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.