Canada Day: Remembering The Horrors of Residential Schools

With the recent revelation of ~1000 children’s bodies found buried under old residential schools across Canada, it is important to remember the atrocities committed by the Canadian government, as well as the Church, against the indigenous population.

Although many remain indifferent on #cancelcanada day recently trending, now is the time as good as any to reflect on the hardships faced by the natives. Specifically, the unspeakable acts committed against children in residential schools, as well as the pain and suffering it caused their families and generations of indigenous people.

This will be a very brief overview and I encourage all readers to do further research on the subject, as well as examine the resources cited at the end of article for more information.

Origins of Residential Schools

The foundation of this school system can be traced back to the 1600s, before Canada was even considered a country (then known as ‘New France’). Catholic Europeans created schools with the aim of ‘civilizing’ and ‘educating’ natives as a part of their mission system’s objective. Missionaries viewed indigenous people as ‘savages’ who promptly needed to be converted to Christianity if they were to be incorporated into modern day society.

The residential system was incorporated into government and church policy in the 1830s in what then had become Upper Canada (Ontario). The longest running residential school to ever exist in Canada, the Mohawk Institute, was formed in 1831 in what is now Brantford, Ontario.

By the 1880s, Canada began forming residential school across the country after taking inspiration from the U.S and how they had turned several of their native population into ‘good Christian, industrial workers’ using the same system. Under the Indian Act in 1920, it became mandatory for every indigenous child to attend a residential school.

It is important to remember these schools were operated under the premise to destroy all evidence of indigenous culture. Children were ripped apart from their families to attend these schools, further weakening any grip natives had on their roots. By the time the residential system was disbanded, more than 150 000 children would have attended over 150 different schools. That means 150 000 families forced to undergo suffering for the simple fact that they were native.

Life at a Residential School

Dressing in traditional native clothing, speaking their native tongue, and encouragement of their own culture in any capacity was often met with strict punishment. Boys were required to cut their hair so as to appear ‘less indigenous’ and sometimes even given less ‘native sounding’ names. This highlights just how committed these schools were to eradicating indigenous existence of any sort.

Up until the 1950s, half the day would consist of learning while the other half of chores. This labour provided a cheap and easy way to run the school under the false pretence that the children were learning valuable skills for adult life.

Roles were segregated by gender which resulted in many siblings being separated, further causing divide between families. Boys operated manual labour while girls attended to domestic tasks.

Under the surface, there were numerous cases of physical, sexual, and mental abuse. Illness was rampant in many schools with estimates as high as 69% of children dying mostly as a result of disease in some schools.

The story of residential schools is not ancient history, with the last federally funded school closing as recently as 1996. While this overview barely scratches the surface of the difficulties that indigenous people have had to suffer, either as a result of residential schools or otherwise, it is important to keep these facts in mind during celebrations. Even today, many natives face government sanctioned discrimination and do not receive enough attention or representation in the media.

Further Reading:

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