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Four years ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology to former residential school students on behalf of all Canadians, referring to a “sad chapter in our history.” But for many residential school survivors, their descendants, and Indigenous communities, the apology did not mark the conclusion of some era in the distant past.
If Canadian history were a book, the “sad chapter” would be a long one. In fact, it would fill every single page except perhaps for an epilogue that is still being written.
For over 100 years, First Nations, Métis and Inuit students were sent to over 150 residential schools run by the federal government and various churches from coast to coast to northern coast. In many cases students were subject to years of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Separated from their families and communities, children were forbidden to speak their own languages, interact with siblings and other students of the opposite sex, and were told that their cultures were worthless and uncivilized.
“These were not side effects of a well-intentioned system: the purpose of the residential school system was to separate children from the influences of their parents and their community, so as to destroy their culture,” reads the introduction to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 2012 report They Came for the Children.
“The impacts were devastating,” continues the report. “Countless students emerged from the schools as lost souls, their lives soon to be cut short by drugs, alcohol, and violence.”
But some students managed to survive. For decades, residential school survivors have fought for justice both for their own suffering and to honour those who did not make it.
A series of court actions culminated in the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. One element of the Agreement was the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), tasked with documenting and revealing the history and legacy of residential schools and beginning a dialogue about dealing with this history, looking to the future.
“We can’t go ahead and think everything’s okay because we have a Settlement Agreement and we have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” said First Nations Summit Grand Chief Edward John at a regional TRC event in Victoria this past April.
John attended a residential school in northern British Columbia for seven years. Of all the stories, he says, one in particular stands out. While he was a student, three young boys ran away from the school.
“They found them by a water hole, huddled together and frozen to death. That really haunted me for years. And it still does,” said John, breaking down in tears at the podium.
He used the Eagles’ lyrics to Hotel California, a song that he listened to on his way to the TRC event, to describe the continuing impact of his residential school experience: “You can check out but you can’t leave.”
Some church representatives have stated that reconciliation can be achieved through adequate compensation. But for many residential school survivors, the nominal common experience payment established by the Settlement Agreement has not resolved anything.
“They gave us a few dollars. We’re supposed to be healed,” said Blackfoot residential school survivor Keith Chief Moon during a Survivors Sharing Circle at the Victoria event.
“Canada has to walk their talk before we can reconcile,” he said.
TRC Head Commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair and many survivors have consistently pointed out that reconciliation will not happen overnight with an apology, a court settlement agreement, or the creation of a truth commission.
“We ask you to remember that it took us 130 years – seven generations – to get to this point,” Sinclair told reporters at a February 2012 press conference in Vancouver. “It may take us that long, it may take us longer, to fix it.”
French missionaries began a few brief attempts at sending Indigenous children to boarding schools in Quebec as early as the 1600s. The Mohawk Institute founded by British missionaries in Brantford, Ontario began boarding Indigenous students in the 1830s, decades before the establishment of the Canadian government in 1867. Although many schools began closing in the mid-20th century, the last of the residential schools did not close until 1996, according to the TRC.
When the Canadian government was established, the residential school system was already part of colonial policy to “civilize” and assimilate Indigenous Peoples and it continued to be so for well over a century. There have been less than two decades of Canadian history without active residential schools.
Many survivors do not think that the government’s actions in the four years since the Primer Minister’s apology indicate any serious commitment to healing and reconciliation.
At the February launch of the interim report in Vancouver, the TRC issued several recommendations, including the restoration of federal government funding to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF). The Foundation was established in 1998 from a federal healing fund created in response to the 1996 Canadian Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Federal government funding to the AHF came to a halt in 2010.
But instead of responding to the call to restore funding to the AHF, the federal government made further cuts to Indigenous organizations in the 2012 budget.
The National Aboriginal Health Organization announced that its activities would wind down by June 2012 as a result of federal funding cuts. The Native Women’s Association of Canada and the Inuit women’s organization Pauktuutit, both of which have important women’s, community and mental health initiatives, have also suffered from budget cuts.
“In some ways I think the closure of some of these groups and the TRC happening kind of really are opposite messages given to not just Aboriginal people but Canada and the world,” said Kecia Larkin in an interview, after giving her statement as an intergenerational survivor at the regional TRC event in Victoria.
“It’s a very hypocritical behaviour and very damaging to Aboriginal people, I think, and it’s going to be. This isn’t the end,” said Larkin.
At the west coast TRC events this year, many residential school survivors remarked that although residential schools are now closed, the school system’s framework and goals are reflected in ongoing government policies and actions. Survivors have pointed to Indigenous health statistics, oil pipeline proposals, missing and murdered women, over-representation in the prison and foster care systems, and government funding cuts to Indigenous organizations and services.
Survivors told the TRC that an apology or an attempt at reconciliation is meaningless if the “sad chapter” has not ended, explaining that they see continuity between the residential school system and Canadian government policy today.
But they also emphasize the courage of the countless residential school survivors who have spoken out and fought for justice in the court system for decades. Without their actions, there would be no apology, no truth commission, and no ongoing conversation about how Canada needs to deal with its residential school history.
“Government of Canada policy was to destroy the Indians,” said Keith Chief Moon during his statement to a Survivors Sharing Circle at the TRC regional event in Victoria earlier this year.
“They haven’t succeeded,” he added. “We’re still here.”
Sandra Cuffe is a Vancouver-based journalist and regular contributor to the Vancouver Media Co-op.
This article is the first in a series of VMC posts about residential schools and the TRC that will be published over the next three weeks, including blog entries from the TRC National Event in Saskatoon, June 21-24, 2012.