Exploring Canada’s Disturbing History Of The Residential School System

On May 27th, specialists hired by First Nations group Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc would make a gruesome discovery on the grounds of the former Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia. Using ground penetrating radar survey, the bodies of 215 children were found buried underneath the school grounds. Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir revealed that some of the children discovered in the mass grave were estimated to be as young as three years old in a statement with CBC News. The specialists involved in the discovery of the children’s bodies will be releasing a more comprehensive report in the next month. 

News of the mass grave has garnered national attention, and understandably has sparked outrage from indigenous communities and Canadians of all races. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has released a statement on Twitter saying “The news that remains were found at the former Kamloops residential school breaks my heart – it is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history. I am thinking about everyone affected by this distressing news. We are here for you.” Several provinces around the country have lowered flags in an attempt to honour the children from the residential school. Despite efforts from governmental officials to show solidarity with the indigenous community, First Nations people in Canada have allowed their attempts at solidarity to fall on deaf ears because of the undeniably horrific history of racism and violence committed against them by the Canadian government. 

The first European settlers in Canada arrived in the early 1600s. European settlers subscribed to imperialist and colonialist ideologies, believing that European culture in every aspect was superior to other cultures. They believed the indigenous people were “savages” and that their way of life was inferior to theirs. The assimilation of First Nations people can be traced back to the arrival of French missionaries in Québec City around 1615. The Jesuit missionaries came with the mission to “save the souls” of the indigenous and convert them to Christianity. Missionaries began to open parishes and schools in an attempt to “educate” children about the Christian and Jesuit way of life, however, they were met with a lot of pushback from those in the community who did not want to leave their children with the missionaries for a prolonged amount of time. This led to the abandonment of schools and institutions created by the Jesuits by around the 1690s.

Although a few schools remained in operation, it wouldn’t be until the 1820s that educational programs by religious officials would regain interest. This point in time saw the founding of more institutions such as the Mohawk Institute Residential School near Brantford, Ontario, among the oldest schools opened after the initial abandonment. A pivotal moment in the history of the residential school system is the release of the report entitled “Report on the affairs of the Indians in Canada” by Governor General Sir Charles Bagot in the 1840s. In the report, often referred to as the “Bagot Commission”, Bagot claimed that separating children from their parents was the best way to get them to assimilate to the European-Canadian culture. Bagot received support from high ranking figures such as James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin, and then Upper Canada Chief Superintendent of Education Egerton Ryerson. Ryerson himself would then write a letter to Assistant Superintendent of Indian Affairs George Vardon, claiming that the First Nations people could not be civilized unless they were to receive religious education and conform to a Christian belief system. In the late 1800s, the Canadian government officially encouraged the continued spread of the residential school system, under the foundation of assimilation acts and policies such as the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857, and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869. 

Children who attended schools in the residential school system were subjected to unimaginable abuse that still haunts many to this day. Children were forcibly stripped of their culture as per the system’s main goal of assimilation. The kids were made to have their hair cut short, dress in uniform, and were forbidden from speaking their native languages, only permitted to speak English or French. The kids were also forbidden from practicing any customs or traditions from their culture. Violating any of the strict rules would be met with severe punishment. Children were separated by gender and underwent different learning curriculums, although both curriculums were different from the curriculum of children outside the system. Boys were taught skills related to carpentry and farming, while girls were taught skills related to housekeeping such as cooking, cleaning and laundry. Children spent part of their time in class and part of their time doing unpaid and involuntary work related to the skills they would learn in class.

Parents were able to regularly visit the schools, however visitation was strictly monitored and controlled by school officials. At times visits would be denied, and visits that were granted often had to be in the presence of a school official and all communication had to be in English or French, meaning parents who could not speak the language could not visit their children. Parents would often camp outside schools in an attempt to be closer to their children, prompting Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed to petition for schools to be moved to a greater distance, and to prohibit students from going home for holidays and breaks to prevent kids from being re-exposed to traditional culture.

Abuse of all kinds were rampant at residential schools. Most punishment resulted in horrific physical abuse. According to an article by the indigenous foundations at the University of British Columbia, some survivors recall being shackled to their beds, and even having “needles shoved in their tongues for speaking their native languages”. The living conditions in the institutions were often deplorable. Schools were often overcrowded and had poor ventilation, heating, and sanitation. Children in the system also did not have access to adequate food, water, and medical care, leading to high rates of tuberculosis and influenza. Kids were also subjected to several scientific research experiments where they were forcibly malnourished and underwent involuntary vaccine trials. All of the aforementioned abuses are just a small list among all of the atrocities that occurred in the residential school system.

Death was unfortunately commonplace in residential schools. Research by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) estimates that at least 3,201 children died in the school system between 1867 and 2000. These numbers are based from deaths that were able to be recorded, though many children in the system went missing, and many deaths went unreported. In 1909, Chief Medical Officer Peter Bryce reported that the death rates in some schools ranged between 30-60% over the course of 5 years. Parents were often not informed if their children were ill or had passed. Children who had passed were often buried underneath school grounds, much like the Kamloops Residential School. 

The residential school system came to an end beginning in 1969, when the number of schools in operation began to decline and the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) took sole control of the system. The last residential school running under the Canadian government, the Gordon’s Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, was shut down in 1996, and the DIA would confirm 0 registrations of residential schools in operation in 1999.

22 years after the abolishment of residential schools, and centuries after the arrival of Europeans on North American territory, the after effects of the injustices the First Nations communities were forced to endure are devastating. Among the survivors of the system, 65% have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Indigenous Canadians are the most disproportionately incarcerated racial group in Canada, comprising around 30.04% of the offender population although they only make up less than 5% of the total population. Many indigenous communities are also affected by high rates of substance abuse, violence, and mental illness and other issues related to overall poorer health, all of which stem from systemic racism set in place by the colonialist attitudes of the missionaries in the 1600s.

Above all, much of the indigenous history and culture has been erased because of the residential school system. For years, the history of native peoples in North America has been told through a very biased and Eurocentric point of view, or has simply been glossed over in history classes.

The Canadian government has documented efforts at reparations toward the indigenous community such as tax exemption status, however, the centuries of oppression and colonization can never truly be forgiven, as the after effects are still visible years later, much like with the history of the slave trade and segregation in the United States. The discovery of 215 children buried underneath what was essentially their prison is a tragedy that simply cannot be amended by briefly lowering the flag of a nation built from the stolen land and blood of their ancestors.

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