In 1996, the last residential school in Canada was closed down, bringing to light horrifying stories about the methods used to sever indigenous children from the influence of their families and to assimilate them into the dominant “Canadian” culture. Over more than a century, tens of thousands of families were torn apart as children were kidnapped or forcibly removed from their homes
Residential schools were part of an extensive education system set up by the Canadian government and administered by churches with the objective of indoctrinating Aboriginal children into the Euro-Canadian and Christian way of life.
Bud Whiteye, a survivor of the Mohawk Institute Residential School, was “picked up” and taken to the school along with four other children as they walked along a public road to visit his grandmother.
“They didn’t put us in a room and indoctrinate us all day long or anything like that,” he explains. “It was in the routine of the place.
“You didn’t speak anything but English. You went to the white man’s school. You went to the white man’s church. You wore white mens’ clothes. All those were built in. It wasn’t a classroom-type lecture. It was ingrained in the system.”
In 2008, the Canadian government launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which finally enabled survivors to give their testimonies on life in the residential schools. Abuse – mental, physical and sexual – was rife and, although research and statistics vary, it is estimated that 6,000 children died in these schools. Some evidence puts the casualties at three times that number.
Denalda is also a residential school survivor. She cannot remember how she arrived at the school, only that she was there for some part of her childhood. She was also a witness to abuse at her residential school – abuse that may have resulted in the death of a friend.
“I met this older girl who kind of took care of me when I was growing up. She was going to ask her mother to come and take me home to be her little sister,” Denalda recalls. “But it didn’t happen because she got hurt. She got hurt bad. I think somebody hit her against a tree.”
The education provided by the schools was also controversial. Formal schooling was often given up in favour of manual labour, such as agriculture.
“I worked on a farm so long that I picked up a certain discipline for hard work, to get me where I’m going,” says Bud Whiteye.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers were often charged with the task of removing children from their family homes or “picking them up” to take them to the residential schools. Families who refused to give up their children were either arrested, fined or both.
Many officers still live with feelings of regret over what their government did and the role they were made to play in it.
“At the time I didn’t like the idea of taking kids away from their family and it bothered me,” says Ron Short, a former RCMP officer.
“Of course, being in the RCMP I had no alternative. You couldn’t complain about it. The only thing I knew about the Indian residential schools was that they were places where you could get a formal education.
“Since then, I’ve come to realise what they were about. And I know differently now.”
Although survivors had begun to speak out about the atrocities in the late 1980s, it was only in the mid-1990s that courts finally ruled in favour of the witnesses, enabling them to sue the government for the abuses and claim compensation.
After its formation, the TRC travelled around Canada for six years, gathering testimony from thousands who bore witness to the tragedies of the residential schools. Numerous “Aboriginal healing” programmes were put in place to help those affected to move on with their lives.
“When every residential school survivor is healed, I’ll be healed,” reflects Short. “Until they’re healed, I won’t be. And I’ll keep talking to anybody who will listen.”