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.
Some of those ashes will be sealed into the Totem, signifying a return of a child to it's Mother.
The Residential School System
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?
Living conditions at the residential schools
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.
Kuper Island school
Stolen from our Embrace, p 62
The shift away from the residential school system
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