By Emily Britton …
This opinion piece is not intended to convince you that Sir John A. Macdonald was a bad man whose image should be removed from our public spaces. Nor is it to convince you that there needs to be a statutory holiday dedicated to remembering the horrific legacy of residential schools. I am writing this in the hope that providing you with information about the history of settler and Indigenous Canadian relations you will confront your own biases towards Indigenous peoples. It is easy to form an opinion when you do not have all the information. Let’s see if we can mould that opinion with fact.
From research and published articles we have learned that ~
Archaeologists cannot agree on the exact date when Indigenous peoples first entered North America, however the most conservative guesses place the ancestors of North American First Nations people crossing the Bering land bridge from Asia into North America 12,000 years ago.
Pre-contact Indigenous cultures were complex; they had economic and political systems, as well as language diversity and spiritual beliefs. These Indigenous peoples were no less civilized or advanced than the Europeans who they made first contact with in the 1500s.
Many present-day Canadians believe that the settlers defeated Indigenous peoples in a war, fair and square. This is a misconception that is rarely challenged in the classroom. In reality, 95 per cent of North America’s Indigenous population was wiped out by European diseases, such as smallpox. These diseases were spread through Indigenous communities both intentionally and unintentionally, in what can only be described as biological warfare.
Let us not forget the military role Indigenous Canadians contributed to the War of 1812. Let us also not forget the creation of reservations that were purposefully established in the least habitable or economically profitable areas of Canada, or the purposefully insidious introduction of alcohol into Indigenous communities—where cultural norms and understanding around alcohol did not exist.
The crux of this discussion is around residential schools, because the ignorance being displayed in our own community toward the subject is appalling.
The first residential schools were established in New France in 1831. The last residential school closed its doors in 1996. Yes, 1996. It is not a “nineteenth century government policy”; it is a reality in our lifetime.
Residential schools were government-sponsored religious institutions with the goal of assimilating Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture by isolating them from their communities, culture and native languages. As a result of poor record keeping and intentional concealment we will never know the exact number of children who died at these schools, however it is estimated that at least 6,000 children died in these institutions.
In many cases children were not allowed to speak their native languages and were physically punished for doing so. Boys’ hair was cut, and the children were not allowed to wear their traditional clothes, thus removing any outward signs of their culture. The missionary staff forced Christian religious practices on the students, and denigrated Indigenous spiritual traditions.
Until the 1950s, half of the school day was spent in the classroom and the other half was spent working for free. This practice was used to exploit the children and was a form of slavery. Until the 1960s, children were not routinely sent home for the holidays, meaning they were only able to see their families for two months during the summer, though some students were not allowed to go home at all.
Excessive punishment, including physical abuse such as beatings and confinement, were commonplace at residential schools. Many of the students suffered sexual abuse while at the schools; however, charges against the abusers were extremely rare. Often the abuser was allowed to continue teaching at the school, further traumatizing the victims. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found that “from 1958, when it first opened, until 1979, there was never a year in which Grollier Hall in Inuvik did not employ at least one dormitory supervisor who would later be convicted for sexually abusing students.”
In 1883 Sir John A. Macdonald said the following about residential schools: “When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages. Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence.”
There were no good intentions behind the establishment of these schools. The goal was extreme assimilation. The goal was cultural genocide.
Recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the federal government will move forward to create a statutory holiday dedicated to reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. The creation of this holiday fulfills one of 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC was established in 2008 under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and consisted of a variety of Indigenous experts in their fields. The mandate of the TRC was to create lasting reconciliation between the Government of Canada and Indigenous peoples. The purpose of this holiday is to ensure that Canadians never forget the atrocities that too many Indigenous children faced.
The goal of the proposed holiday is not to make white Canadians feel guilty or to ask them to take personal responsibility for the systematic oppression of Indigenous peoples that has been at play for the past 500 years. In fact, the proposed holiday would not be about white Canadians at all. But if discussing these issues makes you feel defensive or guilty, maybe it’s because you have fallen into the self-serving narrative that ignores historical fact, and tells you that Indigenous struggles are of their own making.
Emily Britton is pursuing a degree in political science. She is entering her final year at the University of Guelph and intends to pursue a Master’s in her field.
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