It’s a shocking statistic. Can you imagine if your chances of dying when you were sent off for school were the same as if you were being sent off to war?
That’s the truth of the residential school experience for Canada’s First Nations populations. About four per cent of the thousands of children ripped from their families and put into residential schools died. About four per cent of soldiers sent off to fight in the Second World War also died.
Then there were the scars left on those who survived the experience. Even if the children weren’t physically or sexually abused, or starved, or experimented on by the government, the very act of tearing them away from their grieving families was an abuse in itself. And then there were the stated goals of the schools: to erase First Nations culture.
Teaching kids that the culture they were born into is bad is incredibly harmful psychologically.
These are the things that it is hoped will be disseminated through the truth and reconciliation process that’s been undertaken by the Canadian government and First Nations across the country in recent years, which is currently wrapping up.
These are the things about our history that must be acknowledged and absorbed by all Canadians.
How often have we heard (or expressed) the frustration that First Nations people should just quit blaming their societal problems on the rest of Canada and get on with it? After all, white Europeans came here and committed their terrible acts a long time ago, right?
Wrong. While the first residential schools were established in the 1840s, consider that the last residential school closed in 1996.
That is well within living memory. For today’s young people in First Nations communities, that is their parents, or at least their grandparents who were sent to these schools.
Many First Nations communities do have significant social problems.
Crime, suicide, addictions, poverty, and low levels of education are all issues that disproportionately affect Canada’s aboriginal peoples.
The roots of all of those ills can be easily traced back to the lasting impacts of the attempted cultural genocide perpetrated as a matter of official government policy for more than a century.
It’s an ugly chapter in our national history.
But one we clearly need to look full in the face, as it still informs the day-to-day lives of so many of our citizens.
The telling of the truths is coming to a close, but the reconciliation is just starting, as many First Nations leaders have pointed out.
Now we have a common starting point. Let’s begin.