The residential schools tragedy … there are just no words for it.

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(Note:  This post is not directly adoption related, but pertains to another issue close to my heart, the mistreatment of First Nations peoples in Canada)

The first “national event” of the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” regarding the First Nations residential schools tragedy is taking  place this week, with 4 days of hearings in Winnipeg.

There are no words to describe the magnitude of the horrors that occurred during the 150 years of the residential school system  (they were instituted in the 1840s, started winding down in the 1950s, and the last one only closed in 1996).

Some people who went to them talk about having “positive experiences,”  but the horror stories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse that took place in these “prisons for children” are overwhelming in number.   Not only were children forceably taken from their families and forbidden to speak their native languages, but it was all part of a “cultural genocide” which had the purpose of trying to “eliminate Canada’s 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; in wild and desperate orgies.” – Duncan Campbell Scott, Head of Indian Affairs, Canadian Government, 1920.

The researcher, activist and former minister Kevin Annett is a controversial figure, but no matter how you feel about him, I very much recommend his documentary “”UNREPENTANT: Kevin Annett and Canada’s Genocide” (January 2007). ”  on his site “Hidden From History: The Canadian Genocide — Telling the Untold Story of the Genocide of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada

It went beyond abuse — to murder and the withholding of proper medical care.  At a time when tuberculosis was being successfully treated, some of these schools had a huge mortality rate.   John Milroy, author of A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, has data indicating that at it’s peak, from 24% to 42% of the children in some residential schools died of it.    This is quote from a small article in New Scientist (reprinted here)

” In 1907 Peter Bryce, a chief medical officer for the federal Department of Indian Affairs, recorded that 24 per cent of pupils at 15 schools had died of TB over 14 years. At one school, 63 per cent of the children died… Other documents show that officials knew death rates were high until the 1940s, Annett told New Scientist. They record children being admitted with active, contagious TB, with no quarantine or even ventilation in their rooms, the only ways to control TB before antibiotics. Former students say they slept in crowded dormitories with sick children, and were often hungry: hunger lowers immunity and exacerbates the spread of TB.”

But did news articles about a possible 28 mass graves found at residential schools ever made it into your local newspaper?  (The list of locations, as compiled by the Friends and Relatives of the Disappeared Children is available here).  (Annett writes about it here).

But, just like with adoption, a child and a parent were separated, often against their will.  Sometimes parents talk about willingly sending the child to residential school as they thought it would help the child get a good education and good care.  Sometimes former residential school students speak about having had a good residential school experience.  But, just like with adoption, we must listen to the  stories of those who suffered at the hands of people in positions of trust and authority who forcibly separated families against their will, those who were abused, those who suffered trauma for which there may be no recovery.

And, to quote the dedication on the T&RC website,

“For the child taken.  For the parent left behind.”


1)  Further reading: “‘Aggressive Assimilation’: A history of residential schools in Canada – FAQs on residential schools and compensation,” CBC News, June 14, 2010.

2)  The end of residential schools did not spell the end of the en masse removal of First Nations children from their families.  As they closed, the  “Sixties Scoop” began, lasting well into the 1980s.  For more information, see “Stolen Nation,” “Aboriginal Justice Inquiry – The Sixties Scoop,” “The Sixties Scoop: How Canada’s ‘Best Intentions’ Proved Catastrophic,” Native Children and the Child Welfare System by Patrick Johnston, and Stolen From Our Embrace: The Abduction of First Nations Children and the Restoration of Aboriginal Communities by Ernie Crey and Suzanne Fournier.


4 thoughts on “The residential schools tragedy … there are just no words for it.

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cedartrees4, Cedartrees4. Cedartrees4 said: The residential schools tragedy … there are just no words for it. […]

    unicorn said:
    June 20, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    They did some terrible things back then.

    In Ontario, one of the schools actually had an electric chair for children!

    The current was not strong enough to kill but it certainly hurt. Children as young as 5 years old were tortured on that thing while visiting dignitaries would laugh at their pain when they were shown how it works. Really, truly warped!

    Sandy Young said:
    July 1, 2010 at 11:45 pm

    I hate when these nightmare stories are brushed off as ‘terrible things happened back then’ as they do with adoption. These things all need to come to light, and justice must be found for the victims. The same in the US, where the genocide also existed. Native Americans, in both countries, deserve to have their suffering recognized. Good for Canada taking these steps. Good for you, Cedar, for posting about it.

    unicorn said:
    July 2, 2010 at 10:21 am

    One good thing about these lawsuits is that the judge ruled that taking a child from their family in this manner constitutes child abuse and abuse of the family. That helped to push up the compensation package (although money will never make up for it, money is the only thing that seems to make the government take notice sometimes.)

    There is a cathartic event that happened in Port Alberni that helped the victims a lot.

    The former residential victims were allowed to take apart one of the schools and burn it. One victim even took an axe. With each swing, he shouted the names of friends and family who had been hurt or killed at this awful place. He said it really helped to take out his anger that in memory of his friends and family and to destroy part of the monster (like slaying one of many dragons.)

    Cedar, here are some links about that as I know you like to have lots of information on these stuff.

    Speaking as an official victim of torture registered with the UN (admittedly not a native though some of my primarily school teachers went to jail for abusing us) it is cathartic when you are vindicated this way and that the pain and suffering are recognised. It helps when something tangible like this happens – it feels like it helps to destroy the demons, although they never go away completely.

    They tore my school down too – one of the best days of my life.

    (I never really got over the suicide of my friend in second grade after what that vicious woman did to him)

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