Life in an Indian Residential School

Gisselle Villagracia
Human Rights Blogger
One Nation, Two Worlds

If you’re like me, growing up you probably only heard of Aboriginals living in teepees or wearing feathers on their heads. But have you ever wondered who they really are? Or better yet, why aren’t we taught more about them?

We live in a society where if you don’t live like everyone else you aren’t ‘normal’ and because of this standard, during the 19th century of colonial takeover, the Indians did not deem fit in the superiority of white culture, being characterized as a disgrace to Canadian society. I cannot even begin to explain how much this frustrates me, but as you continue to read, you’ll see why the Western way isn’t always the best.

To regulate this issue, the federal Canadian government joined with the churches to educate Indigenous children, including First Nations, Metis, and Inuits, on Canadian culture through the establishment of Indian Residential Schools (IRS). This policy was meant to help unite the Indigenous people with the rest of Canadian society through a curriculum that taught Canadian and Catholic values, as well as the English language. However, rather than shaping and preparing the Native children for their future, they were stripped away from their heritage, denied practice of their native language and traditions, and were limited of family interactions in hopes of reversing their culture1. More than 150,000 Indigenous children were affected by the underfunded system, with inadequate staff and poor living conditions that caused diseases, malnutrition, and neglect1, as well as countless mortalities and missing children. That’s almost triple the capacity of the Rogers centre!

Coming from an IRS survivor herself, Karen Chaboyer describes her personal experiences of attending these schools. Warning, I’ve already watched this several times and it still aches me to hear her story, ­

After several decades of agonizing distress from the IRS, it was clear that the decision to convert the Indigenous community to Canadian culture caused more harm than good, closing the last of it’s doors in the 1990s. However, the impact of the IRS were far too great that when returning to their families, students were faced with another challenge to readapt to the lifestyle they were conditioned to reject1. Families could no longer communicate with one another and children lacked the skills to help their parents with the work at home. Many of the former students were lost as to how to reconnect with their roots, resulting in alcohol and substance abuse, violence, suicide, anger, hopelessness, isolation, shame, guilt, and an inability to parent1. This historical trauma not only affected the individual, but also the community as a whole.

Imagine a time where you felt you didn’t belong, I know you’ve all been there. Imagine you’re in high school trying to fit in with the crowd, being moulded and shaped by the pressures of society. Now imagine being bullied, being criticized, being told to change who you are because you aren’t good enough. It’s dehumanizing isn’t it, and this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what these Indigenous students had to endure.

To get a bigger picture of the damage caused by the IRS, the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement is notably the largest class action settlement in Canadian history shedding out approximately $5 billion for compensation2 of breached values of human rights. It wasn’t until a member of the TCDSB began to tear up on a presentation I did of Residential Schools that I truly recognized the impact it has had on the Indigenous community even to this day. As Canadians, it is important to understand the mistakes our government has made in order to learn from it and avoid future recurrences.

It’s a battle everyday to live with the pain from your past. I can assure you that ignoring the matter does nothing to help you in the long run.

Today, the legacy of the IRS is not very well known because knowledge of Canada’s indecency towards the Indigenous community would hinder their reputation of striving for cultural acceptance and unity. The repression of this historical event have caused the Indigenous community to feel neglected by their home country because the claims of sexual and emotional abuse were overlooked by the government. Because of this many people, myself included, were ignorant of the stresses put upon the Indigenous people and were unaware that an IRS crisis even took place. The damage from this trauma is ongoing and will continue to lurk in the shadows of IRS survivors and future generations to come. This is why it is important to inform the public, especially Canadians, of the unfortunate event of the IRS to break the cycle of injustice and stereotypical views embedded on the Indigenous culture to welcome and share them into the Canadian community that they should already be a part of. Like Karen Chaboyer says, the Aboriginal community is beautiful if only people took the time to appreciate it.

1 Nagy, R., & Sehdev, R. K. (2012). Introduction: Residential Schools and Decolonization. Canadian Journal of Law and Society Can. J. Law Soc.,27(01), 67­73.

2 Moran, M. (2014). The role of reparative justice in responding to the legacy of Indian Residential Schools. University of Toronto Law Journal,64(4), 529­565.

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