There are few people who haven’t heard the horrifying news that 215 remains of children were found in unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School.
What is less well known is the trauma residential schools created, not only for the generations that lived through it, but for the generations that followed. The trauma has been compounded by the dominant culture’s deaf ears to the pain and sorrow a whole culture experienced, and the fact that racism continues to be pervasive throughout Canada today.
The first residential school was opened in Canada in the 1870’s. However, it wasn’t until 1920 that it became mandatory for all Indian, Metis, and Innuits to attend the schools and illegal for them to attend any other schools. The purpose of the schools was to assimilate Indians into the dominant culture and to eradicate their culture. As a result, many children were beaten for simply speaking their native tongue. Too many were tortured, beaten, sexually abused, and denied adequate food or medical attention.
While the law was put into effect by the Canadian government, the schools were run by Christian organizations. The Catholic church was responsible for approximately 60% of the residential schools and is the only religion to date that hasn’t offered a formal apology for their role in the atrocities.
The last residential school in Canada closed its doors in 1996. The last residential school in BC was Christie Indian School in Meares Island, near Tofino, and it closed in l983. In total, it is estimated that 150,000 children were forcibly removed from their homes and put in residential schools. Many children as young as 4 did not see their families again for years. When the grown children were finally sent home, it was only to find their communities in shambles due to the loss of cultural ways of supporting themselves, disease and devastated by the absence of their children.
Although many of us in the dominant culture are shocked to hear about Kamloops and the children discarded in unmarked graves, sadly for Indigenous people, the remains of the children only confirm what they have always known. There were abuses and atrocities at the schools, and many children died of hunger, beatings, and lack of medical attention. Their friends and peers simply disappeared and families were never notified.
The reality of the horror done to a culture of proud people who lived in Canada for thousands of years, may finally be reaching our collective consciousness. When we, the dominant culture, respond to the stories with caring and compassion, when we are willing to not only hear the stories, but hear the pain, we participate in the healing process. When we hold our government and church leaders accountable, when we join our voices with theirs in demanding reparation, we are helping to heal a nation.
Jenny DeReis, MC Psych