Until the early 1990’s I had never heard of the Residential School system in Canada. It had, after all, been dismantled in the 60’s, and the Canadian government had done a pretty good job of trying to bury the horrific truth of what had happened.
The Residential School System was an official national policy, enacted by the Federal Government and solely designed to destroy first nations culture and ‘integrate’ first nations peoples into our European culture. Starting in the 1840’s and continuing for over 120 years, First Nations children were forcibly removed from the homes of their parents for ten months per year, subjected to punishment if they spoke their own language, subjected to unsanitary conditions that resulted in tuberculosis epidemics and, in some cases, a 69% mortality rate. And, of course, most infamously, there was the rampant incidence of sexual and physical abuse perpetuated by the Catholic and Protestant ‘teachers’ that the Federal Government farmed the actual task of assimilation out to.
It is, in my opinion, the darkest episode of Canadian history. The schools, funded by Federal grants, mandated with the systematic ethnocide of a people by the Federal Government, and knowingly staffed with sadists, pederasts and pedophiles by the willing churches tasked with that ethnocide, are a dark stain on Canada's history.
Awareness has grown over the last fifty years as courageous First Nations people brought the issue to the forefront of public discussions. It was a fight. The evidence was overwhelming that the abuse, that the ethnocidal policies had existed, but the ability of a government and a nation to live in denial should never be underestimated. It took until 2008 for a reluctant Prime Minister Harper to offer a long-overdue official apology from the nation to the peoples they tried to destroy.
A decade before that apology though, way back in 1998, perhaps as a way to try to silence the protests, or maybe as a form of bribe to shut them up, or perhaps, just possibly because somebody had a sane moment and thought it was the right thing to do, the Canadian Government provided funding for an organization named the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. The original funding mandate was for eleven years. It was extended last year to make it twelve. But this year the Federal Conservative administration of Stephen Harper has cut all funding to the AHF effective March 31. Not all of the programs that the AHF funds and supports will be closed because of the AHF’s funding being cut, but many will, and all of them will suffer. Many of the programs that the AHF funds are the most progressive and successful residential treatment programs in existence, and the AHF has received praise and commendations for being one of the most fiscally responsible organizations of its kind in Canada.
To be fair, the Federal Tories say that other systems and programs will be mandated to fill the void left by the AHF, but those programs are not run by First Nations peoples and have a far broader mandate than to focus on the victims of residential schooling. They may care, but they won’t care enough, aren’t mandated to care enough, to do the job right. The organization that does care enough to do it right, that has been doing it right for twelve years, is being gutted by a government that, in spite of that fake apology a couple years ago, apparently still doesn’t give a damn.
And in case you’re tempted to walk away from this thinking, “that damned Harper government again”, remember that we still all own a piece of this. If we get to be proud of the soldiers in WWI and II, if we get to be proud of our Peace Keepers, if we get to be proud of the Penticton Vees and the National Junior Team and the Olympic Gold, then we also have to – HAVE TO – own this disgrace as well.
And it lives on, every time we turn our head instead of look at a person living on the street, every time we ignore articles about things like the end of funding for the AHF or think that it’s not very important, every time we grumble over the entitlements provided to First Nations people in terms of education or taxation. And even every time a First Nations person assumes what a person of European descent thinks about them. The old prejudices still exist in all of us.
It’s part of our heritage. It’s part of what makes us Canadian. It’s part of what makes this our home and native land.
I don’t believe much in the value of guilt, but I do believe in remorse. Guilt holds us frozen, trapped in our own self-flagellations, but remorse shows that we see, that we can learn and change. I have a hard time not feeling guilty about what my ancestors did though. I try to focus on the remorse, to focus on learning and supporting change, to focus on leaning into the light as Mr. Lopez so eloquently puts it, but damn… some days it’s hard.
You can find out more
here, among others places. Try a Google search if you want more.
You can also find a petition through this Facebook page.
I don’t think that our government’s responsibility, our responsibility, is fulfilled yet on this subject. Perhaps we can apply enough pressure to make them do the right thing for a change.