(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)
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.