Just imagine if as a child, I was physically taken from my mom and dad to live in a school.
Just imagine if at my school I had to change my appearance, my hair, and my dress.
Just imagine if at my school I was not allowed to use the name my parents gave me. Instead, I was given a new name.
Just imagine I was not allowed to speak my language or practice my beliefs.
Just imagine if I broke the rules, rules I did not understand or even know, I was beaten or humiliated.
Just imagine even if I did not break the rules, I was abused.
Just imagine a childhood lost. I could not play. I had to grow up overnight. I needed to survive.
Because I survived, I lost my identity, my language, and my beliefs.
Because I survived, I have become dependent on others.
Because I survived, I lost my personal connections with others, including my family.
Because I survived, I no longer trust.
Because I survived, I have some issues, including substance abuses and mental health issues.
Because I survived, I have an unconscious inferiority complex. I was always told I was bad, I was not good enough.
Because I survived, I do not feel safe or secure.
I am very thankful that this did not happen to me, but it did happen to a People. It happened in Canadian residential schools. It happened to generations of First Nations people in Canada. Canada had 80 residential schools and over 150,000 children went through these schools. The last residential school closed in 1996, just 22 years ago. The Canadian government followed a policy of “Kill the Indian in the child.” We tried to isolate and remove children from the influences of their families and community. The film, We Were Children shows the issue of residential schools. Here is a short trailer of the film:
I am not writing this to assign blame. I am writing this hoping to be part of a solution. Canada’s history, with respect to our aboriginal population, is a history of genocide (diseases and sterilization) and cultural genocide. We attempted to rob a People of their beliefs, language, history, spirituality, and way of life – their culture.
The staff of Father Leonard Van Tighem School are participating in a series of workshops entitled Walking Together: Education for Reconciliation. The workshops are part of a commitment between the Alberta Teachers’ Association and Alberta Education to ensure that all students learn about the histories, cultures and worldviews of First Nations, Métis and Inuit. Not all of the workshops deal with the impact of Residential Schools, but many of them explain how the history of residential schools has a generational effect on the current First Nations youth of today.
What now? The term ‘reconcile’ means to restore friendly relationships. If we truly want to restore friendly relationships, the issue of residential schools cannot be ignored. I was not part of the decision to implement residential schools, but it is part of my history. Residential schools are part of my history as a Canadian. As a teacher, it is part of my classroom. Students in our school suffer from generational effects of residential schools.
- We must recognize the wrong. Prime Minister Harper recognized the wrong in his apology in the House of Commons. We must recognize the wrong in our schools and classrooms. In Alberta’s new curriculum, students in Alberta will learn about the history and legacy of residential schools.
- We must learn. Educators need to learn about residential schools and their effects. Likewise, we need to learn about our treaty: yes, our treaty. We are all treaty people, the general Canadian population and First Nations People.
- We must listen. Sometimes we give people a token ear, but we do not listen. We hear, but do not listen. We must listen to the survivors of residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has done this for Canada, but we need to do it for our local community. Until we do this, we cannot move forward in rebuilding our relationships.
- We must look in the mirror. We need to decide what we can do better. We must create an environment that does not focus on “us” and “them”, but develops a community of “we”.
- We must find ways to engage our First Nations community in our schools. We cannot simply invite, we need to find ways to empower our First Nations community to be active. Education is their new buffalo.
The wrongs of residential schools will not disappear tomorrow, nor is there a quick solution. Hopefully together, we can start the process of reconciliation and healing. The longest journey starts with a single step. It is time to start walking together.