To Kill the Indian in the Child:
Canada's Genocidal Residential Schools and the Dilemma of an Apology
By Aaron Mercredi
The time has finally come for Native people in this country. After so long, the government of Canada has announced that it is going apologize for the abuse that was inflicted in its residential schools. On June 11th, Stephen Harper is set to walk in to the House of Commons, stand at the podium, look out to its members and guests, and say sorry to the victims of the government and church-run institutions. Broadcastings at Native Friendship Centres are being organized around the country for what Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl says is “going to be a very meaningful and respectful apology.”
But, we don’t have to look too deeply to see that this government apology doesn’t fundamentally count for anything, and is only Canada’s attempt to sew up an infected wound. From when these schools began until today, there is no evidence that the government of Canada is interested in serving the justice for the survivor’s of the residential schools.
The ‘Indian Problem’
“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed. They are a weird and waning race…ready to break out at any moment in savage dances.”
"It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this does not justify a change in the policy of this Department which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian Problem."
-Duncan Campbell Scott, Head of Indian Affairs (1920)
Apologists for the residential schools have said that they were begun with good intentions, but ended in tragedy. Others have blamed the abuse on a ‘poorly supervised system’ where perpetrators were able to operate invisibly. But, much like those ‘renegade’ US soldiers in Abu Grhaib prison in Iraq, the US occupation as a whole is the problem. And here at home, Canada is the problem. The residential schools were meant to annihilate a people.
In 1874, the federal government started working with the Christian churches to set up the residential school system, which was an extension of the missionary boarding schools that already existed in different parts of Canada. By 1920, it was compulsory for Native children between the ages of 7 and 15 years to attend residential schools. Those who resisted sending their children away had them forcibly taken away from them by priests, Indian agents and the RCMP. At its peak in 1931, there were 80 residential schools operating in Canada.
At these schools, Native children were thrown in to the gears of a colonial machine whose purpose was to destroy their Indigenous identity and produce a model Canadian citizen, complete with European colonial values and trained in the capitalist mode of production. However, by 1910, the policy shifted from integration and assimilation to isolation and segregation of Native people. Through this, Native children received a Christian education with an emphasis on agricultural work, in order for the children to return to their reserves with minimal basic skills. Over 40 percent of the teachers at these schools had no professional training.
Children were forbidden from speaking their own languages, or practicing their own culture. When caught, public punishments were often severe and humiliating. Abuse ran rampantly through the schools as teachers, priests and nuns had no supervision and could deal with the children however they saw fit. Along with being exposed to diseases, physical, emotional and sexual abuse was a day-to-day occurrence for many children. It is estimated that around 150,000 children went through this system and 50,000 disappeared or never returned home.
A Policy of Genocide
Duncan Campbell Scott knew what he was doing with the residential schools in 1920. There should be no question that the people who he passed down his position to as Head of Indian Affairs knew what their job was. As a colonial country, Canada needed to deal with the ‘Indian problem,’ since it was their land that Canada wrapped its borders around and wanted to settle on.
Although many Indigenous people died from the colonial wars and disease, Indigenous people still existed from coast to coast. Canada’s racist Indian Act of 1876 was meant to deal with the surviving Indigenous population by legally separating them in to an inferior class of citizenship under the control of the Department of Indian Affairs. Through this, Indigenous people became legal wards of the Crown, sharing the same status as children or the mentally incompetent. The reservation system further isolated Native people on to small pockets of land. In order to save itself from a potentially rising Indigenous population, the residential schools were funded to sever Native identity and culture. Someone without an identity, culture or connection to their people is a person without a hope of fighting back.
What about accountability?
No one can calculate the damage that this genocidal program inflicted on Native people in this country. There are too many stories and so much pain that has been sewn in to generations of Indigenous life from what the government and churches did. Statistics will show the tragically high rates of suicide, high rates of alcoholism and drug addiction, the rampant poverty and the homelessness that have affected Indigenous people.
The last residential school shut down in 1996 in Saskatchewan. The first claim against the federal government and the churches for abuse in residential schools was filed in 1990. By 1996, 200 such claims had been received. In 2003, there were about 12,000. The survivors of these schools are demanding accountability and compensation.
The government has tried to stall all such cases by putting cases on the backburner, hoping for many of the survivors to die off so they will not need to pay them compensation. But, because of the number of people filing claims against the residential school abuse has jumped up incredibly, with as many as 90,000 claims, the government was under pressure not only to deal with this financial burden, but also to be held accountable for its actions.
What kind of apology?
Indigenous people have every right to be fighting mad over Canada’s refusal to be held accountable for the residential school system. For many survivors, a simple apology is all they were asking for. But, the fact that Stephen Harper is going to apologize means nothing when Canada is still attacking Native people and taking their land today. Canada is simply trying to defuse a big part of Native people’s anger, not deal with it morally. A colonial government cannot show remorse for its crimes against Indigenous people. It will cover-up, it will deny and it will stall.
What is ‘respectful and meaningful’ about an apology for a crime against Native people when these crimes continue today? The UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People has to ring a bell. Canada voted against it. Canada knows very well it violates these rights every day.
The residential schools may be closed their doors, but they served their purpose. Today, Canada is trying to take away what little Native people have left. Whether it is the government of Ontario and Platinex trying to extract resources out of the small Oji-Cree community of Kitchenumahykoosib Inninuwug in Ontario, or the ongoing desecration of Secwepemc land by Sun Peaks Ski Resort in partnership with the government of BC; consolidating Native land and resources is still a priority for these colonial governments. Robert Lovelace, of the Ardoch Algonquin Nation, still sits in prison for defending his land from resource theft in Ontario.
Justice will not be served only with arresting those bishops and officials who abused Native children. Or when politicians acknowledge a ‘historical crime’ that we need to move beyond. Justice cannot be served until this whole colonial apparatus is turned upside down; when the Indian Act, which helped create the residential schools, is abolished; when Indigenous people can have control over their own land, resources and destiny without government interference, and deal with the rest of the people in this country on an equal basis. Only then can real healing and reconciliation begin.
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