Mary Courchene became so ashamed of her heritage while attending one of nearly 150 residential schools for Aboriginal Canadians that she developed a hatred for her own parents and could hardly stand to spend a summer at home with them.
“I hated them because they were Indians,” she recalled. “I looked at my dad and…I said, ‘From now on we speak only English in this house.’”
Her father turned from her with tears in his eyes and told her mother in his native language, Ojibway, “I guess we’ll never speak to this little girl again. [I] don’t know her.”
This process of “cultural genocide” was one major objective behind the Canadian government’s support of residential schools for Aboriginal children, according to a damning report released by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Tuesday.
The children’s cultural identity was not the only thing that suffered at the schools — First Nation, Métis, and Inuit children were brutalized through physical abuse, sexual violence, derogatory language, meager food, and a deliberate attempt to rid them of their cultural identities. The commission found that at least 3,201 students died while at the schools, often because of abuse and neglect.
So not only were we going to church to pray, and go to catechism, but we were also going to church ’cause they were giving us candy for touching them.
Families were often coerced by police into sending their children to these schools as part of a policy, intended, “not to educate them, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity,” according to the commission’s findings. The schools functioned first under the purview of various churches, and then with the support of the government from 1883 until 1998.
“The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources,” the commission stated in a summary of its findings. “If every Aboriginal person had been ‘absorbed into the body politic,’ there would be no reserves, no treaties, and no Aboriginal rights.”
The commission, which is made up of three members, including two Aboriginal men, conducted interviews with more than 6,750 former students, as well as their parents and community members, as part of a six-year investigation into Canada’s residential school system.
While some students describe fond memories and encouraging teachers, many more describe an abysmal academic environment. Many students only realized just how inadequate their education was when they transferred to public schools. When Victoria McIntosh left Fort Alexander residency school for public school, she said, “I could hardly read and write.”
“I knew that I wasn’t, you know, like, stupid, or, or dumb, or anything like that, it just, I didn’t know how to read and write, and I didn’t get a lot of these things,” she said.
The testimony the commission has included in its report offers a grim picture of what life was like for children — many of whom were no more than five years old when sent to the schools. Many said that they went to bed hungry on a daily basis and were fed rancid food that was sometimes writhing with maggots.
Students also described being hit with yardsticks, leather straps, steaming pipes and much else.
Raynie Tuckanow who attended Qu’Appelle School said he saw a staff member tie up a fellow student before sexually violating him. “They put him out the window with a broomstick handle shoved up his ass. And I witnessed that.”
“There was a little canteen in the church, and the priest[s] would sell us candies,” Elaine Durocher, who attended a Roman Catholic school in Kamsack, Saskatchewan recalled. “Well, after they got to know us, they started making us touch their penis for candy. So not only were we going to church to pray, and go to catechism, but we were also going to church ’cause they were giving us candy for touching them.”
Many of the students began to wet the bed regularly because of the fear they lived with — and felt a painful longing to return home, though many were denied visits from their family. Even gifts their parents sent them were confiscated if they contained anything that represented their cultural heritage.
“Homesickness was your constant companion besides hunger, loneliness, and fear,” Paul Dixon, who was a student at residential schools in Québec and Ontario, said. “But all that time, you know, you know we had to weep silently. You were not allowed to cry, and we were in fear that we, as nobody to hear us, you know. If one child was caught crying, eh, oh, everybody was in trouble. You’d get up, and you’d get up at the real fastest way. Now, they hit you between your legs, or pull you out of bed by the hair, even if it was a top bunk.”
“The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in 2008, but the commission asserted that such apologies are insufficient.
In its report, commission members noted the continued impact of the schools on Aboriginal communities:
The health of generations of Aboriginal children was undermined by inadequate diets, poor sanitation, overcrowded conditions, and a failure to address the tuberculosis crisis that was ravaging the country’s Aboriginal community. There should be little wonder that Aboriginal health status remains far below that of the general population. The over-incarceration and over-victimization of Aboriginal people also have links to a system that subjected Aboriginal children to punitive discipline and exposed them to physical and sexual abuse.
Without efforts to reform what it described as “policies and programs are still based on faded notions of assimilation,” the commission said reconciliation will be difficult.
It put forth 94 recommendations including an overhaul of the country’s child welfare system for Aboriginal children and the inclusion of a promise to honor treaties with indigenous peoples as part of the country’s citizenship oath.
“Seven generations of children went through these schools and we have said that coming to terms with this past, in a way that allows for there to be a much more mutually respectable relationship is going to take, perhaps, generations as well,” Justice Murray Sinclair, who heads the commission, told NPR. He added:
We’ve said that it was through the use of education that we really got into this mess to begin with, but we really believe that the use of education is the key to reconciliation in the future. Children being educated in this country need to be educated to completely understand the role that Aboriginal people played in the development of this nation and that they were not the heathens, savages, pagans, and inferior people that the textbooks in our schools have portrayed them [as]. That message needs to change and Aboriginal children need to be given the opportunity to establish their own sense of self-respect. I think that is the first step.