Hope for Future Generations
I attended the Atlantic Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) National Event held in Halifax, Nova Scotia and it was my first experience listening to Indian Residential School Survivors share their stories. This was the third out of seven TRC National Events that are to be held across Canada. During the event participants included; Residential School Survivors and their families, TRC Commissioners, church and Government officials, school groups, invited guests, and the general public. I was fortunate and honored to have been a part of it as a representative of Seven Youth Media Magazine.
The Canadian Indian Residential School System (IRSS) was designed and intended to assimilate Aboriginal children into the European-Canadian Society. Even before Canada became a unified nation in 1867, a policy of assimilating Indians had already been in place within the British North American Act and it was called The Gradual Civilization Act, an act that assimilated Indians through Enfranchisement. The IRSS was soon to follow, and was adopted into policy by the Federal Government. The Federal Government had formal partnerships between the Churches, such as, Anglican, Roman Catholic, United and other churches to implement the Residential School System of assimilation for aboriginal peoples.
I had read about IRSS while attending Post Secondary in an Aboriginal Program but did not experience the deep understanding or the realness of the devastating impacts it has caused on Aboriginal peoples, their families and communities until I heard it first hand from those who attended the schools. It brought a different understanding and compassion for me towards the issue because of the voices of the survivors. Many, if not all of the survivors and educators who spoke on the issue mentioned the psychological, emotional, spiritual, and physical abuse endured by the Aboriginal children while attending IRSS and how it had a profound negative impact in their lives. This created and contributed to their cultural identity and language loss and to their parental abilities to bond and care for their own children and also their traditional self- governance. The abuse learned from these schools had perpetuated to their own families and communities, and governance among the people.
How does this effect self-government? Policies and legislation like the Indian Act of Canada within the Federal Government still exist in preventing Aboriginal people from practicing traditional cultural self-governance prior to European contact. Aboriginal people’s right to self-governance had been taken away from the enforcement of laws, legislation built within the Federal Government and the most devastating impact of the IRSS. Aboriginal peoples across this nation had practiced self-governance long before European Contact and are reclaiming the fundamental teachings of traditional cultural self-governance. This has begun building again though the healing and acknowledgements of the wrongdoings done to Aboriginal peoples such as the IRSS experience.
An important lesson from the TRC Event was the importance of healing and talking about what happened. It is a history that needs to be told and shared so that future generations have an understanding of the how’s and why’s of the different challenges Aboriginal People now face.
There was a term I learned while attending the event and that was “survivors of the survivors”. This term is to describe the children and grandchildren of the parents and grandparents who attended the residential schools. The “survivors of the survivors” have and are being affected through intergenerational cycles of trauma inflicted and passed on to them by those who attended the schools. Those who shared mentioned how their experiences has created a gap between themselves and their children and grandchildren and are confronted now with the questions of “how could and why did your parents allow you to attend these awful schools?” I learned that Aboriginal children were legally obligated by the Federal Laws under the Indian Act of Canada to attend Residential School with intentions of assimilating the people into the European Canadian Society. Here is one example of legislation within the Indian Act that gave powers to enforce the practice of taking Aboriginal children to Residential Schools.
Under the Indian Act Section 119 (1), (2, 2.1, a-b-c), it states: 119. (1) The Minister may appoint persons, to be called truant officers, to enforce the attendance of Indian children at school, and for that purpose a truant officer has the powers of a peace officer.
(2) Without restricting the generality of subsection (1), a truant officer may, subject to subsection
(2.1) (a) enter any place where he believes, on reasonable grounds, that there are Indian children who are between the ages of seven and sixteen years, or who are required by the Minister to attend school; (b) investigate any case of truancy; and (c) serve written notice on the parent, guardian or other person having the care or legal custody of a child to cause the child to attend school regularly thereafter.
A quote shared from the many survivors and invited guests that stuck with me throughout the gathering was “ALL Aboriginal people have been impacted by assimilation policies like the Indian Residential School System ”. One of TRC’s goals is to “Promote awareness and public education of Canadians about the IRS system and its impacts;” and I was encouraged from what I witnessed. The strength and resilience of the survivors of the IRSS showed there is hope and work done for the generations to come. Changes are happening through the survivors, the “survivors of the survivors”, and with an organization like the TRC of Canada, it is well on the way.