Healing through Education
Alma Scott was taken to the Fort Alexander, Manitoba, Indian residential school when she was just five years old. “We got taken away by a big truck. I can still remember my mom and dad looking at us, and they were really, really sad looking. My dad’s shoulders were just hunched, and he, to me, it looked like his spirit was broken. I didn’t have the words at five for that, but I do now. I just remember feeling really sad, and I was in this truck full of other kids who were crying, and so I cried with them.”
This excerpt, taken from “The survivors speak: a report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada” is just one of thousands of collective memories Indigenous Canadians have of their experience being taken from their families and placed in residential schools.
The stories of how those children were treated, and the horrors they endured, are well documented.
But something often missing in the narrative around the youngsters’ lives at residential schools is their actual education. The fact is, the Government of Canada separated children from their parents and sent them to residential schools not to educate them, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity. Most of the “learning” was focused on religion and manual labour.
The result is that many students who attended residential school for eight or more years left with nothing more than Grade Three education, and sometimes without even the ability to read. According to Indian Affairs annual reports, in the 1950s only half of each year’s enrolment made it to Grade Six.
Having survived physical, sexual and emotional abuse, survivors could not return to their traditional lives as they had lost their language and culture, and they didn’t have an adequate education. The result is a generation of First Nations people with no ability to succeed socially or economically, without the skills to provide consistent home support for their children and grandchildren.
Today, many homes are made up of adults who are direct and/or intergenerational survivors of the residential school system. This means they are less able to help their children with homework assignments, especially in harder subjects, and may be less supportive in terms of encouraging their children to graduate.
Without that consistent home support for a child to stay in school and graduate, the statistics are grim:
- Over the past 15 years there has been no measurable improvement for on-reserve high school completion rates.
- The Aboriginal student dropout rate, nationally, before Grade 12 is currently at 51 per cent.
Here in Portage la Prairie, the percentage of First Nations students is approximately 50 per cent. If 51 per cent of those students drop out before graduating, that means less than 75% of all students will receive a high school diploma. Without a diploma, chances of those students having the ability to lead productive, rewarding lives are low.
It is not surprising, then, that the second ‘Call to Action’ in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action focuses on Education.
It’s a long list, beginning with a call for the Government of Canada to repeal section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada, (sometimes referred to as “the spanking law”) which allows corporal punishment of children. It also calls for an end to employment gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians, and equal education funding for First Nations children being educated on vs. off reserves.
It also calls for adequate funding to end the backlog of First Nations students seeking a post-secondary education. (Contrary to popular belief, Aboriginal Canadians do not automatically get their post-secondary education paid for. But that is another entire article.)
But perhaps the most important point, to me, is the call for the federal government to draft new Aboriginal education legislation with the full participation and informed consent of Aboriginal peoples. This would include developing culturally appropriate curricula, teaching Aboriginal languages as credit courses, enabling parents to fully participate in their children’s education, and respecting and honouring Treaty relationships.
History has shown that removing Aboriginal children from their families, tearing them away from their language and culture, created a legacy of suffering that remains today. The closing of the schools did not bring the residential school story to an end.
Education, said Nelson Mandela, is “the most powerful weapon you can use to heal the world”.
For First Nations children to heal, these calls must be answered.
A Painful Legacy
Between 1867 and 2000, the Canadian government sent over 150,000 Aboriginal children to residential schools across the country. Government officials and missionaries agreed that in order to “civilize and Christianize” Aboriginal children, it was necessary to separate them from their parents and their home communities.
For children, life in these schools was lonely and alien. Discipline was harsh, and daily life was highly regimented. Aboriginal languages and cultures were denigrated and suppressed. Education and technical training too often gave way to the drudgery of doing the chores necessary to make the schools self-sustaining. Child neglect was institutionalized, and the lack of supervision created situations where students were prey to sexual and physical abusers.
Canada’s Residential Schools: The Legacy
The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 5
Citizens of Portage la Prairie should be well-versed in the legacy of residential schools in Canada, since one of those schools sits inside our borders. The former Portage la Prairie Indian Residential School (now the Rufus Prince Building on Crescent Road W.) is now recognized as a national historic site by the Government of Canada.
Sadly, its closure in 1975 did not represent closure for those who lived within its walls. They are haunted still.
With the amount that has been written about the residential school experience, and the work of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, one would expect non-Indigenous folks would possess some degree of understanding and compassion for their Indigenous neighbours. And most do.
Yet there remains an element of distrust and deep misunderstanding amongst Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Recent letters to the editor in our local newspaper highlighted just how deep this distrust runs. Racism still exists in our community.
Racism was the basis for removing Indigenous children from their families and placing them in residential schools. The effects of these schools impact not only the survivors, but their children and grandchildren today.
It is no surprise, then, that the first call to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action addresses child welfare.
In Manitoba, a staggering 90 percent of the over 10,000 children in care are Indigenous. Many of these children are descendants of residential school survivors. The trauma these survivors endured is passed down from generation to generation. Families continue to be fragmented.
It is a sad parallel that while Indigenous children today are no longer removed from their families in order to be placed in residential schools, they continue to be removed from their families and placed in the homes of strangers. While this is done to ensure their safety, much work remains to ensure Indigenous children in care are also placed in culturally appropriate environments and that their families are provided with the necessary tools to heal and eventually, hopefully, reunite.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #1 asks all governments to commit to reducing the number of Indigenous children in care. It recommends doing this by providing the resources to keep Indigenous families together when it is safe to do so, and when it is not, with keeping children in environments where their culture is recognized.
It also calls for those conducting child welfare investigations to be given training in both the history and impacts of residential schools, and the need for Indigenous families and communities to provide family healing.
Finally, it requires that all people who make decisions regarding child welfare consider the impact of the residential school experience on children and their caregivers.
And while these actions are directed at governments, child welfare organizations, social workers, and decision-makers to work to reduce the number of kids in care, I suggest the last point can be applied to each and every one of us. You don’t have to be a decision-maker to consider the impact of the residential school experience on children and families.
Next time you hear about the high number of Indigenous kids in care, please do not ask yourself why their parents are not doing a better job.
Instead, put yourself in their shoes, if only for a moment.
Local Youth Walk the Road to Reconciliation
Indigenous Community Coordinator
Portage Urban Indigenous Peoples’ Coalition
There has been plenty of talk about ‘building bridges’ recently – in the media, on the street, among friends, and around the dinner table. The movement to end systemic racism has come to the forefront like never before. In my mind, it all comes down to the need for education.
Try to remember what you learned in school about Indigenous peoples. If you can’t remember, it is likely because very little information existed in the curriculum. Ask the average Canadian what they know about treaties, residential schools, or colonization, and the results are mixed. Even today, many Canadians have never visited a First Nation community – even though many of our communities are our neighbours.
However, thanks to a recent collaboration between Long Plain First Nation and the Portage la Prairie School Division, there are 22 students who can now say they HAVE visited a First Nation – and made some new friends in the process.
Back in February, a group of Grade 7 students from Yellowquill, LaVerendrye, Ecole Arthur Meighen, and Oakville schools came together as part of an activity called ‘Road to Reconciliation’. The students first met in small groups within their own schools, then with their peers from the other schools, to discuss important topics around reconciliation. Finally, they had a two-day field trip to Long Plain First Nation.
Day one included a visit to Long Plain School, the Band Office, the Rez Plex, and the Adaawe Wigamig Grocery Store. The second day was about Long Plain’s urban reserve, where the students visited the recently-built Microtel, Miskwaanakwadook Place, Arrowhead Development Corporation, Long Plain Employment and Training, Keeshkeemaquah Conference Centre, Rez Radio, and the Residential School Museum. After a lunch of bannock and soup catered by the Crossing Café at the Spirit Lodge, they toured the Health Centre, and the Manitoba First Nations Police Service Long Plain Detachment.
The students also learned about Jordan’s Principle, which makes sure all First Nations children living in Canada can access the products, services and supports they need, when they need them.
Jill Fast, the school division’s Indigenous Academic Achievement Facilitator, came up with the initiative. “I think it’s about building bridges and breaking stereotypes,” Fast said. “Some students have never been to a First Nations community.”
She is quick to point out the project couldn’t have succeeded without the cooperation of Long Plain First Nation. “I can’t thank Long Plain enough – they were such great partners to work with,” Fast exclaimed. “Education Director Bill Beauchamp was just amazing – the hospitality was above and beyond. Everyone involved just helped make the experience awesome for the kids.”
Two Portage Collegiate students from Long Plain, Trey and Seth, filmed the whole activity, and the plan was for the participants to show the completed video to their classmates and present what they learned. Fast was also hoping to meet with each of the groups at their respective schools to review what they saw and learned. But, COVID-19 intervened and those final steps have been put on hold.
However Fast – who has worked on numerous initiatives within the school division, including smudging policies, an Indigenous Education Policy, and land-based education at Dakota Tipi First Nation to name a few – said the effects of the activity were immediate. “Even on the bus ride home, they all started bonding as a group,” she said. “The Indigenous students felt proud at all the good things that are happening on the reserve, while non-Indigenous students were surprised to see that it was much more than “just a bunch of houses.”
The notion of integrating more Indigenous education into school curriculums is just one of the items included in the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. Here in Portage la Prairie, it has the potential to affect real change, given that 50 percent of the high school students in the city are Indigenous. But expanding on what is in the textbooks is only the first step.
Hands-on experience – in Indigenous language, history, and culture – is essential to give the next generation a better understanding of the roots of racism. Indigenous and non-Indigenous kids attend school and sit in classrooms, but that is often where the understanding stops. Going on a field trip to visit a residential school survivor, or listening to an Elder tell an ancient legend, or learning how hunting, trapping and fishing skills are passed on from generation to generation, is the next important stepping- stone to true reconciliation.
Prior to the pandemic, a ‘Roving High School’ concept was proposed and approved by the school division that would incorporate exactly this type of learning. And if you were to ask any of the Gr. 7 students who participated in the ‘Road to Reconciliation’, they would tell you ALL Gr. 7 students should be able to take part in this activity.
It is more than getting out of school for the day – it’s about learning in a different way. It is about walking in someone else’s shoes for even a brief amount of time. Hasn’t that always been the best way to learn?
Our hope is that in 10 years from now, feelings will have changed, and the next generation will not only understand Portage la Prairie’s diversity, but appreciate and embrace it.
We’d like to get there sooner. And, working together, maybe we will.