The history in Canada is not without its dark parts. Part of that history lasted for over a hundred years and only ended officially in 1996, though the effects are still being felt through an entire people and culture. In Canada, there were numerous residential schools opened where various Catholic and Christian religious leaders attempted to educate the Indigenous people, to make them less ‘savage and primitive’ and more like the people who settled in the lands from across the ocean.
Children came, or, more accurately, they were taken, from their parents and communities, and they suffered. In some cases, it was done voluntarily because many Indigenous people wished to learn, but many others were taken by force. What hadn’t been known when it first began and even hundreds of years later was that the Indigenous culture and language would be ripped away from these children as they were forced to assimilate with the colonizers. Education would, Frank Oliver, the Minister of Indian Affairs, declared in 1908, “elevate the Indian from his condition of savagery” and make “him a self-supporting member of the State, and eventually a citizen in good standing. It caused children to be separated in body and spirit from their parents, even if the children returned from these schools. They may be with their families, but they could no longer speak the language or respect the traditions of their people.
The residential school system’s history is marked by the persistent neglect and abuse of children and through them of Aboriginal communities in general. While the schools were at first only thought to be for Indian First Nations, the assumption behind them was that they would include all Aboriginal people. Men, women, and children, Métis, “non-status and status” Indians, and Inuit as their homelands were encompassed by the expanding Canadian nation. All Aboriginal people would be expected to abandon their traditional ways of living in order to become “civilized” and thus to lose themselves and their culture among the population of Canada. Conditions surrounding and inside residential schools did significant harm to Aboriginal children who attended them and the damage done to individuals, families, and communities and cultures is irreparable and has lasted through the generations since the first residential school opened in Canada.
Over 150 000 children in Canada were removed from their families and put into these schools. Aboriginal culture and civilization were constantly belittled by the staff at residential schools. As a result, the survivors have low self-esteem and carry a sense of worthlessness. Low self-esteem led these survivors and future generations to alcoholism, substance abuse, and suicide. Moreover, Aboriginal kids struggle to fit in Euro-Canadian society, but discriminations stop them to improve in the Euro-Canadian system. They do not belong within their own community since they have forgotten their culture and language. Even if the child lived through the horrible residential school experience, it killed their culture and their spirit.
Not everyone came back home. Many children died from lack of care, malnutrition, abuse, and compromised immune systems. Some children’s bodies were returned to their homes but not all. Some were buried in graves around the residential schools. Perhaps they were marked at one time but over the decades and centuries, those markers vanished. Some parents were never told that their children were dead, and never coming home, that they were discarded as though they meant nothing.
No one knew these children. Who they were, or where they had been buried, or that they had even existed. As residential schools began closing down and the buildings torn down, no one realized that they were walking over the final resting place of the children who never got to go home. Then 215 unmarked graves at a residential school location, belonging to children were discovered in Kamloops, B.C. Then again in saskatoon, the last residential school to be shut down found 751 unmarked graves. There are so many across Canada that have not been found.
In 2005, the federal government apologized for the damage done to the Aboriginal community. The apology was the first step in the healing process, but without action, an apology would not be enough and there was very little action done by the government afterward. Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to all former students of residential schools in 2008. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized to survivors of residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2017. Despite the apologies by Prime Ministers in Canada, still there is so much to do for Aboriginal people. What had happened at those schools has had ripple effects and caused deep harm and they should not be forgotten. This is part of Canadian and North American history. It is horrible, tragic, and needs to be taught so that it never happens again.