I feel emotionally strong enough today to begin to tackle a subject that I tend to avoid a lot of the time…Residential Schools. A number of people have requested that I write something about this, but each time I’ve tried I’ve decided I was better off focusing on a different subject first.
If you don’t already intimately understand why I am hesitant to discuss Residential Schooling, then I’ll try to distill it down to subject-specific compassion fatigue:
… a condition characterised by a gradual lessening of compassion over time. It is common among trauma victims and individuals that work directly with trauma victims.
I am writing in the main for those of you who don’t actually know much about Residential Schools, but want to learn. I think it is important then to explain how common this compassion fatigue is among the generations of children who did not attend Residential Schools ourselves, but whose older relations did. I want to stress that this does not mean we no longer care. It is an emotional exhaustion which is a part of what is now called historic trauma transmission.
This is a topic I feel I cannot address adequately in a single post. I realise this may frustrate those of you who are used to me condensing these topics into a usefully small format, but I do not have it in me to work on this all at once. I thought I could just get it all over with quickly and then walk away, but I can’t. This post is merely the introduction, and I choose to do it this way for my own well-being.
They really are survivors.
We talk about the former students of Residential Schools as survivors, and this is not just some trite label. Many did not survive, either because they died in the system, or the trauma they experienced eventually ended in their deaths years later. Those who remain, survived.
The survivors often did not discuss their experiences. In the 80s, there was some limited recognition of how deeply these experiences had impacted both survivors, and their families, and slowly people started talking about it. I was born in 1977. For the bulk of my life I have heard some of the most heart-wrenching, horrific accounts you can possibly imagine. Most native people of my generation have. This is the stuff of nightmares, folks. The kind of thing you need to insulate yourself from sometimes, because it can make you unwell.
Whew. I haven’t even started in on the substance of the matter and I’m having a hard time with this.
It took television.
Because I have heard so many accounts over the years, I often forget that most Canadians know next to nothing about Residential Schools. In 2005 a mini-series called Into the West was produced in the US, and was fairly popular in Canada. Episode 5 introduced viewers to the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School, arguably the first Residential School in North America.
As far as I’m aware, there are no studies on how this television program impacted public perception in Canada, but I think there should be. The experiences portrayed in that episode were being discussed in cafes, online in debate forums… everywhere. It was in 2005 that I realised just how hidden these experiences had remained, despite the fact that our people had been telling their painful stories for decades by that point.
I certainly wasn’t the only one who entered these discussions and pointed out the same had been done in Canada. I must have given an overview of Residential School history hundreds of times in the next few months. It still boggles my mind to remember the shock on people’s faces. Non-native faces, mind you. I silently asked so many times…“How did you not know this!?” But of course they didn’t. Canada has still not fully acknowleged this part of its history, Harper’s apology notwithstanding.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m overstating the impact of a television series. But for me, it marked the beginning of a wider awareness.
You might have noticed by now that I’m not big on always tackling thing in a chronological fashion. Before I go into the history, I want to touch on the 2008 Statement of Apology. I won’t speak to its efficacy or to the many valid criticisms of the actions of Harper’s government since. This apology is only the beginning of a healing process that will take decades and will require the active participation and commitment of all Canadians.
Nonetheless, however jaded I am, however empty these words may be in the hearts of many that were spoken for, having these things said openly and officially still brings tears to my eyes. So I open this discussion with the following:
“The burden of this experience has been on your shoulders for far too long. The burden is properly ours as a Government, and as a country. There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian Residential Schools system to ever prevail again. You have been working on recovering from this experience for a long time and in a very real sense, we are now joining you on this journey. The Government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.”
I thank you for your patience for however long it takes to construct the follow up posts to this introduction.