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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.

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