When will we stop focusing on past horrors and instead help our aboriginal residential school victims to put their energy into healing and joyful living?
That’s the question many aboriginals asked as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held its first round of hearings at The Forks National Historic Site in Winnipeg June 16 to 19, drawing a crowd of 40,000. The $60-million, federal government-funded tribunal has the mandate of gathering and documenting stories, revealing both the positive and negative experiences of former students and employees of Canadian Indian residential schools.
The abuses perpetrated by pedophiles at church schools combined with the total disregard for giving proper care to the students are undeniable. Study of the residential schools shows the government members of the day felt the clergy involved were beyond reproach and so they did not properly monitor the schools.
Of the 40,000 who attended the Winnipeg event only 600-plus were interviewed and the rest were perhaps there for the free entertainment, which included headliner Buffy Saint-Marie, a Cree from Piapot First Nation, Sask., who was orphaned young and adopted and raised by a part-Mi’kmaq family in the United States.
The reconciliation acknowledges that tragic negligence and affirms that such things should never happen again. But its value has been questioned in some quarters. Enough is enough already. Those who have suffered already are being re-victimized. This reflects the view of mental health counsellors who say constantly revisiting incidents of abuse is like repeatedly picking a scab until scar tissue forms. It reignites anger slowly and distorts the healing process.
Others say the ‘Indian industry’ has concentrated on the negative and ignored the positive aspects of the schools. Why? Was it because there is no compensation money for positive stories?
Some suggest the main objectives of government-sponsored residential schools run by clergy were to rid natives of their culture and language and integrate them into mainstream society. That is likely true. But was it successful?
Many natives still live on reserves, suffering extreme poverty due to lack of jobs. On many Manitoba First Nations, English is still the second language, with the native dialect being the first. Their culture and identity as native people remain strong and are today displayed at many functions.
It’s true Canada failed its aboriginal children by sending them to residential schools, but I have seen critics, often in the media, misinterpret events to push a distorted and imbalanced view, failing to understand that many of the actions were ordinary at the time and represent the same treatment given to other Canadians.
This outraged statement — which suggests racism — is an example: "They shaved their heads as they arrived at these schools."
Why? Well, this is because head-lice infestation was common years ago, and that has never been restricted to any culture.
A lot of the children arrived infested. The quickest way to get rid of head lice and prevent infection of others is head-shaving.
Sending police to take the children to residential schools was not a terror tactic, as some critics have hinted. It was merely done because at that time there were no First Nations truant officers. That left police responsible for enforcing the legislation that requires children to attend school.
Again, this was not something only done to a specific group or culture. The Doukhobors who originated from Russia to settle in Canada and build their own communities did not want their children educated in public schools. RCMP officers of the day were ordered to retrieve these children and force them into schools.
Promotion of the negative through the past 20-some years has led many aboriginals to blame the residential schools for all of life’s hardships and miseries.
Many other aboriginals believe our background and circumstances may have influenced who we are, but we are responsible for who we ultimately become. That’s a lesson that needs to be reinforced as well when we think about Canada’s Indian residential schools experience.