For more than 150 years the Canadian government wanted to “civilize” Indigenous people (the government referred to Indigenous people as “Indian”) and assimilate them into white, Euro-Canadian culture with its Judeo-Christian values. The government created policies and laws to eliminate the unique status of Indigenous people, systematically destroy their cultures, and take their land. Today the government continues to uphold policies that reinforce stereotypes and foster gender and racial inequality.
Racist government policies have affected all Canadians. Non-Aboriginal people who systemically benefit from these policies have been granted permission to denigrate Indigenous people, creating an environment of fear and loathing, which in turn has created a cycle of external and internal shame for Indigenous people. The history that many non-Aboriginal people are telling Indigenous people to “get over” is not simply in the past; it continues to impact communities every day. In the words of one Indigenous educator, “The reality for Aboriginal people is not easy.”
Displacement of Power
When the Canadian government replaced existing forms of Indigenous government with band councils, it ensured all power remained in its own grasp by declaring that it could override any and all decisions of the band councils and depose band leaders at any time. Consequently, it dis-empowered many Aboriginal women who up until that time had significant influence in governance. This displacement of women in leadership created a social barrier to gender equality for Indigenous people that exists to this day. Not only has it led to the loss of status for Indigenous women, but it has created a culture of attitudes and actions resulting in unilateral violence against Indigenous women, the effects of which are seen in the extreme rates of missing and murdered aboriginal girls and women across the country.
Cultural Genocide: The Residential School System
Residential schools affected every part of life for the Indigenous children forced to attend, with long-lasting repercussions into adulthood. The schools disrupted the transfer of cultural knowledge and behavioural norms, prevented the formation of family and community bonds, and inflicted severe abuse, all of which impeded healthy emotional and social development. “I went there for ten months,” said Ina Seitcher, who attended the Christie Indian Residential School. “Ten months that impacted my life for fifty years. I am just now on my healing journey.”
Indigenous children were impacted the day they left their families. “Taken from their homes, stripped of their belongings, and separated from their siblings, residential school children lived in a world dominated by fear, loneliness, and lack of affection,” says the recently released final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which spent years documenting the experiences of people personally impacted by the residential school experience.
Survivor Archie Hyacinthe said going to residential school was like being taken into captivity: “That’s when the trauma started for me, being separated from my sister, from my parents, and from our, our home. We were no longer free. It was like being, you know, taken to a strange land, even though it was our, our, our land, as I understood later on.”
Forcibly separated from their families, language, food, and culture, Indigenous children were further traumatized through sexual, emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual violence. They were denied basic human rights, including the right to speak in their own language. In the face of such assaults the children had no recourse to stand up and say no, or even to get angry or shed a tear. School staff told the children that they were evil and dirty and that their bodies were bad. The residential school assault instilled a deep sense of shame in Indigenous children and their families, leaving little space for hopes or dreams for the future.
Even after the children left the schools, the experience continued to hurt them. They lost everything that used to be part of their daily lives: “loss of memory, of appropriate behaviour patterns, childhood and childcare knowledge, spirituality, pride, self-control, identity, the ability to make decisions or trust, to respect themselves, their family, tradition or culture, to love themselves or another…the list is endless.”
Often, those who survived the residential school and went home felt isolated from their communities. The loss of cultural memory and knowledge damaged their understandings of Indigenous identity and spirituality. Having lost their language and cultural connection, they had no sense of belonging. Upon returning home they found themselves stuck between two worlds—the Euro-Canadian one they had just come out of and the Indigenous one they had returned to—and now they didn’t feel fully comfortable in either one.
Students hadn’t been prepared for reintegration into their own communities or for entry into mainstream Canadian society. At the residential schools they received very little formal education and were forced to provide labour in areas such as farming, cleaning, cooking, sewing, and butchery. They didn’t have the foundation to pursue a traditional Indigenous livelihood, and they weren’t equipped to compete in the Canadian economy.
Separated from their homes for so long, some survivors had not even gotten to know their families. Deprived of family life and the teachings of Elders, they had not experienced what it meant to be part of a family unit and supportive community. They were robbed of love and nurturing from their parents and extended family during childhood and the opportunity to learn about healthy child-rearing practices. In the residential schools, they lacked positive role models and were taught that the only way to discipline children was to beat them or shame them. This would affect generations to come.
“Today, the effects of the residential school experience and the Sixties Scoop have adversely affected parenting skills and the success of many Aboriginal families,” states the TRC’s final report. “These factors, combined with prejudicial attitudes toward Aboriginal parenting skills and a tendency to see Aboriginal poverty as a symptom of neglect, rather than as a consequence of failed government policies, have resulted in grossly disproportionate rates of child apprehension among Aboriginal people.”
The families who were left behind were similarly affected, having had to surrender their children to a system that actively sought their demise. The residential school legacy has “affected the Survivors’ partners, their children, their grandchildren, their extended families, and their communities,” says the TRC report. Many children who returned home from the residential schools found alcohol abuse in their families. Parents who developed problems with alcohol may have been trying to cope with the pain of having their children taken from them.
Mental health issues, drug use, and conflict with the law are expressions of the legacy that burdens survivors of the residential schools. “Children who were abused in the schools sometimes went on to abuse others,” says the TRC report. “Many students who spoke to the Commission said they developed addictions as a means of coping. Students who were treated and punished like prisoners in the schools often graduated to real prisons. For many, the path from residential school to prison was a short one.”
The inter-generational trauma of residential schools, alcohol abuse, and FASD are connected, as shown in a study mentioned in the TRC report. Residential school survivors have been left with the kinds of personal struggles that can lead to conflict with the law. Substance abuse, which has plagued many survivors and their children, is a factor in the over-incarceration of Aboriginal people. Currently Indigenous youth make up 6% of the Canadian population, but they represent 26% of all youth admitted to the correctional system. The numbers are much higher in British Columbia, where 52% of all youth in custody are Indigenous.
The impact of Canada’s genocidal actions has been monumental for Indigenous people. They have experienced unimaginable suffering and chaos, which has affected generations of their families, communities, and societies. It is well known that Indigenous people in Canada experience the highest rates of incarceration, poverty, addiction, violence, and placement in foster care, with the lowest rates of high school and university education. And yet, in the face of severe oppression is a cultural resurgence and a rebounding of populations—a testament to the resilience of Indigenous peoples.