The Legacy of Residential Schools in Canada

Canada is a country perceived as just, tolerant, and distinguished in respect for human rights both internationally and domestically. However, such perceptions fail to account for the gross violation, prejudices, and inequalities regarding the Aboriginal communities. In particular, the residential school in Canada between the late 19th and late 20th centuries created a long-lasting adverse impact on the First Nations children. As illustrated in Chelsea Vowel Book Indigenous Writes, chapter 20, the system resulted from Canadian government assimilation policy, which forcibly removed children from their parents to attend the federally funded institutions. Together with churches such as Roman Catholic, United Church, and Presbyterian, the government aimed to “kill the Indian in Aboriginal Children” by forbidding them to speak in their native languages and observe foreign values, cultural practices, and beliefs. Indeed, one can consider such injustice to constitute cultural genocide. Apart from forcing the children to accept the value and beliefs of mainstream Canadian society, children in the residential school became victims of constant mental, sexual and physical abuse, mainly from those the people in charge of the facilities.  In addition to the violence, abuse, and death, residential schooling leads to the loss of indigenous languages, strained family and community relationships, and degraded cultural heritage.

One of the far-reaching impacts of the residential school system was the death of thousands of First Nation Children. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report, as noted by Vowel, showed that more than 150,000 Aboriginal Children passed through 125 schools (181). However, most of these children never returned home as they succumbed to diseases, fires, accidents, physical injuries from the supervisors, and sexual abuses. In most instances, the dilapidated living condition, government hostility or indifference, and insufficient food and water were among the children’s few problems. According to Vowel, at least 6,000 children who attended the residential school died (181). However, the actual number of the dead student remains unknown given the lack of death records. Notably, the school principals failed to record the personal information of one-third of the dead students at the residential schools.

The major contributor to death was diseases; as noted by the TRC report, before 1940, Tuberculosis was the primary cause of death not only in the general public but also in the residential schools (Neissen and Faculty p. 21). In the late 19th century, the report found that the death rate resulting from TB in Toronto and Montreal was about 200 out of every hundred thousand people. The poor living conditions in the schools, especially the unsanitary living rooms, only exacerbated the already worsening problems. Apart from TB, Influenza was a critical issue among the residential schools. By 1918, Canada was facing a flu pandemic that claimed the lives of many citizens, including children. The report recorded the horrific situation faced by the children, such as vomiting, nose bleeding, dysentery, and ultimately death (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 181). The Kamloops Indian Residential School, which operated between the late 19th century and the late 1970s, was one of the largest residential schools’ systems under the Roman Catholic Church. According to the TRC report, medical examination of the facility found it highly unsanitary, which significantly contributed to the high infection rate of pneumonia, bronchitis, and flu. Indeed, preliminary findings found the remains of 215 children who were students at the institution as young as three years old.

Similarly, fire significant problem for the residential and had a significant contribution to the high rate death rate of First Nation children. Most studies have referred to some residential schools as “death traps” where dormitory doors remained closed, making it impossible for students to escape in case of fire emergencies (Neissen and Faculty 83). For instance, the fire in Beauval School in Northern Saskatchewan in 1927 claimed the lives of 19 students, where the external inquiry blamed the school construction design for the deaths (46). However, perhaps the most notable fire incident was in 1946 where Manitoba School dormitories burned down. Although two boys succumbed to the fire, Donald Beardy and Oliver Sinclair saved the lives of many children by breaking the door, which the supervisor permanently closed (53). According to the TRC report majority of the Canadian residential facilities functioned beyond the enacted fire regulations.

Other causes of deaths of death included abuse, experimentation, and freezing as they tried to escape. Various residential schools used their students as involuntary guinea pigs for experimental studies, especially dietary (MacDonald et al. 64). Besides, corporal punishment was a legal aspect for almost all residential schools (Neissen and Faculty 24). The majority of the survivors have described the facility as physically hostile through beating or strapping. But probably the most important cause of death was the high number of death that occurred due to drowning and freezing in their attempt to escape. While dozens of children died in this manner, the school administration failed to report their disappearance and did not search for them. Among the most recognizable incident occurred in 1939, when four students from Fraser Lake Indian Residential attempted to escape to reunite with their families (65). Though the students went missing for more than a day, the school did not attempt to find them, nor did they report them to the authorities as missing. Finally, on finding the boys, there had all frozen to death.

The widespread loss of languages experienced by indigenous Canadian societies had devastating impacts on the indigenous people’s lives, values, and beliefs. Although to most people, language is an everyday element that serves as a means of communication, language is also a representation of cultural identity and heritage. The assimilation policy adopted by the Canadian government was the major contributor to the loss of indigenous languages (Borrows 2). The policy forcibly removed children from their families and separated them from the community that could teach the native language. For the government, residential schools were effective means of assimilating indigenous communities isolating and separating them from the influence of the native culture.

The removal and separation of children at such young age affected the development and progression of the indigenous languages. The residential school required the students to speak in French and English only. Besides, school administrators and supervisors abused and punished students using their mother tongues (Neissen and Faculty 22). Notably, survivors of the facilities have indicated that nuns and priests slapped, punched, verbally abused, and stuck sharp pins in the tongues of the young children as a punishment for speaking in their native languages (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 64). Given such abuses, most of the students lost their ability to communicate in their native languages. Indeed, among the notable long-term effects of the residential schools is the significant decline in indigenous language speakers. A study by Norris noted that only 24 percent of self-identified Canadian aboriginals could communicate in their indigenous language (p.20). Furthermore, nearly ten native languages have become extinct over the last 100 years. Although one may argue that residential schools are not the sole contributing factor in the loss of native languages, such as the increased emergence of urban centers, they played a critical role in the decline.

Moreover, residential schools strained community and family relationships. The loss of native languages had a significant impact on the traditional community and family relationships. The assimilation of native children to the mainstream Canadian society that required them to acquire new languages harmed family relationships. Various scholars have indicated that residential schools played a crucial role in the family unit breakdown both in schools and in the community (Titian 1). Sibling schooling in the same facility found it difficult to relate and communicate due to the language barrier. Besides, when such students returned to their parents and the community, there could not communicate with the elders and their families. Notably, survivors of the traditional residential schools have reported their inability to develop a community bond as they could not learn and understand their traditional way of life through stories, games, songs, and ceremonies (Knockwood and Thomas 89). As a result, the schools left the students lonely and disjoined from their native community and families. Indeed, respect for the elderly was a traditional solid value; however, it was impossible to create and nurture meaningful intergenerational relationships with limited communication between the elder and the young.

Apart from the constants deaths, loss of native language, and strained community and family relationships, residential schools alienated most Aboriginal communities from their culture, values, and beliefs. According to the TRC report, the adoption and operations of the residential school system constitute cultural genocide (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 29). By definition, cultural genocide is the degradation of practices and structures that allow people to continue living and operating as a group (Amir 2, MacDonald and Hudson 4). For instance, among the most important cultural beliefs among the indigenous communities included the spiritual value of everything existing; plants, stars, humans, rocks, soil, and the sun. The Aboriginal culture perceived these elements as sacred (Bombay et al. 21). For the native communities, their spiritual connection to nature was essential. The community passed their spiritual knowledge from one generation to the other through rituals and myths. Thus, without adequate communication and knowledge of indigenous culture and language, the young population couldn’t learn and guarantee the continuity of their people’s spiritual beliefs and values. Indeed, Aboriginal spirituality was multifaceted, impacting the knowledge and thoughts and their understanding of the animal, plants, and traditional practices and skills such as tanning, trapping, hunting, and fishing (Neissen and Faculty 48). However, without the connection and access to their elders’ understanding of nature, young people lost crucial connections to the values and beliefs developed for centuries by their ancestors. Notably, the loss of indigenous languages interrelates to the degradation of cultural values, beliefs, and spiritual connection to nature.

The effects of residential schools in Canada extend through time and generations. Between the 19th and 20th century the assimilation policy adopted by the Canadian government exposed young children to inhumane treatment and environment. In the attempt to assimilate a new culture, young children as young as four years faced physical, mental and spiritual torture that resulted in the death of at least 6,000 children. Besides, residential schooling denied the young people the opportunity to learn and promote the indigenous language. As a result, the majority of the native languages become extinct.  Apart from the death and loss of native language, the resident school system resulted in strained family and community relationships and degraded cultural values and beliefs of the indigenous communities.