Why First Nations Can’t Just Get Over Residential School?
The discovery of 215 children buried at the former Kamloops Residential school by the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc this week is yet another stark reminder of the horrors of Residential Schools, and of the multigenerational impact they continue to have. My heart goes out to all First Nations people as they continue to deal with the impact of Residential schools. To those people that are pained by this discovery, but not surprised.
As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made very clear, Residential Schools were intended to “take the Indian out of the Child”. They were part of the governments program of cultural genocide. I am hopeful that the international exposure this story is receiving will finally move our government to action towards real reconciliation.
I have seen many comments on social media stating that First Nations people should get over the past, but this is not about something that happened a long time ago, and what has been discovered in Kamloops is only a small piece of what occurred. The schools started closing in 1969 with the last residential school in Canada closing in 1996. There were 150,000 children that were sent to residential school. Most, or all, suffered abuse, and far too many died.
Consider the situation from a First Nations’ lens and ask yourself if you could just “get over this”.
Imagine your family living in a small community. Somewhere between 100–1,000 people. Small enough for everyone to know everyone else.
Now imagine both of your parents as 5 or 6-year-olds.
As young children their lives revolved around their parents and grandparents that they trusted to keep them safe. Then one day, an RCMP officer and a priest showed up to take the kids away to “school”.
Your future Mom was forcibly taken away from her mother’s arms while they both screamed. Her parents and grandparents weren’t told where she was. They didn’t see her for 10 years, and by the time she came home she had been taught to hate them.
Your Dad was successfully hidden by his grandparents, so they didn’t take him away, but he couldn’t stay with his parents in the village for fear that he would get caught by the priest. He didn’t have to endure the horrors of residential school, but he ended up being the only child left behind.
Your grandparents and great grandparents lived in a world without children, and many of those children never did make it home.
Now, imagine your Mom, who went to school, not to be given any real education beyond being made to clean and being told that her family ways were evil, and that she was dirty and disgusting. She was very likely physically and sexually abused and then without any preparation for the transition out of the residential school she was simply sent away at 16 or 17. If she made her way back to her village, how would she be welcomed?
What would she think of your grandparents after ten years of brainwashing and abuse?
As one survivor testified to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:
“And I looked at my dad, I looked at my mom, I looked at my dad again. You know what? I hated them. I just absolutely hated my own parents. Not because I thought they abandoned me; I hated their brown faces. I hated them because they were Indians.”
Mary Courchene, formerly a student at the residential schools at Fort Alexander in Manitoba and Lebret in Saskatchewan.
What would the mental state of your grandparents and great grandparents be with no children around to pass on their ways to?
As the story continued, your mom then met your dad. He was a hard worker that was required to become a man when he was still a boy, and emotionally never really had a chance to grow up. There were no children for him to play with.
When your mom returned and didn’t fit back in with your grandparents, she married him so he would look after her.
Based on their combined life experiences over the ten years leading up to their marriage, how do you think the marriage went? Your Mom had been kept away from boys at school, and your dad hadn’t had any interaction with girls. They both had experienced trauma and plenty of violence in their lives. Even if the marriage wasn’t good, the Church would keep them together.
Of course, the catholic church controlled the community with their church in the centre of the village, so with birth control forbidden, you and your siblings came along shortly afterwards.
Would you have been able to be resilient to all that?
Our government finally acknowledged the abusive, genocidal approach of the Residential schools following the release of the Truth and Reconciliation report in 2015. That is when First Nations people were finally able to finally start speaking openly about what happened to them.
Do you think you would have been alright? Do you think you could “just get over that”? Do you think that your broader family would be in a good space to help your children?
And its not like the closing of residential schools made all this go away. The sixties scoop which took place between 1961 and 1980 continued the legacy of removing first nations children from their homes. As residential schools were coming to an end. Social services were ramping up their impact on First Nations.
And today the legacy continues under what has been coined the Millennial Scoop.
In 2018, the BC Auditor general identified that BC aboriginal children make up 8% of the child population in BC but include 63% of those in care.
There are more Aboriginal children in custody today than at the height of residential school. It’s a culmination of decades of politics, poverty, abuse, colonialism and systemic racism that continue to pull families apart.
This is not a story about someone else. It is a story for all of us. We all need to work on Truth and Reconciliation.