Justice Murray Sinclair has said that it is culture that gives our lives meaning. It is culture that provides the basis for identity. For most of Canada’s history, successive governments have engaged in a concerted effort to eliminate the culture of First Nations Peoples in a misguided and disastrous attempt at assimilation.
Duncan Campbell Scott was Canada’s first superintendent of Canadian residential schools and a deputy minister of Indian Affairs in the early part of the 20th century. As a government official, he wrote that it was desirable to “kill the Indian in the child” and suggested higher disease rates in residential schools were a “final solution of our Indian problem” – chilling words that incite genocide.
Wab Kinew, First Nations activist, media personality and NDP MLA, in regards to Scott says that ”he tried to kill our language – but he failed”.
The first residential schools in Canada were established in the 1870s, shortly after the first treaties were signed in 1871 by First Nations communities and the still relatively new Dominion of Canada. One of the components of those treaties, says Kevin Lamoureux, was a promise by the Canadian government to provide schools for First Nations children so that they could compete as full participants in Canadian society.
The treaties were signed in a spirit of partnership,” says Lamoureux, the University of Winnipeg’s Associate Vice-President for Indigenous Affairs. “The results for First Nations Peoples were disastrous – and not by accident.”
Now Lamoureux notes that sending kids away to school in the 19th century was not something new. It had been part of the European cultural landscape for generations.
“Unfortunately,” he says, “when the schools were created for First Nations children, they were created in a social milieu that was rife with racism. The mindset seemed to be that by killing Indigenous cultures through education, there would eventually be no more Indians and the Government wouldn’t have to bother with treaty rights.”
As a result, Lamoureux points out, right from the start Aboriginal schools were woefully underfunded. “They were contracted out often to Churches,” he notes. “The low bids won. There was very little accountability. The church schools were rife with pedophiles and sociopaths who had unfettered access to the kids. Cases of neglect and sexual assault went unchecked for generations.
The children were battered and abused and their trauma was passed down to their children and grandchildren. Over 150,000 children were put through the Residential School system. Today, there are over 400,000 First Nations children in the care of Child and Family Services agencies as a result of intergenerational trauma.”
Indigenous People came to be seen by fellow Canadians as the “other”, as socially inferior, Lamoureux points out. And when immigrants from Europe came to this country after Confederation, they learned nothing about their indigenous neighbours and treaty rights. Instead, they absorbed the prevailing view of Indigenous Peoples as inferior.
And that view of inferiority became encoded in the Indian Act.
Lamoureux quotes Cindy Blackstock - Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada – as saying that Canada is the last country in the industrialized world that enforces race-based laws – through the Indian Act – that separates people on the basis of different law for different people.
In 2007, Blackstock (who is also an associate professor for the Faculty of Extension at the University of Alberta) - together with the Assembly of First Nations - filed a complaint against Ottawa with the Canadian Human Rights Commission charging that the Federal Government discriminates against First Nations children on reserves by underfunding child welfare services. The case eventually went to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal which ruled early in 2016 that The federal government discriminates against First Nation children on reserves by failing to provide the same level of child welfare services that exist elsewhere.
“It makes me sad,” Blackstock was quoted as saying in an interview with CBC in 2013, “that the Canadian government is fighting against the equality of First Nations children. It makes me wonder what they "stand on guard" for when they sing ‘O Canada’.”
The roadmap to move forward, Lamoureux says, has been provided by Justice Murray Sinclair who was the chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “The key is education,” Lamoureux says. “Racism is alive and well in all of our communities but much of it is due to a lack of education and awareness. New immigrants to Canada may say that the Residential School system has nothing to do with them. But one doesn’t get to choose which aspects of Canada you identify with. The Residential Schools system is the legacy of all Canadians. It is only when all Canadians accept ownership of that
the legacy that the healing will begin.
“I know there are people who will say just get over it. But for an injury to heal, the source of the injury has to be diagnosed and excised. The mindset of our society as a whole has to change before the healing can succeed.
“I believe in the goodwill of Canadians and have faith that our fellow Canadians are ready to learn from history, become agents of change and work toward building a better future for all Canadians.
Excerpt From: Yoladna Papini-Pollock. “Never Again: A Broken Promise.” Infilm Productions Inc., 2016. iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/ca/book/never-again-a-broken-promise/id1180821600?mt=11