Canadian politics: no apology for residential schools

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Mar 29 12:56:05 UTC 2007

Canadian Politics: No Apology For Residential Schools

Written by Richard Marcus
Published March 28, 2007

As is the case with most gifts, the technology that is bringing the
world's peoples closer together is a double-edged sword. The more it
breaks down the barriers between us, the more it also weakens our cultural
distinctiveness. Just like an eco-system, a culture is a delicate balance
of elements that individually may not appear significant, but taken as a
whole form something unique and precious. Change or remove one element in
that system and you've got something completely different. In the natural
world, it's usually the introduction of a foreign species of plant or
animal life, or the removal of the same, that changes it irrevocably for
the worse.

In cultural matters, it sometimes is only a matter of contact between two
peoples for it to happen. Usually it will be that one is technically more
sophisticated than the other, and simply overwhelms and absorbs the other.
Many countries have tried to take steps to preserve their culture by
encouraging its growth while erecting barriers to foreign content. But
there is also another scenario - one that was first put into affect by the
British Empire at home and abroad, and has been emulated by other
countries through out the world: The deliberate attempt to eliminate a
people's culture as a means of subduing them and forcibly assimilating
them to be like their conquerors. In Ireland and elsewhere the Empire
enacted official policies forbidding the native languages in the hopes of
cutting people off from their heritage.

But the most insidious practice was carried out in North America by
post-colonial governments, with the assistance of the Catholic and
Anglican Churches in Canada. Residential Schools were established to
forcibly turn Indian children against their parents and their heritage.
Each child who entered the system was forbidden to speak the language of
their nation and was told that all they had been taught up until that
point was evil and a lie. They were given haircuts and forced to take new
names. Anybody caught speaking their language or using their old name was
severely punished.

This wasn't even an attempt to teach the children how to get ahead in
society. Half their days were spent learning unskilled trades preparing
them for a life of service to their "betters". The boys were taught
janitorial skills and yard work, while the young girls were taught how to
be either scullery maids or other forms of household drudges. It was bad
enough that they were ripped away from their families and emotionally,
mentally, and physically abused by the staff of these institutions during
the day. What went on at night in the dormitories is the stuff of
nightmares. Many of the students, male and female, were sexually abused on
a continual basis for their entire stay in these prisons.

The end result of these schools was the creation of a generation of people
who were almost completely cut off from their own culture and not capable
of existing in the one they were supposedly "trained" to take part in: A
lost generation of scared, hurt, and, lonely people, damaged far beyond
anything most of us can understand. By the year 2005 the federal
government of Canada under the Liberal party had agreed to certain
measures to redress the issue. Various financial packages were offered,
and it was promised as part of the deal that the government would offer an
official apology for the policy.

But now the current administration, the Conservative Party of Canada has
reneged on that promise. In fact from comments made by the Indian Affairs
Minister, Jim Prentice, lead one to believe that the government is trying
to whitewash what exactly the schools did. The most he will say is that
the residential schools involved a difficult time in our history, but -
and this is the real killer - "the underlying objective had been to
provide aboriginal children with an education".  Which means that Jim
Prentice is either a professional liar or an ignorant fool who doesn't
even read history books.

But then again the Conservative Party already knows that Native Canadians
aren't going to vote for them, and neither are people who are sympathetic
to their plight. They're playing to their constituents, the people who
believe that Native people are welfare drunks who lost the war and are
lucky we give them anything. To say that Native leaders are appalled is to
put it mildly. To go from a government which recognised the damage caused
by the Residential School System, to one that wants to gloss over the
nasty bits of our history and make out that the policy had its heart in
the right place, is worse than insulting, and it's obscene. I would like
to ask Jim Prentice a question, seeing how he thinks this policy was so

How would he like his children taken away from him and made to change the
names he had given them, learn a language that prevented him from talking
to them, and be told that all he believed was a lie and evil? Wouldn't he
want someone to apologise to him for treating his children like that? The
effects of the Residential Schools are still being felt on reserves today
as the children of the people who attended them are now a second
generation of lost people. They live out in the middle of nowhere with no
running water or electricity much of the time, and with little or no
connection to their nation's past, or any connection to the land. While
many countries face a difficult battle these days in trying to preserve
their cultural identities in the face of an onslaught of homogenisation,
the First Nation people of Canada are dealing with trying to teach two
generations of people what was stolen from them by government policy. It's
just too bad that our current government doesn't view cultural genocide as
something you should apologise for.


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