Residential Schools: an Introduction

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.

The apology.

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 sinceThis 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.

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Categories: Injustice, Residential schools

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0 Responses to Residential Schools: an Introduction


  1. Jeffrey Canton says:

    Your blog is so amazing and I am going to share it, with your permission with my students up at York University in Toronto – I wanted to email you about getting a copy of a post you had up on your blog around the time you were writing about Attawapiskat but haven’t figured out how to do that

  2. rene sabourin says:

    You offer us enlightenment, for that we are grateful. My husband and his siblings had no idea they were metis, until after the parents died and one became interested in geneology. Our only explanation for not knowing, is that the parents wanted it that way, for fear that their 6 children would be sent away to residential schools. The oft times phrases heard as children between mother and auntie were not made up words afterall, but actually part of their heritage ! Our learning curve is steep, but we are eager and my husband stands proudly now as a member of MNO, the most precious item we own is the metis sash. Thank you for your blog, it helps us understand so very much.

  3. memebot says:

    Bravo âpihtawikosisân for having the courage to discuss this very painful topic. I don’t think anyone can overstate the depths of pain and sorrow that the Residential Schools have inflicted on generation upon generation of First Nations people in Canada. Your eloquence and pride lend this sensitive subject a dignity that our parents, grandparents, aunties, and uncles deserve and were so cruelly denied.

  4. Jeffrey Canton says:

    I echo membot but I also think what you’re doing is also hugely important for those of us non-Native peoples who did not have family and friends who suffered under the auspices of this heinous program and who need to know and see and understand the full depth of the tragedy of the Residential Schools and to help us put pressure on our government to do something more substantial than offer hollow apologies.

  5. Stan W. Humchitt says:

    Olaagala Yacksum is what I said, I was dragged into the pricipals office for saying this, that white man (pricipal) asked what did I say. I was saying “this is no good” to my cousin I was nine years old being proud of learning this from my mother. from then on, I learned on how to hate them rather than trying to understand them, I never grew up with my parants, just visited them during summer holidays. I was strapped for saying those words. You stated well of us survivors, well here’s another for you to dwell, I survived alcohoism, where this gave me my courage to cry as well as to talk at times, Being sober now for going on 10 years, I don’t studder no more and do have a loud voice and do sing loud. Keep up the good work and thank you for your giving me the oppertunity to express myself

  6. Rhoda says:

    Many people don’t realise the extent of the damage and the multi-generational impact on families. I would like to recommend Mr. Larry Loyie’s books for a child’s perspective and experience as a residential school student.

  7. Jackie Nixon says:

    You are not alone in your feelings. Both of my parents attended residential school, they rarely talk about it. You are right that it is important for our generation to work through this, painful as it is. Take your time, there are many of us who are walking this road with you…you are not alone in this 🙂

  8. Cynthia Preston says:

    I am enjoying 8th Fire on CBC, tonigh, tried to watch it last night but the hubby came up and wanted to talk about the days events. I see so many connections between the natives of Canada’s stories and the stories of my own family except the losses of language, culture, abuse, religions occurred generationally within the family. It is true you know we all share common experiences whether they be of persecution or simple everyday experiences of work play love and grief birth and death. Keep writing I have much to learn and perhaps to share also.

  9. Thank you so much. For even taking a deep breath and starting. Instant tears of gratitude welled up even just seeing this title in my inbox. As I said, we absolutely need to know.

    It’s not all up to you, though; if you can point us to additional sources I’m sure many of us would be thankful. I would be willing to sit for a very long time and listen to the experiences of one person or many, as a start. I don’t think I’m tough enough, but I’d do it anyway, for the sake of all of us.

    Thank you for your fortitude, and for this forum. You are helping the healing just by being you.

  10. native32 says:

    thank you for you out look on this yes difficult subject. I am a adult student at the Native Education College in Vancouver BC, we in class have spoke on this topic many times, and have written about our personal experiences with it. I am studying Aboriginal Criminal Justice. Thank You Once again, people need to understand the forms of assimilation the Canadian Government has tried on our people, and yes there are survivors and we will heal.

  11. Enid says:

    “As long as the Rivers Flow” by James Bartleman
    I’ve written to get the TORONTO PUBLIC LIBRARY to make this their “ONE READ” book for the month of April 2012. It’s a ‘lighter’ version of the trauma FN survivors have suffered and the long-term and generational affects this abuse results in. I am hoping that it will get chosen, as its message is still unknown to most Canadians.

  12. Heather says:

    I think we as Canadians like to think of ourselves as human rights advocates and examples to the world. We look down our noses at other countries for how they treat people. We think, “Thank goodness that would never happen in Canada”. But it’s amazing the human rights atrocities that are throughout our history: Residential Schools, Japanese Interment Camps, Sexual Sterilization of People with Mental Health issues to name a few. We are not as spotless as we would like to think we are.

    Being aware of our past, so that we never repeat it is crucial. Talking about injustices still happening today in Canada is so important. Thank you for starting this post. I can’t say I’m looking forward to reading more about Residential Schools, but I know it’s important and that reading about it is nothing compared to what the people that actually went through this system had to endure. Thank you.

    • Canadians are not the only ones blind to their own oppressive and ugly history, or to continued examples of oppression ‘here at home’. That selective blindness seems to be pretty common, and I think it has a lot to do with proximity. It is easy to look at a situation as someone external to it, and recognise that the situation is characterised by injustice and oppression. It is much more difficult to recognise that the stereotypes you have been raised to believe about a certain people aren’t necessarily true, or legitimate.

      It’s the “yes but when we do it, it’s not racist, it’s justified!” syndrome.

      Proximity also refers to where you are in time. It is much easier to look at historical injustices and recognise them as bad than it is to even see what is happening in the contemporary context. It would be a strange thing to have to explain to someone why slavery is not okay, right? Yet it is a frighteningly common thing to have to explain to people why current forms of oppression are not okay. They need to be convinced. They aren’t sure that what you’re talking about is actually unjustified, bad, or oppressive.

      Canada should continue to feel that it is a nation that respects human rights and that strives towards a goal of human dignity and inclusion, but ignoring this nation’s history isn’t going to help. Canada needs to recognise the dark moments that it has faced and participated in, and it needs to learn from those mistakes. It will not undermine our goals to become more aware of the kinds of things you’ve mentioned, but it will make us more aware that we have to be extremely vigilant if we want to avoid letting those kinds of things happen again.

  13. Tiiu says:

    Thank you for starting to explore this topic. Take your time. I look forward to learning and reading more, and deepening my understanding.

  14. I second the comment recommending Larry Loyie’s books. He and his partner Constance Brissenden are lovely people. Larry was separated from his family by residential schools; the only connection was a document he found in a local Oblate archive. Eventually he was reunited with a brother. His books are great, and he writes (wonderfully) for children. There are so many good resources written by survivors I can recommend to Canadians. Carlisle was not the first Indian residential school, by the way. There were some very early (1600s) Jesuit schools, but the first modern IRS would be the Mohawk Institute, aka Mush Hole, in Brantford, 1831-1969. I’ve written a few pieces — here’s one: http://waynekspear.com/2010/01/22/the-mush-hole/ and here’s another: http://waynekspear.com/2010/03/10/canada%E2%80%99s-indian-residential-school-system/ Carlisle was first in the sense that it was the model studied by Nicholas Flood Davin in an 1879 report (I link to it and many other source documents in the pieces above) recommending a similar arrangement for Canada. John Macdonald adopted these recommendations. Carlisle was run by a General Richard Pratt, the fellow who in a speech at a conference used the phrase (often wrongly attributed to D.C. Scott) “kill the Indian in the child.”

  15. Nokamis says:

    The Aboriginal Healing Foundation has engaged in a keen focus on residential school trauma and the link below provides some insightful articles. This is a challenging subject on so many levels, and having worked with communities in this area with a focus on education and healing I have some understanding about how challenging exploring and discussing this subject can be. Nonetheless, this focus is a truly important one so keep the fires burning.

    http://www.ahf.ca/publications/research-series

  16. Terry McKay says:

    I am a survivor of 2 BC schools & Edmonton, Thanks to wonderful family, friends and the spirits of my parents & grandparents, I have gotten past the experences, they don’t bother me anymore.
    However, I want to talk about Harper’s apology. For one thing, he wasn’t there, he knows absolutely nothing about what happened to us. For another, it wasn’t him who did the abuse, humiliation, beating, etc. His apology meant nothing to me on that front.
    On another front, I reject his apology because he & his governent continue to abuse Indians in Canada. Our ancestors taught us that we are all brothers and sisters, so therefore we must care for each other.
    He ask our forgiveness(I guess) for the wrongs of the residential schools.
    But he abuses us by denying funding to Sisters in Spirit.
    His government continually underfunds our children in the education field.
    – underfunding in housing, health, environment, disregards treaties, etc., etc.
    He shouldn’t expect to be forgiven on one hand while he abuses us on another hand.
    The government is trying to continue treating us as they have for 500+ years.
    The residential schools were one of their biggest attacks against us, but we survived because of the strength of our ancestors.
    More strength is on the way via our children and grandchildren.

    • All very good criticisms of the apology, absolutely. Thank you for including these things for people to read. I haven’t come back to this topic yet (and I don’t know when I will) so it helps to have people providing important information to those who are unaware of these things.

  17. nokamis says:

    During the course of focusing on residential school trauma with community members (mostly elders), what is particularly alarming (though not surprising) was that for the first time some victims were disclosing to their grown children the abuses they endured in residential school. I say alarming because having worked in a helping capacity with families and their extended kin, the inability to effectively deal with some extremely hard issues was a direct result of a lack of knowledge about the ‘core’ issues’ birthed in their elders’ trauma and abuse. The elders’ initial disclosures provided some catharsis for them in the telling, and a whole new understanding began to unfold for family members about the roots of their own inter-generational trauma and the impacts this trauma produced in their lives. This beginning is much akin to a large table of scattered puzzle pieces that one must put together to get a whole picture that would then allow for the healing process to begin. The healing begins in the telling, requires much support and an ongoing determination by communities at large to step by step, arm in arm begin that (life long) journey toward well-being.

    On another note – I too feel that Harper’s ‘apology’ is backhanded.

    • On the issue of the apology…for me, I feel it needed to happen because there are people who would continue to deny the abuses of the Residential Schools if it were never recognised officially. It bothers me more than I can say that our stories alone aren’t enough to convince people that bad things were intended and indeed happened…but the fact is that these kinds of official statements are taken as ‘proof’ by those who would otherwise deny the truth. Until that apology, Canada simply denied.

      No, not enough progress has been made, not before and not after that apology, but at least my kids live in a time when Canada is not actively denying it did anything wrong, and that means something to me.

  18. nokamis says:

    I agree that Canada’s apology does have merit with regard to moving beyond denial of any wrongdoing, and that does mean something. On the backside it would be ‘ideal’ to see a full measure of remorse and conciliatory movement beyond mere lip service in the form of an apology…just saying.

    • No justice, no peace…and we haven’t had justice yet.

      In 2007, Australia began “The Intervention,” a very criticised set of extreme policies which interceded in the lives of aborigines in a way not seen for many, many decades. It has been internationally recognised as ‘incompatible with Australia’s human rights obligations’ (from here). I bring this up because Australia offered an apology too in 2008, one year after beginning the Intervention. They haven’t changed the policy yet. Apologies do not necessarily translate into action…just like promises did not. It’s good to remember this I think.

  19. nokamis says:

    Yes very important to remember that apologies do not necessarily translate into action. I lived and worked in NSW Australia between 2003 and 2005 serving Aboriginal communities from a mainstream organization, and the average non-aboriginal mindset in that context was a real eye opener. Wowzaa apples and oranges compared to aboriginal life experience here where we do have a voice. So all the more encouraging to strengthen the collective, inform, and keep the fires burning.

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