a stronger relationship between Canada’s government and indigenous people.

The new Liberal government has promised to implement all calls to action. Some steps have already been taken, such as a public inquiry into 1,200 missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended the presentation of the final report. He said his government wants to renew the relationship with Canada’s indigenous people.

But the effects of the residential school system run deep, having trickled down through the generations, affecting the sons and daughters of the survivors in various ways.

Angela Mashford-Pringle has taught aboriginal studies at the University of Toronto. She said many survivors turned to drugs and alcohol to deal with their pain. The abuse they faced in residential schools was then passed on to their children because that was how they were raised.

“We need other people to be educated so they understand our history in order to help us change the future,” she said. “We can’t without acknowledging the past. We cannot just get over it.”

Doris Young said recovering from her experience at a residential school was one of the hardest things for her. She felt she lost parenting skills because of her stay there. She said that reconnecting with her cultural traditions as an adult helped her heal from the past but that it was a long journey. She has since obtained bachelor of arts and master’s degrees and currently works with universities to teach about aboriginal culture. 

Her daughter Lorena Sekwan Fontaine traveled with her to Ottawa. Their relationship is strong in some ways. But Fontaine said the residential school system had an impact on her because of what her mother went through. She grew up with other relatives in her house and suffered sexual abuse.

“There was a lot of alcoholism. People were drinking to cope. There was sexual abuse and physical violence within our family,” said Fontaine. “We didn’t grow up learning about residential schools and our culture, so we grew up in this abusive environment, and that was normal life. But I don’t talk to my mom about it. I don’t think she knew how to be close to people. My parents never said they loved me.”

She added that she never felt any resentment toward her mother, just a deep sadness for what she went through. Fontaine, too, has managed to reconnect with her Cree heritage, and she now works as an advocate for preserving aboriginal languages in Canada.

While she said that people like her may not have experienced the traumatic violence of their relatives, there was nonetheless a loss of identity having not grown up knowing indigenous culture.

That was another concern for the TRC. Because so many survivors lack parenting skills and sometimes pass that down through generations, the TRC says, aboriginal children are still being placed in child welfare agencies that are underfunded and lack cultural suitability. One of the calls to action on child welfare is to provide adequate resources to enable aboriginal communities and child welfare organizations to keep indigenous families together where it is safe to do so and to keep children in culturally appropriate environments.

The TRC says the report exists to help all Canadians better understand what happened as well as to help indigenous people be proud of their culture.

Frances Whiskeychan from James Bay, in northern Quebec, went to Ottawa with her husband — also a residential school survivor — to hear the presentation of the final report. She was sent to a residential school at the age of 6. She suffered abuse there that is still very hard for her to talk about. She said she turned to drugs and alcohol for a long time.

Spouses and residential school survivors Frances Whiskeychan and Patrick Joseph Etherington attended the release of the final report of Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Nina Devries for Al Jazeera America

“You didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to go through it and face it, so you end up drowning it out,” she said.

Whiskeychan, too, said she lost parenting skills. She didn’t know how to love her daughter at first and ended up neglecting her. She slowly realized she had to let go of her demons because it was destroying their relationship. She sought professional treatment and has been sober for 20 years. She now organizes community walks to raise awareness about residential schools and has a better relationship with her daughter.

Whiskeychan said hearing the final report was a lot to take in. She worried that people may still not fully understand because they haven’t gone through it. But she said the TRC report is at least a step in the right direction.

She said a stronger recognition of indigenous culture should be implemented across Canada. “It’s very important, for my grandkids,” she said. “I want them to have everything that we lost. That’s important to me.”

Willie Littlechild, another residential school survivor, is a TRC commissioner.

“Many times I was hearing my own story unravel in front of me,” he said. “When they talked about the physical, spiritual, sexual abuse, they were telling my story, and it was difficult at times.”

He noted that indigenous people around the world were subjected to similar programs, such as in Australia, where the government removed aboriginal children — known as the stolen generation — from their parents.

“The more children know about the residential legacy, the history, the more a change will come about,” said Littlechild. “Through children, by children and by having indigenous children learn about who they are, they grow up with sense of identity.”

Education, he added, is one the key components of the final report. Among its calls to action is mandating that K–12 schools include in their curricula instruction on residential schools, treaties and aboriginal peoples’ contributions to Canada. The report also calls on the government to provide the necessary funding to postsecondary institutions to educate teachers on how to incorporate indigenous knowledge and teaching methods in their classrooms.

Although emotions remain raw in the indigenous community, some survivors said they are hopeful that, after a long wait, positive change may finally become a reality. 

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