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Wednesday, 22 August 2012

A Healing Totem in Yukon

















A Healing Totem....by itself, is a huge undertaking. Couple that then with the responsibility that falls on the shoulders of these carvers in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. They are carving a symbolic totem from a 34 foot red cedar, to give closure...to give hope...perhaps meaning, to the families, and friends of people that died in the name of political and religious righteousness. Not all have died mind you...many survived to this day..with the scars buried deep within..some unable to bring an end to the years of torment.
















The chips are  being saved, held in this bent box, and as people come by to watch, they are invited to write the name of a person that they knew, that has died from the anguish through drugs or alcohol or by whatever means....and on October 13th, the pole will be carried by hand to location in town...and a fire lit, burning the chips to ash.









Some of those ashes will be sealed into the Totem, signifying a return of a child to it's Mother.








Students in a classroom in Resolution, N.W.T. Students in a classroom in Resolution, N.W.T. (National Archives of Canada)

The Residential School System

Children's dining room, Indian Residential School, Edmonton, Alberta. Between 1925-1936. United Church Archives, Toronto, From Mission to Partnership Collection.
Children's dining room, Indian Residential School, Edmonton, Alberta. Between 1925-1936. United Church Archives, Toronto, From Mission to Partnership Collection.

Residential Schools

Two primary objectives of the residential school system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, “to kill the Indian in the child.” Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, official apology, June 11, 2008  

What was the Indian residential school system?

The term residential schools refers to an extensive school system set up by the Canadian government and administered by churches that had the nominal objective of educating Aboriginal children but also the more damaging and equally explicit objectives of indoctrinating them into Euro-Canadian and Christian ways of living and assimilating them into mainstream Canadian society. The residential school system operated from the 1880s into the closing decades of the 20th century. The system forcibly separated children from their families for extended periods of time and forbade them to acknowledge their Aboriginal heritage and culture or to speak their own languages. Children were severely punished if these, among other, strict rules were broken. Former students of residential schools have spoken of horrendous abuse at the hands of residential school staff: physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological. Residential schools provided Aboriginal students with an inferior education, often only up to grade five, that focused on training students for manual labour in agriculture, light industry such as woodworking, and domestic work such as laundry work and sewing.
Residential schools systematically undermined Aboriginal culture across Canada and disrupted families for generations, severing the ties through which Aboriginal culture is taught and sustained, and contributing to a general loss of language and culture. Because they were removed from their families, many students grew up without experiencing a nurturing family life and without the knowledge and skills to raise their own families. The devastating effects of the residential schools are far-reaching and continue to have significant impact on Aboriginal communities. Because the government’s and the churches’ intent was to eradicate all aspects of Aboriginal culture in these young people and interrupt its transmission from one generation to the next, the residential school system is commonly considered a form of cultural genocide.
From the 1990s onward, the government and the churches involved—Anglican, Presbyterian, United, and Roman Catholic—began to acknowledge their responsibility for an education scheme that was specifically designed to “kill the Indian in the child.” On June 11, 2008, the Canadian government issued a formal apology in Parliament for the damage done by the residential school system. In spite of this and other apologies, however, the effects remain.

What led to the residential schools?

European settlers in Canada brought with them the assumption that their own civilization was the pinnacle of human achievement. They interpreted the socio-cultural differences between themselves and the Aboriginal peoples as proof that Canada’s first inhabitants were ignorant, savage, and—like children—in need of guidance. They felt the need to “civilize” the Aboriginal peoples. Education—a federal responsibility—became the primary means to this end.
Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald commissioned journalist and politician Nicholas Flood Davin to study industrial schools for Aboriginal children in the United States. Davin’s recommendation to follow the U.S. example of “aggressive civilization” led to public funding for the residential school system. “If anything is to be done with the Indian, we must catch him very young. The children must be kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions,” Davin wrote in his 1879 Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds (Davin’s report can be read here.)
In the 1880s, in conjunction with other federal assimilation policies, the government began to establish residential schools across Canada. Authorities would frequently take children to schools far from their home communities, part of a strategy to alienate them from their families and familiar surroundings. In 1920, under the Indian Act, it became mandatory for every Indian child to attend a residential school and illegal for them to attend any other educational institution.1
Students in the assembly hall of the Alberni Indian Residential School, 1960s. United Church Archives, Toronto, from Mission to Partnership Collection.
Male students in the assembly hall of the Alberni Indian Residential School, 1960s. United Church Archives, Toronto, from Mission to Partnership Collection.
Students in the assembly hall of the Alberni Indian Residential School, 1960s. United Church Archives, Toronto, from Mission to Partnership Collection.
Female students in the assembly hall of the Alberni Indian Residential School, 1960s. United Church Archives, Toronto, from Mission to Partnership Collection.

Living conditions at the residential schools

The purpose of the residential schools was to eliminate all aspects of Aboriginal culture. Students had their hair cut short, they were dressed in uniforms, and their days were strictly regimented by timetables. Boys and girls were kept separate, and even siblings rarely interacted, further weakening family ties.2  Chief Bobby Joseph of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society recalls that he had no idea how to interact with girls and never even got to know his own sister “beyond a mere wave in the dining room.”3  In addition, students were strictly forbidden to speak their languages—even though many children knew no other—or to practise Aboriginal customs or traditions. Violations of these rules were severely punished.

Residential school students did not receive the same education as the general population in the public school system, and the schools were sorely underfunded. Teachings focused primarily on practical skills. Girls were primed for domestic service and taught to do laundry, sew, cook, and clean. Boys were taught carpentry, tinsmithing, and farming. Many students attended class part-time and worked for the school the rest of the time: girls did the housekeeping; boys, general maintenance and agriculture. This work, which was involuntary and unpaid, was presented as practical training for the students, but many of the residential schools could not run without it. With so little time spent in class, most students had only reached grade five by the time they were 18. At this point, students were sent away. Many were discouraged from pursuing further education.

Abuse at the schools was widespread: emotional and psychological abuse was constant, physical abuse was meted out as punishment, and sexual abuse was also common. Survivors recall being beaten and strapped; some students were shackled to their beds; some had needles shoved in their tongues for speaking their native languages.4  These abuses, along with overcrowding, poor sanitation, and severely inadequate food and health care, resulted in a shockingly high death toll. In 1907, government medical inspector P.H. Bryce reported that 24 percent of previously healthy Aboriginal children across Canada were dying in residential schools.5  This figure does not include children who died at home, where they were frequently sent when critically ill. Bryce reported that anywhere from 47 percent (on the Peigan Reserve in Alberta) to 75 percent (from File Hills Boarding School in Saskatchewan) of students discharged from residential schools died shortly after returning home.6

In addition to unhealthy conditions and corporal punishment, children were frequently assaulted, raped, or threatened by staff or other students. During the 2005 sentencing of Arthur Plint, a dorm supervisor at the Port Alberni Indian Residential School convicted of 16 counts of indecent assault, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Douglas Hogarth called Plint a “sexual terrorist.” Hogarth stated, “As far as the victims were concerned, the Indian residential school system was nothing more than institutionalized pedophilia.”7

The extent to which Department of Indian Affairs and church officials knew of these abuses has been debated. However, the Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples and Dr John Milloy, among others, concluded that church and state officials were fully aware of the abuses and tragedies at the schools. Some inspectors and officials at the time expressed alarm at the horrifying death rates, yet those who spoke out and called for reform were generally met with silence and lack of support.8  The Department of Indian Affairs would promise to improve the schools, but the deplorable conditions persisted.9

Some former students have fond memories of their time at residential schools, and certainly some of the priests and nuns who ran the schools treated the students as best they could given the circumstances. But even these “good” experiences occurred within a system aimed at destroying Aboriginal cultures and assimilating Aboriginal students.
“Sister Marie Baptiste had a supply of sticks as long and thick as pool cues. When she heard me speak my language, she’d lift up her hands and bring the stick down on me. I’ve still got bumps and scars on my hands. I have to wear special gloves because the cold weather really hurts my hands. I tried very hard not to cry when I was being beaten and I can still just turn off my feelings…. And I’m lucky. Many of the men my age, they either didn’t make it, committed suicide or died violent deaths, or alcohol got them. And it wasn’t just my generation. My grandmother, who’s in her late nineties, to this day it’s too painful for her to talk about what happened to her at the school.”
- Musqueam Nation former chief George Guerin,
Kuper Island school
Stolen from our Embrace
, p 62

The shift away from the residential school system

European officials of the 19th century believed that Aboriginal societies were dying out and that the only hope for Aboriginal people was to convert them to Christianity, do away with their cultures, and turn them into “civilized” British subjects—in short, assimilate them. By the 1950s, it was clear that assimilation was not working. Aboriginal cultures survived, despite all the efforts to destroy them and despite all the damage done. The devastating effects of the residential schools and the particular needs and life experiences of Aboriginal students were becoming more widely recognized.10 The government also acknowledged that removing children from their families was severely detrimental to the health of the individuals and the communities involved. In 1951, with the amendments to the Indian Act, the half-day work/school system was abandoned.11
The government decided to allow Aboriginal children to live with their families whenever possible, and the schools began hiring more qualified staff.12 In 1969, the Department of Indian Affairs took exclusive control of the system, marking an end to church involvement. Yet the schools remained underfunded and abuse continued.13 Many teachers were still very much unqualified; in fact, some had not graduated high school themselves.14
In the meantime, the government decided to phase out segregation and begin incorporating Aboriginal students into public schools. Although these changes saw students reaching higher levels of education, problems persisted. Many Aboriginal students struggled in their adjustment to public school and to a Eurocentric system in which Aboriginal students faced discrimination by their non-Aboriginal peers. Post-secondary education was still considered out of reach for Aboriginal students, and those students who wanted to attend university were frequently discouraged from doing so.15
The process to phase out the residential school system and other assimilation tactics was slow and not without reversals. In the 1960s, the system’s closure gave way to the “Sixties Scoop,” during which thousands of Aboriginal children were “apprehended” by social services and removed from their families. The “Scoop” spanned roughly the two decades it took to phase out the residential schools, but child apprehensions from Aboriginal families continue to occur in disproportionate numbers. In part, this is the legacy of compromised families and communities left by the residential schools.
The last residential school did not close its doors until 1986.16

Long-term impacts

It is clear that the schools have been, arguably, the most damaging of the many elements of Canada’s colonization of this land’s original peoples and, as their consequences still affect the lives of Aboriginal people today, they remain so.
            —John S. Milloy, A National Crime
The residential school system is viewed by much of the Canadian public as part of a distant past, disassociated from today’s events. In many ways, this is a misconception. The last residential school did not close its doors until 1986. Many of the leaders, teachers, parents, and grandparents of today’s Aboriginal communities are residential school survivors. There is, in addition, an intergenerational effect: many descendents of residential school survivors share the same burdens as their ancestors even if they did not attend the schools themselves. These include transmitted personal trauma and compromised family systems, as well as the loss in Aboriginal communities of language, culture, and the teaching of tradition from one generation to another.