New Internationalist

Reclaiming a lost identity

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Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is working to heal a century of damage and trauma caused by the country’s policy of assimilation, which saw tens of thousands of indigenous children removed from their homes and placed in residential schools to be indoctrinated in white culture. Sian Griffiths talks to Judge Murray Sinclair, who is heading the commission, about the importance of acknowledging what was lost.

In 2008, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized to former students of Canada’s government-funded and church-run Indian Residential Schools. The aim of the schools, said the Prime Minister, had been to ‘kill the Indian in the child’. He acknowledged that ‘this policy of assimilation was wrong’ and that it ‘has caused great harm’.

Over the course of 100 years, 150,000 aboriginal children were removed, often forcibly, from their families and sent to boarding schools where they were taught that their culture was inferior to the dominant white culture. The last school closed in 1996. Far from home, far from their cultural roots, many aboriginal children were left traumatized – with many suffering from physical, emotional or even sexual abuse.

Photo by: Sian Griffiths
Photo by: Sian Griffiths

Judge Murray Sinclair, who is himself aboriginal and the son of Indian Residential school children, is the head of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It has a five-year mandate to collect testimony from former students, their families and teachers – as well as encourage a process of reconciliation and healing. At its first National Event in Manitoba in June 2010, it attracted 40,000 participants.

Can you tell me about any particular stories which really struck you?

There was a teacher who came [to the National Event] and spoke about having been a teacher in a residential school. She left the school after a year not liking the way children were being treated. Edward had been one of her students in third grade and was in the school in the 1940s and 50s. He suffered extensive sexual abuse at the hands of the teachers in the school. She was totally unaware that any of that was going on. Edward, she said, helped her deal with her guilt. She reminded him of how innocent he was, how helpless and vulnerable he was, that what happened to him could not have been his fault. Their reconciliation was a very important part of their lives.

But there have been some unhappy experiences. There was a man who went through residential school, had a life of crime, tried to reconcile with his kids on his death bed – it didn’t happen…

He asked one of his classmates, ‘How do you say this word in English?’ because he had to use Ojibway [an aboriginal language] to make this request [to go to the bathroom]. He remembered being struck across the mouth with a ruler. He couldn’t remember a day when he wasn’t struck.

He and another group of boys… removed all the items that the teachers used to strike the children: the straps, the rulers, the yardstick. They took them outside and they burned them. The next day the teachers collected all of the young boys. He said they could hear the screams of the young boys… as they were beaten in the principal’s office. He ran away from the school – he ran home. His father told him how he was going to take him back to the school – so he ran away from home.

He got involved in a number of relationships, had a number of children. He was very abusive and very angry at everybody in his life. He talked about how as a young man he would go into bars strictly for the purpose of looking for white men to beat them up. He was in jail for much of his adult life. He had gotten to the end stage of his life and was in a palliative care unit. He wanted to speak to us to have his story recorded.

The purpose was to indoctrinate the children into a different cultural milieu in order to ensure that they would be properly assimilated into Canadian society. They had to be able to think like Canadians, they had to become like Canadians

[His children] refused to see him. He said: ‘I would have apologized for what I have done and now this can never happen.’ He passed away.

His family is now living with the pain of what he inflicted on them – and they will not have the opportunity to go through a process of reconciliation and be able to move on from that pain as well.

Can you talk a bit about ‘killing the Indian in the child’? [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper referred to this in his apology in 2008. What does that mean?

The purpose was to indoctrinate the children into a different cultural milieu in order to ensure that they would be properly assimilated into Canadian society. They had to be able to think like Canadians, they had to become like Canadians. In order for that to happen, their inclination to be something different, to be what they truly were, had to be taken out of them and that was through indoctrination – pure and simple.

They [the Canadian authorities] deliberately set upon a campaign… to teach a child that their culture was inferior, their people were inferior, their language was inferior and not to be spoken and it was prohibited. They were prohibited from engaging in any of their traditional cultural practices. Ceremonies were outlawed.

Just to look like an Indian became illegal in Canada.

What were the obstacles put up to thwart parents [who resisted]?

With the Indian conspiracy laws, the right to protest was taken away.

By the end of the 1800s the ability of indigenous families to do anything about this legally was totally barred – Indian parents were prosecuted if they refused to give their children up to the system

With the anti-ceremony laws that were passed, the right to gather was taken away.

[The Government] passed laws to say that no Indian could apply to court to challenge anything the government had done unless they got permission from the government first.

The only other vehicle available… would be if you could vote out of office those people who were passing those laws. The right to vote was taken away from Indians through citizenship legislation as well as voting legislation.

By the turn of the century – the end of the 1800s – the ability of indigenous families to do anything about this legally was totally barred and so Indian parents were prosecuted if they refused to give their children up to the system.

There must have been dramatic scenes if that was the case?

The stories of the round-ups are prevalent in the stories of the survivors. They talk about how the police would come, the planes would land, or the boats would arrive in their community and the children would be herded into these boats.

After three or four generations, it became the parents who started taking the children to the schools –which is why from the survivors’ perspective today we hear about how they are so angry at their families for putting them in these schools.

Their families had been intimidated into submission and had been beaten down to such an extent that they were unable to resist.

A couple of your cousins tried to pass themselves off as French or Spanish because they were ashamed of their backgrounds. Can you tell me about that?

You were ashamed to admit that you were an Indian person. To be called an Indian was to be called something dirty.

The answer does not lie within social programming; the answer lies within finding a way to establish a better relationship, an acknowledgement that what has been lost has value. What has been lost is identity – that’s a difficult thing to replace

The anger that young people feel about what they have been denied, the loss of their language, the loss of their identity and the loss of their culture – it’s given rise to a significant amount of rage in aboriginal youth.

How does the legacy of the Indian Residential School system impinge on the poor health and educational rates and the higher crime rates among aboriginal people?

We have raised – on the one side – aboriginal people to believe in their own inferiority and we have raised a group of non-aboriginal people – white people – in this society to believe in their own superiority.

The answer does not lie within social programming; the answer lies within finding a way to establish a better relationship, an acknowledgement that what has been lost has value. What has been lost is identity – that’s a difficult thing to replace through a social programme.

If we are going to have a relationship of mutual respect and mutual coexistence going forward, finding the path to get there is the difficult issue right now and that’s what we need to talk about.

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