Last week I had the privilege of attending the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Atlantic National Event in Halifax. Survivors of the Canadian government’s residential school program, which ran roughly from the 1870’s to the 1990’s, came forward to give their accounts.
To give you a bit of a background, the Residential School program was created with the intention of assimilating First Nations people into European-Canadian society. The residential school system separated children from their parents, taking them away to boarding schools in an effort to distance them from their cultures. The children were forced to speak only English and were beaten (or worse) if they did not comply or made attempts to escape. This effort to force assimilation has been described as “cultural genocide”. The stated goals of the residential schools were to “civilize” the Aboriginal people.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was entrusted with the mandate of bringing the truth about what happened in these schools to light, as well as passing on these truths to all Canadians. According to the TRC’s website, there are an estimated 80,000 former residential school students living today. In addition to this, the TRC notes that the impact of these schools is ongoing and has been a contributing factor with regards to many of the current social issues experienced by First Nations in Canada.
In my experience, Canadian media seems to focus much more on the social problems in First Nations communities than on the historical factors that have either caused or contributed to these problems. Now that I have learned a bit more of the story, I feel as though the narrative I’ve been fed about these communities is incomplete and entirely one-sided.
Last week I was able to experience the inter-generational impact of the residential school program. I sat down and listened to survivors and their children talk about how they have been affected. I heard stories about people who were beaten and molested merely for daring to speak their own language. I also heard accounts from the children of survivors who are unable to speak the language of their community and who have also been affected by the psychological impact that this type of treatment had on their parents. Not surprisingly, these effects are being passed on even to the third generation.
While it brings me hope that Canada is doing what it can to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and attempting to bring about reconciliation, what strikes me most deeply is how long, arduous, and painful this process will be. At best, it may take another three generations before the effects subside. Also, as the TRC has acknowledged, we will have to find a place to fit Justice in between Truth and Reconciliation, perhaps even as a bridge between the two.
A while back, I wrote about about becoming a contributor to society and about inheriting the mistakes of previous generations. Coming to terms with and addressing the effects of the residential school program is a classic example. As a new generation of Canadians, we must do our best to guard against the reoccurence of such tragedies. You can go here to read more about the residential school program and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.