February 24, 2016
Most of us feel pride in our identity as Islanders and Canadians; however, none of us can feel proud of our historical and current relations with Indigenous peoples in Canada. Eight years ago, to begin to address historical wrongs, Canada entered a Truth and Reconciliation process. Witnesses from across the nation – especially First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples – shared their experiences of Canada’s dark history of cultural genocide, policies of assimilation, and residential schools. After seven years of consultations, the report was published.
The Residential School system was a deliberate, methodical process to destroy familial and community bonds by removing Indigenous children from their homes and communities for the majority of their youth. Once at school, the children were punished if they spoke Indigenous languages or engaged in cultural activities. They were forced to observe Christian practices; their handmade traditional clothing was taken; their long hair was cut. The children were often kept in substandard facilities, with poor-quality food, receiving a substandard education that assumed they were less capable and intelligent. Many were physically, sexually, and mentally abused. Children died; however, we did not keep proper records, so we can’t say how many. At home, the adults were told by agents with Indian Affairs that cultural activities, medicines, and other aspects of Indigenous culture were prohibited. As explicitly planned by the early Canadian Government, Indigenous peoples’ social, political, cultural, and spiritual values and identity were severely disrupted.
Documented history shows that the children were often used as forced labour to raise monies to keep the schools open. Most of us agree low teacher to student ratios allow children to get the attention they need to learn. In one residential school in 1915, there were two teachers for 120 students. One report stated that “when (the children) return to the Reserves they have not enough education to enable them to transact ordinary business—scarcely enough to enable them to write a legible letter.” These schools were not about education.
Many non-Indigenous Canadians believe this chapter is ancient history. In truth, the last school closed in 1996 – only 20 years ago. Many survivors are alive today and most Indigenous Canadians have close relatives who survived the Schools.
The Report contains 94 Calls to Action. Many are meant for our governments, but Islanders can help. Read about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its calls for action. Join the Truth and Reconciliation Study Group running every second Thursday from 12-1pm at the Confederation Centre Library (next Thursday is March 3) — or begin your own study group. Support our governments to act on the Commission’s calls to action. Meet your Indigenous neighbours and support local Indigenous endeavours.
As written in the final Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report: “the Survivors acted with courage and determination. We should do no less.” So let’s be brave. Let’s make Canada a country we can all feel proud of.
Chairperson of the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women
- Canadians must accept obligations with Indigenous peoples, Letter to the Editor, The Guardian, PEI, February 24, 2016