“While church and government officials would have their differences, their overall commitment to civilizing and Christianizing Aboriginal children gave rise to an education system that emphasized the need to separate children from their culture, impose a new set of values and beliefs, provide a basic elementary education, and implant Europe’s emerging industrial work discipline” (Langevin, 2012, p. 16.)
The residential school period represents a highly contested, yet undeniably dark piece of Canadian history. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2012) has characterized the residential schools and the broader assimilation policies of the Canadian government as an “assault on families” (p. 11), and many writers, including Gresko (1979), Knockwood (1992), Smith (2001), Titley (1992), and Wilson (1986) agree that the residential schools were an explicit expression of the Government’s desire to assimilate all Native cultures that amounted to “an aggressive form of intercultural domination” (Smith, 2001, p. 60) which resulted in devastating and lasting emotional, psychological, economic, and cultural impacts on Canada’s Indigenous peoples (MacDonald, 2007; Smith, 2001).
The aim of this paper is to examine the context of the policies that gave rise to the residential school system, and to ask if those policies have been so substantially changed that we as Canadians can rightfully claim this legacy as a matter of settled history. Through understanding the historical context of this school system, its contemporary existence as child welfare is illuminated, and it becomes clear that this dark part of our past is not so far removed from us as those in power might like the Canadian people and international community to believe.
Drawing from a number of writers and critics, as well as insights from my own personal narrative as a culturally displaced Métis, I will attempt to illustrate how the Canadian policies of assimilation have permeated Aboriginal lives and experiences, even those who never set foot near a residential school, and how these policies continue to contribute to the ongoing impoverishment and marginalization of the nation’s most vulnerable groups.
History and Context
“Industrial schools were designed to assimilate by explicitly attempting to eradicate cultural difference, especially those which were antithetical or inconvenient to goals of governments and the missions. Combined with strategies for what can only be described as a ransacking of traditional forms of solidarity, including family and local community, these rationalities sought to extend the regulation of the state over Indian peoples by hastening their incorporation as subjects, and ultimately as [lower] citizens, of the Canadian state” (Smith, 2001, p. 258).
This desire for “assimilation” from the Government met a copacetic partner in the Missionary Churches who desired Native “conversion” to Christianity, and who had been providing religious education to Native communities long before the Government of Canada got involved (Levaque & OMI, 1990). This partnership created a complex web of power relations across the country, which ultimately resulted in a patchwork execution of the Government and Churches’ agendas and wide ranges in quality of care and education for children who were sent to these institutions (Langevin, 2012; Smith, 2001; Troniak, 2011). The treatment they received, and the curriculum of education they endured are clear evidence of the Government’s desire to destroy Aboriginal cultures. “Family is the primary agent of socialization,” (Anastasiu, 2012, p. 6) and it is no accident that the Government took its aim at Aboriginal families.
The ways the students were treated is very telling as to the esteem that Aboriginal people were held in by the Government and the Canadian public. John Hurt (1984) provides an historical introduction to industrial schooling where he shows that children were more often treated like inmates in prison. According to Hurt, “the high cost of imprisonment provided a further incentive for seeking a cheaper alternative” and so “the reformatory held out the lure of being cheaper and more cost-effective than the prison.” According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2012), students forced to attend these schools suffered incredible abuse, including starvation/malnutrition, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, crises in identity, and cultural loss that have all developed deep-rooted problems for contemporary Aboriginal societies that now have to grapple with substance abuse, domestic violence, suicide, and extreme poverty as a result of the students’ treatment as “inmates” in the residential schools.
The quality of the education received by many students was also very poor. Greater focus was given to “industrial” education, which often amounted to nothing more than forced child labour, and typically left graduates without sufficient skills to earn a living on or off the reserve (Hurt, 1984; Knockwood, 1992; Langevin, 2012a; Wilson, 1986). The lack of focus on skill development is further evidence of the Government’s disinterest in improving the dire circumstances that faced (and continue to face) Aboriginals. Instead, their interest was in removing the issue of Aboriginals from their agenda altogether by integrating them completely into the fabric of Europeanized Canada. They also had an interest in demonstrating the state’s power, and in controlling the discontented adult populations of Aboriginal people. “According to J.A. Macrae, inspector of Protestant schools with the Department of Indian Affairs, Indians would be less likely to cause trouble if their children were at the mercy of the state in its industrial schools” (Titley, 1992, p. 56).
How effective was this school system in meeting the goals of interested parties? In many ways, it was an abject failure of monstrous proportions for the state and Aboriginal communities both. For the Government, the “Indian problem” was never solved, and the expense of running the system continued to balloon out of control. For Aboriginal peoples, “we are only now understanding the full social, cultural, economic and psychological legacies of Indigenous residential schools.” (MacDonald, 2007, p. 1011). This “aggressive civilization” (Smith, 2001, p. 261) of Aboriginal people had irreversible impacts, but their survival in the face of incredible odds stands as a testament to the power and endurance of Indigenous cultures and spirit. In the next sections, the state’s efforts to ramp up their assimilation project after shuttering the residential schools will be explored, the question as to whether this chapter in Canadian history is actually closed will be pondered, and the full reach of the assimilation policies and cultural endurance will be discussed.
On May 10, 1994, Nelson Mandela was sworn in as President of South Africa following forty-six years of brutally racist and classist legal policies that privileged the White and wealthy to unfathomable costs to the Black and poor. The end of Apartheid in South Africa was supposed to herald a new age for the poor and disenfranchised black and indigenous populations of the country, but according to John Pilger (2007), the false perception of the destruction of Apartheid has allowed the continued systematic oppression of the society’s marginalized groups and actually resulted in worsened conditions for these people than they had experienced under Apartheid.
On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephan Harper delivered an official apology to the First Nations from the Government of Canada for its role in the residential school era, and it seemed that as a nation Canadians were prepared to acknowledge this hidden cultural genocide happening within our borders and work to make things right (Canada, 2008). Unfortunately, like in South Africa, many of the changes, including the closure of the residential schools, have actually resulted in worsening conditions for Aboriginal communities across the country because the fundamental assimilationist policies that spring from colonialism were not altered in any meaningful way.
When the residential schools were closed, a period widely cited as the “Sixties Scoop” occurred during which thousands of children were forcibly removed from their homes by well-meaning, if somewhat misguided, social workers and child welfare agents (Kulusic, 2005; Sinclair, 2007; Sullivan & Charles, 2010) Children were often taken and marketed to middle-class white families for adoption with less regard for the situations or wishes of the parents than were demonstrated during the residential schooling era. It seems “the white social worker, following on the heels of the missionary, the priest, and the Indian Agent, was convinced that the only hope for the salvation of the [Aboriginal] people lay in the removal of their children” (Sinclair, 2007, p. 67). Many things contribute to the over-representation of Aboriginal children in child welfare programs, but Blackstock, Trocmé, & Bennett (2004) found that overwhelmingly the conditions of extreme poverty resulting in “neglect” was the prime driver. They also note that in comparing cases of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal representation in child welfare services, Aboriginals were less likely to be reported for physical or sexual abuse, but more often reported for substance abuse and neglect.
The problem with a term like the “Sixties Scoop,” though accurate in label, is that it implies this manifestation of the colonial agenda is a thing of the past, when in fact, Aboriginal children continue to be taken from their homes at increasingly alarming rates without regard for the disastrous consequences of doing so for Aboriginal communities and the children who get taken (Blackstock, 2007; Sullivan & Charles, 2010). Child welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock (2007), notes that “there are more First nations children in child welfare care today than at the height of the residential schools [period] by a factor of three” (p. 74), and Sullivan and Charles (2010) found this trend to be persistent in its increase and in its connection to impoverishment on reserves. It seems the lessons the government had apparently learned and expressed remorse for in 2008 have largely gone unheeded, and now we have a sort of Canadian Apartheid system where officials can claim that assimilation and cultural genocide are a matter of history, all while knowingly impoverishing First Nation communities, under-funding child welfare programs on reserves, and continuing the work of the residential schools in adoptive families all over the country (Blackstock et al., 2004; Blackstock, 2007).
The Power of Cultural Endurance
How far-reaching have Canada’s assimilationist, colonial policies been for Aboriginal people? Nearly all of the authors cited in this paper agree with two powerful truths: the policies have had devastating, cross-generational effects on First Nations cultures by attacking them at the spiritual and linguistic core, but as pervasive as the destruction has been, the power of Aboriginal resistance and cultural endurance is equally pervasive. To explore this key theme, I have reflected a great deal on the sources of my own ways of thinking and understanding the world, and I have begun to trace these sources to my Aboriginal roots through realizing that my mother, though she mostly identifies as French, is Aboriginal.
I was born and raised in Ontario and I carry an English name that I assumed traced my ancestry to European roots for most of my life. My parents worked blue-collar jobs and I attended public schools all over the suburbs of Toronto in mostly white, Christian communities. In my mid-twenties, I began learning about my Aboriginal ancestry through stories of my great-grandmother on my mother’s side, who was a Métis of Mi’kmaq and French descent from the Gaspé Peninsula in Québec.
In becoming familiar with Aboriginal ways of seeing, knowing, being, and doing, I have begun to recognize how those qualities have survived in my upbringing, even in complete separation from the oral tradition of my ancestors. The principles of individual autonomy in community cooperation that form the basis of Mi’kmaq culture have made it through five hundred years of colonialism, the residential school experiment in cultural genocide, generations of inter-marriage and assimilation into White Canada, and find themselves alive, though perhaps of a different form, in the way I tend to see the world. I have always had a high regard and love for nature and environmentalism. I believe deeply in cooperation and equality and have very little need for competition or greed. These principles I learned through my mother who had the bulk of responsibility in raising me and my sister. She had learned them from her mother, who learned them from her grandmother. Even though the oral tradition of the Mi’kmaq has been severely diminished, its teachings survive still after generations of assimilation, and that is a testament to the power of Aboriginal cultural endurance.
I chose to write this paper because I have a thirst to reconnect with my Aboriginal ancestry and culture. I have felt on the margins and largely bewildered by the mainstream mentality most of my life, and I’m finally beginning to understand why. Though I never suffered the horror of residential school, I share a displacement with the survivors of the Government’s failed efforts to assimilate Aboriginal cultures. As a result, like some residential school survivors, I have struggled with addiction, depression, and chronic unemployment, and I have found it difficult to separate my authentic self from the complexity that is my colonized family.
I am grateful that my assimilation experience was not the tragedy that many Aboriginal children have had to endure, but my very existence is proof of the state’s intentional cultural genocide because I was raised entirely in the absence of the traditions, rituals, stories, and histories that informed the basis of my psychological development. According to Agnes Grant (1996), “the role of language in a culture which bases all teaching and learning on the oral tradition is that it transmits the collective memory of the people” which “embodies a culture’s spirituality” and provides the necessary context for relating to others and understanding the world (p. 193). Being raised in White, middle-class Canada with my Aboriginal cultural heritage invisible to me has resulted in my current very white, settled, English-speaking life, but the basis of my worldview is contradictory and countercultural because of my Aboriginal roots. I work and pay bills and taxes and I’m the picture of what early residential school supporters envisioned, and what the Government desperately hoped, would happen for all Aboriginal people, yet I do not possess the individualistic, industrialized greed and power addiction that would conform me to Colonialized Canadian culture.
As I join with thousands of Aboriginal people, including the survivors of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and modern-day cross-cultural adoptees across the country in reconnecting with my heritage and strengthening the foundations of my culture, traditional spirits are beginning to renew. Even now, up against incredible odds against their survival, some might say the most incredible odds they have ever faced, the First People of Canada are bouncing back, reclaiming their cultural autonomy, relearning their languages and rebuilding their families (Langevin, 2012).
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