A mere 9 months after refusing to sign the U.N. declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, Stephen Harper formally apologises to Canada’s Aboriginal peoples for a system of assimilation that has had destructive effects up until today. The residential school system, funded by the federal government and run by churches, isolated Aboriginal children from their families and communities so that they could more easily be assimilated into Euro-Canadian cultures. Inside the schools, siblings were seperated and children were forbidden to speak their languages or practice their culture in any way. Living conditions for these children were abhorrent: bad ventilation, overcrowding, bad heating in the winter and rotten food led to much illness and death. Furthermore, since the schools were badly funded, children were often forced to work on school grounds on tasks such as farming, cleaning and so forth rather than get an actual education.
Physical, emotional and sexual abuse were rampant. Offenses such as speaking one’s language could lead to one’s mouth being sewn shut or having a needle stuck through one’s lips. Wetting the bed could lead to being forced to walk around with soiled sheets over one’s head. And the list goes on.
The children who physically survived and made it back to their communities did not find a home. Rather, they were alienated from their own society and culture, not having practiced their language or learned the norms. Yet, they were not Westernised either since they were in isolated schools with low quality education, if any. Ill equipped to function in both their home cultures and in the dominant Euro-Canadian society, they were lost.
Today, cycles of cultural confusion have permeated many Aboriginal communities. The scars of the residential school system never healed but rather fed many social ills in the communities. Violence, substance abuse and suicide are still facts of life for Aboriginal people of all ages. It’s not a question of being unable to forget the past. Rather, it’s a question of multi-generational trauma.
Imagine yourself never having known parental love on account of being torn from your family at a young age, only to be subjected to poor living conditions and abuse. Imagine someday going back to a community that has become foreign. What do you do? You try to reintegrate and might succeed in part. You might wind up getting married and having children. But how do you love a spouse and children when you never learned how to love? How do you deal with the trauma of your youth without support?
In many cases, the trauma got passed on through the generations in this way: the abused become abusers of spouses and children and of substances that exacerbate the cultural confusion and the distress. And the cycle continues. Add to that the loss of traditional means of survival due to European encroachment on Aboriginal lands, and you have diminished opportunities for people to make a living for themselves and their families, yet more cause for distress and confusion. Then remember that many people are unable to get employment in the Euro-Canadian system due to poor education, by Western standards, and discrimination. Finally, add the racism toward Aboriginals that has been perpetuated in the media through baised news reports and stereotypes to feed the fires of self-hatred and despair.
In the past, the government has tried to “appease” survivors by giving them money. Many Aboriginal people felt that this was a token gesture. What does money mean anyway? Now, the government leaders have finally realised that a formal apology was necessary as an acknowledgement of the wrongs that have been committed.
Will this fix anything? If the governement follows through on promises to work to right the wrongs of the past, perhaps some progress will be made. However, as one can see in some of the comments made to the article found in the link above, there are still many misconceptions among the general public. Many people think that rather than encourage Aboriginal people to reclaim and celebrate their cultures, they should be assimilated. This idea makes me sick. When I hear people complain about the demands of Native people, anger rushes through my bloodstream.
It’s not just a question of forgetting the past. It’s not just a question of “getting over it.” Lives were stolen. Cultures were stolen. Perfectly functional systems that we could ALL learn and benefit from have been destroyed. Residential schools were one component of a multifaceted process that eroded away at these systems.
What now? Will Canada follow through? Or will the apology turn out to be yet another token? I try to be optimistic but I despair that, ultimately, capitalist and corporate greed will win out and get the best of all of us: Native, non-Native and those of us who are products of contact.
However, I recognise that a public recognition of the effects of the residential schools and a formal apology can be an important part of the healing process for survivors and their descendants. I sincerely hope that, in at least that respect, this will be a step in the right direction in the lives of all people who were an are affected by this tragedy. My warmest thoughts go out to you all today.