Canada’s Shameful Secret: Indigenous Residential Schools

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Written by Jamie Sue Sykes

August 28, 2020

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Why Didn’t I Know?

In life and in the classroom, history holds one of the keys to our success as a country and a community. What we live through today will soon be taught in our classrooms for future generations to learn and use as a tool to make decisions from the information they were provided. We will ask our children to imagine many different scenarios that might seem surreal to them. They will ask, “how could that have happened?”

Imagine…….a Canada that has been hit by the biggest global pandemic in modern times. Parents are afraid because the Government has given them two options for their children. Stay at home to learn or mask up and hit the classroom in less than a month. Parents are being asked to make choices based on unclear information and no timeline as to when the pandemic will pass. The Government has created new policies and guidelines for who your children are allowed to see and touch, and when and where they are allowed to go. 

This is a current fact, and will no doubt be taught in every classroom for years to come. Now let me provide you with another scenario, one that could never happen in a country such as Canada. 

Imagine……..instead of worrying about facemasks and back to school shopping, you also had to worry about the Government sending people to your home to pick up your children, starting roughly at age four or five and taking them away for school without your consent and sometimes without your knowledge. And you don’t even get to say goodbye.  

Indigenous Residential School

Imagine, the feeling of not knowing if you will ever see your child again, while the Government and Churches running these schools for profit, tell you and your community that it’s for your own good. Now, you as a parent are devastated. Your five-year-old, playing in the backyard minutes before….. is gone. Your five-year-old is headed to a school where they are going to cut off all of their long hair, teach them that if they dare speak the language they use to talk to their grandparents and neighbours, they will be beaten. If they have another sibling in this same school, they are not to look at, speak to, or touch them for a hug or a kiss. You also knew that at those schools they would be starved, beaten, raped and murdered by the same adults put in charge of their 24-hour care. They might even have to participate in digging a hole in the earth to help create a mass grave for their schoolmates that didn’t “make it” through their school year.

And then……imagine yourself as a parent, not even having to imagine the terror and the sadness your child will experience because you already know what is about to happen to them. It happened to you. It happened to your friends. It happened to your family- your parents, your grandparents, your great grandparents. It has happened to each of you for SEVEN generations. And now you watch helpless, as it happens to your children. 

Sadly enough, all of the things I have just asked you to imagine are facts. Part of our Canadian history. For tens of thousands of people, over a hundred-plus years, this was not a “scenario.” This was not imagination. This was their reality. This is what Canada thought their education should be as Canada forced countless numbers of our Indigenous allies into Indigenous Residential Schools or Day schools. This is not ancient history, the last remaining one did not close until as recently as 1996. 

Like many inconvenient truths, Indigenous Residential school has been Canada’s shameful secret, hiding out in the open. It went on for over one hundred years but is still not common knowledge among non Indigenous Canadians. I only learned about it three years ago. Why didn’t I know?………..

Both scenarios really drive home the importance of how and where our children learn. It also highlights the importance of content over location. Whether our children learn at home or in the classroom right now, their learning experience will still leave them hugged and alive at the end of the day. We as a community have a responsibility to acknowledge that it’s not how our children learn this year, but that they’re learning the important pieces. We have an obligation to make sure our children understand our history, the good and the bad.

Indigenous Residential School Cemetery Marker

Children aren’t born with hate. But hate is exactly what the Residential School system created. Those who endured it as children learned to hate those who forced them into it and for very good reasons. Those who ran the schools learned to hate their students and themselves. 

As a country, we owe it to those who were harmed or killed by this system to not only acknowledge, but also learn and try to understand the intergenerational trauma that still exists and helps perpetuate certain stereotypes that are very much alive and well. Our Indigenous communities are fighting hard to heal from all of the trauma right now and our part in their healing process is to promise to teach ourselves and our future generations about it so that it can never happen again.

For more information and resources, visit the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation hosted by the University of Manitoba

Classroom photo courtesy: National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque collection / Library and Archives Canada / PA-048571

Cairn photo retrieved from Wikipedia Aug 28, 2020.  Credit: Saskg / CC BY-SA 

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