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Inside Canada's Brutal History of Indigenous Residential Schools

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Between 1883 and 1996, almost 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their parents and placed in Canadian residential schools, where they were subjected to horrendous torture.


For more than a century, Canada has kept a dark, open secret. Across the country, officials forcefully removed approximately 150,000 Indigenous children from their homes and placed them in cruel "residential schools."


From 1883 through 1996, these institutions prohibited pupils from speaking their native languages or practising their cultural beliefs. Regularly, many of these students were subjected to systemic abuse. Worse, several students unexpectedly vanished from the school grounds.


Thousands of children — estimates range from 10,000 to 50,000 — simply did not return home. Thousands more died at the schools, despite the fact that some fled. Indigenous leaders are seeking answers today, as their corpses are being found from school grounds around the country.


Those solutions continue to elude us. They also signify the terrible end of a 100-year-old storey that is finally being told.


The Creation Of Residential Schools In Canada

Indigenous people had been living in Canada for thousands of years by the time European settlers began arriving in large numbers in the 16th century. Initially, settlers and indigenous peoples attempted to cohabit amicably. In 1701, they decided to divide the land like "two spoons in a plate."


But the calm did not endure. By the nineteenth century, Europeans in Canada had began to demand greater access to territory that belonged to Indigenous peoples. And many of these settlers shared the British Empire's notion that it was their responsibility to "civilise" Indigenous people.


The Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 required Indigenous men to study English and French. The Act also required them to abandon their traditional names in favour of government-approved names.


By 1883, Canada had decided to take it a step further. Early on, the government decided to use schools to assimilate Indigenous children.


Indigenous children must be separated from their parents for these Indian Residential Schools to be effective, asserted Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister.


"When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its primitive parents," Macdonald remarked in 1883, "and though he may learn to read and write, his habits, training, and manner of thought are Indian."


Indigenous children, Macdonald insisted, must be removed "from family influence." He advocated for them to spend their childhoods in schools "where they will learn the habits and patterns of thought of White men."


Within a few years, about 150 schools managed by the Catholic, Anglican, United, and Presbyterian churches opened across Canada in collaboration with the federal government. But they wanted to do more than just teach the children. The goal of Indian Residential Schools in Canada was to completely remove children's Indigenous knowledge and identity.


In 1920, Duncan Campbell Scott, the previous deputy minister of Indian Affairs, remarked, "I want to get rid of the Indian problem."


"I do not believe, in fact, that the country should constantly shield a class of people who are unable to stand alone," Scott concluded. Our goal is to keep going until there isn't a single Indian in Canada who hasn't been assimilated into the political system."


However, Indigenous peoples in Canada had no choice in the matter. Government authorities simply went up at their houses and kidnapped their children, whether they were members of the First Nations, Inuit, or Métis groups.


"I was forcibly abducted, taken, kidnapped by a Roman Catholic priest and a government guy in August of 1958 so that I could be transported, like all of my generation of Inuit, to go to a residential school," one Inuit survivor named Piita Irniq explained. We were separated from our parents."


Sometimes, much too frequently, the children did not return home.


Life For Indigenous Children At The Schools


Several generations of Indigenous children in Canada spent a significant portion of their childhoods at Indian Residential Schools. Survivors frequently describe a terrible climate of violence and abuse at the hands of priests, nuns, and other school staff members.


"They made us believe we didn't have souls," Florence Sparvier, a student at the Marieval Indian Residential School, recalled. Sparvier describes physical assault from staff workers who tried to scare her away from her Indigenous identity — and dissuade her from practicing her culture.


"We discovered," she explained. "They hammered it into us. And they were truly cruel. When I say pounding, I mean it."


Others recount sexual abuse at Canadian residential schools. John Jones, who attended the Alberni Residential School, recalls hearing about a male supervisor who offered children chocolate bars. Jones was sexually abused by the man when he went to obtain some.


"I'm not sure how long that lasted, but I know I threw the chocolate bar away," Jones explained. "I tried taking baths three or four times a day to feel clean, but it didn't work."


Another survivor, Jack Kruger, who attended St. Eugene's Mission residential school, recalls his best buddy committing himself after being sexually abused by a priest when he was just six years old.


"When you're a tiny guy, you can't accomplish anything," said Kruger, who attended the institution for three years. "You weren't able to say anything. The priesthood wielded enormous influence. It's amazing."


To make matters worse, Canadian officials were aware of a number of issues with the schools. In 1907, Chief Medical Officer for Indian Affairs Peter Bryce visited 35 Indigenous schools in Canada and discovered that 25% of their pupils had perished. At one of the schools, 69 percent of the students had died.


According to Bryce's study, the schools were poorly built and had inadequate ventilation. Tuberculosis spread quickly. Other officials, meanwhile, reported overpopulation, improper heating, and inadequate nutrition.


"We cried to have something good to eat before we went to sleep," Andrew Paul, an Aklavik Roman Catholic Residential School veteran, remembered. "A lot of the food we had was rancid, full of maggots, and stinky."


While some of the students perished as a result of diseases such as TB, others simply vanished. Their parents never found out what happened to them, despite reports from Canadian police that they had fled.


"Sometimes kids would not show up in class," said Garry Gottfriedson, a Kamloops Indian Residential School survivor. "They would vanish for the next day, and we knew they were gone, but we didn't know where they had vanished to."


Survivors, on the other hand, encountered death directly on a number of instances. Some victims were beaten so severely that they died as a result of their injuries. And some survivors claim to have witnessed the deliberate killing of babies born to young female students who had been raped by priests.


Despite horrifying stories like these, the schools remained open for more than a century. The final Indian Residential School in Canada closed in 1996.


The Ongoing Search For Answers

More than a decade after the last residential school in Canada closed, the government began to reconsider the schools' role in Canadian history. The Canadian government issued a formal apology to Indigenous peoples in 2008. In addition, Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission ruled in 2015 that the schools committed "cultural genocide."


The Commission study also identified 3,200 pupils who died while attending the residential schools. However, many Indigenous elders believe the figure is substantially higher, maybe in the tens of thousands. In recent years, they've gone in search of proof for themselves.


Tk'emlps te Secwépemc Nation members used ground-penetrating radar to sweep the grounds of Kamloops Indian Residential School in 2021. Tragically, they discovered 215 small dead on the premises.


Only a few weeks later, members of the Cowessess First Nation utilized ground-penetrating radar to locate the bodies of up to 751 children at the now-demolished Marieval Indian Residential School.


Tk'emlps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir stated, "We knew in our community that we were able to validate."


"Right now, we have more questions than answers."


Murray Sinclair, a Peguis First Nation member who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, concurs.


"We need to know who died, how they died, and who was responsible for their deaths or their care at the time they died," Sinclair said. "We need to know why the families were not notified." And we need to know where the children's bodies are buried."


In the end, seeking answers to these issues remains a top priority for many Indigenous people across Canada. For over a century, their children were sent to Indian Residential Schools. They want to bring them home now.


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