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A First Nations Perspective 12

By Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith

Review: "Canada, Aboriginal Peoples and Residential Schools: They Came for the Children"

"Canada, Aboriginal Peoples and Residential Schools: They Came for the Children" is an historical publication released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in February 2012.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, an agreement that was reached in response to numerous class-action lawsuits that former students of residential schools had brought against the federal government and the churches that operated those schools in Canada for well over 100 years.

As part of their mandate, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has published this book to educate the Canadian public about residential schools and their place in Canadian history. The Commission states within the preface of "They Came for the Children," "For the child taken, and for the parent left behind, we encourage Canadians to read this history, to understand the legacy of the schools, and to participate in the work of reconciliation." (vii)

"They Came For the Children" is a painful read. It's painful because quite simply, the story within this publication speaks about more than neglect and abuse. It encompasses many things. It speaks about loss, Canadian colonialism, humility and the possibility of change; it's a tribute to Aboriginal resilience, how our schools failed us and it's a story of destruction carried out in the name of civilization.

Within the introduction, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission states, "In talking about residential schools and their legacy, we are not talking about an Aboriginal problem, but a Canadian problem. It is not simply a dark chapter from our past. It was integral to the making of Canada,"(3) and "the colonial framework of which they were a central element has not been dismantled. One can see its impact in the social, economic, and political challenges that Aboriginal communities struggle with every day. It is present also in the attitudes that too often shape the relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada." (3)

The history recounted in this book causes you to sit up and look at Canada through different eyes. It teaches you that Canada has not always lived up to the ideals and image that our government likes to project on an international stage. It speaks about how the residential school system was not a well-intentioned system, and how "the purpose of the residential school system was to separate children from the influences of their parents and community, so as to destroy their culture. The impact was devastating."

"They Came for the Children" examines more than 100 years of history, purpose, operation and supervision of the residential school system, the effect and consequences of the system and its ongoing legacy.

Government and church officials often said the role of the residential school was to civilize and Christianize Aboriginal children, and "when put into practice, these noble sounding ambitions translated into an assault on Aboriginal culture, language, spiritual beliefs, and practices." (10)

"They Came for the Children," details personal experiences of residential school survivors, and the personal accounts are heart wrenching. It states that "for some, school was exciting, the clothing novel, and the food an improvement, but for most students, residential school was an alien and frightening experience." (25)

While reading the personal accounts, I could not help but wonder what the experience was like for my own biological mother, because I know that she is also a residential school survivor, and it's something that went unspoken about when I met her several years ago, and still to this day.

The TRC does a thorough job of detailing the history of residential schools and what happened at them. They also include findings in this book that are important if we as individuals or as society are to consider reconciliation.

Findings that include:

  • Residential Schools constituted an assault on Aboriginal children, families, self-governing Aboriginal nations and culture. The impacts of the Residential School system were immediate, and have been ongoing since the earliest years of the schools.
  • Canadians have been denied a full and proper education as to the nature of Aboriginal societies, and the history of the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) notes that "Canadians generally have been led to believe -- by what has been taught and not taught in schools -- that Aboriginal people were and are uncivilized, primitive, and inferior and continue to need to be civilized. They have not been well informed about the nature of the relationship that was established between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples and the way that relationship has been shaped over time by colonialism and racism," (86) and how "this lack of education and misinformation has led to misunderstanding and in some cases, hostility between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians on matters of importance." (86)

The TRC also recognizes in this book that it will take time and commitment to reverse the legacy left behind by the residential school system, and that "in the same way, the reconciliation process will have to span generations. It will take time to re-establish respect," and "effective reconciliation will see Aboriginal people regaining their sense of self-respect, and development of relations of mutual respect between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people," and lastly "A commission such as this cannot itself achieve reconciliation."(86)

Reconciliation implies relationship. It implies a commitment -- a passionate commitment -- of individuals and the genuine engagement of society to start the process of reconciliation. "Reconciliation also will require changes in the relationship between Aboriginal people and the government of Canada. The federal government, along with the provincial governments, historically has taken a social welfare approach to its dealings with Aboriginal people. This approach fails to recognize the unique legal status of Aboriginal peoples as the original peoples of this country. Without that recognition, we run the risk of continuing the assimilationist policies and the social harms that were integral to the residential schools."

"Canada, Aboriginal Peoples, and Residential Schools: They Came for the Children" is published by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. It is 111 pages. If you wish to acquire a copy, please visit the Truth and Reconciliation Commission website at http://www.trc.ca.

You can download a copy of this document HERE.


Article © Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-02-02
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