The issue of Indian residential schools in Canada roots from the idea to assimilate the local population, affecting their culture and language. With the opening of the first residential school in 1883, Indian children were taught according to Roman Catholic Church views that focused on the destruction of the authentic traditions and implantation of new Christian culture. As a result of the mentioned policy, plenty of children lost connections with their traditions, ethnicity, and even mother tongue. The severe work system was also applied to Indigenous children, who were obliged to maintain schools’ operation. This paper focuses on the explanation and reflection of geographical and historical aspects of the issue as well as its discussion in the context of the contemporary reconciliation policy accepted in Canada. Even though residential schools are not used nowadays, their impact is regarded to be crucial and, therefore, it needs to be explored in an appropriate manner.
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Historical and Geographical Background of the Issue
Canada’s Indigenous residential schools directly relate to the education sector. Ignoring the core idea of education that is to raise the students’ awareness of fundamental issues related to the environment and their own culture, these schools strived to degenerate Indigenous spiritual traditions. English and French languages were used to isolate children from their parents, making them unable to speak their native languages (Laing, 2013). Their first languages were strictly forbidden and declared anti-Christian.
Denigration and abuse composed an integral part of many residential schools due to their compulsory nature. Even though some staff members tried to perform their work appropriately, the rest frequently used power to punish children in case of any deviations from norms established by schools. In order to implement correctional measures, some teachers used to punish students physically and even abuse them sexually (Laing, 2013). Considering that regulations set by schools were sometimes difficult to follow, the punishment was regarded as something usual and useful to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-French culture. Thus, residential schools turned out to be a “commonplace for survivors and their communities to inherit and internalize a belief in their inferiority that was so forcefully ingrained into one’s sense of self” (Laing, 2013, p. 52). Such a harsh reality contributed to the creation of the lamentable consequences.
Speaking of the issue of the residential schools for Indian children, it should be noted that, by the very definition, they implied that students lived in campuses of these schools. In this connection, schools were overcrowded due to the need for self-sufficiency and the lack of place. In effect, the specified situation created high morbidity rates; in particular, students were prone to tuberculosis and influenza. As reported by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, approximately 3 200 children died because of diseases (Laing, 2013). Furthermore, some students were used for experiments with nutrition that discovered issues associated with the lack of dental care and essential nutrients. No consent was received from the parents of these children. The mentioned points show that health care issues were violated in residential schools, thus breaking the vital human rights.
This harsh regime was also characterized by the courageous resistance of both parents and their children. In order to protect their culture and language, Indigenous people rejected the cooperation with Christian schools, burned them, and sabotaged others. With time, all these schools were closed, and recovery measures were initiated for the community members.
Reconciliation Context of Today
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to assist the Aboriginal people to recover from difficulties caused by the residential schools (“Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to action,” 2015). In nowadays context, respect for equal human rights is proposed widely, and several initiatives are applied to improve the situation. In this case, the paramount role of TRC is to recover families from breakdown and facilitate atrocities caused by the residential schools’ conditions. In collaboration with church and government, the community supported the survivors with compensation packages: the federal government established $1.9 billion in compensation in 2005 (Laing, 2013). Furthermore, according to the regulations of the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), survivors received financial help for the abuse they suffered.
The observation of the contemporary evidence shows that today the Canadian Indigenous people are still under recovery processes. Although the activities of TRC do not replace judicial prosecution, they serve as the form of accountability for the past and, thus, can be regarded as of particular interest in situations in which prosecution for mass crimes is impossible or unlikely (Weiss, 2015). Nowadays, the Canadian government continues to develop and implement effective remedies for Indigenous people, initiating the processes of recognition of the First Nations’ rights. The mentioned commission presents a special form of recovery created by the executive authorities to conduct an investigation and communicate opinions on issues that are of high social and cultural importance. Among the most important responsibilities of TRC, one may note:
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- Recognition of the facts of severe and unequal treatment of children within the residential schools;
- The provision of an opportunity to testify for former students, their families, and representatives of their nations;
- Promotion of truth and reconciliation at the community level and throughout the country;
- Development of recommendations for the government of Canada regarding the system of reconciliation in relation to residential schools (“Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to action,” 2015).
The composition of TRC should also be specified in order to ensure that the issues that are of interest for Indigenous people are uncovered properly. Thus, TRC is headed by the chairman while its members are appointed from candidates nominated by former students, Indigenous organizations, religious institutions, and the government (Weiss, 2015). In other words, the representatives selected by Indigenous organizations and groups of former students are to explain the needs and expectations of survivors that are likely to lead to the appropriate recognition of their rights.
The modern reconciliation context established by Canada understands the necessity for the continuous support of Indigenous survivors. According to Blackstock (2007), “$13 billion budget and a detailed cost analysis reveal that it would only cost $109 million per year to provide basic equity in child welfare funding” (p. 77). Also, the Canadian government donates to the Aboriginal Healing Fund for initiatives relevant to memory and spiritual rebirth. The churches that took part in the process of providing assistance to students of the residential schools provide their services as well.
In 2008, the government brought an official apology to the Aboriginal Groups affected by forcible living in residential schools (Weiss, 2015). The apologies were expressed during the solemn session of the Canadian House of Commons. It was officially recognized that the mentioned issue separated Indian children from their families with the aim of tearing them away from their cultural environment and forcing them to assimilate into a new culture. The residential schools for the Indians forbade them to apply their cultural customs and tried to suppress their language that was accompanied by the violation of basic obligations, including health care and nutrition (Weiss, 2015). Ultimately, it was stated that the significant negative influence on culture, heritage, languages, as well as on the welfare of individual students, who survived from the residential schools, was made.
In this connection, it should also be noted that there is a forum where former students of the residential school can share their experiences and familiarize the society with their status and histories. Moreover, the ethical issues that need to be taken into account can be addressed there as many survivors feel that they will not be able to recover until the perpetrators are brought to justice, and their rights are recognized.
There may be some tension in the process of recuperation associated with the psychological difficulties of memorizing. In spite of the great steps in improving the position of Aboriginals and changing attitudes towards them, there still some issues to be enhanced in the future in terms of continuous public dialogue.
To conclude, it should be emphasized that the issue of residential schools was a rather severe period in Indigenous nations’ history. Their children were forcibly put in schools and had to experience poverty, the lack of food and healthcare, and the prohibition of their own cultural traditions. Nowadays, Canada’s government apologizes for that and initiates measures to help them in their recovery. Thus, TRC presents the key institution that ensures the opportunity for rehabilitation, freedom of congregation and speech, and preservation of memory, supporting Indigenous nations on financial, organizational, and psychological levels.
Blackstock, C. (2007). Residential schools: Did they really close or just morph into child welfare? Indigenous Law Journal, 6(1), 71-78.
Laing, M. (2013). An analysis of Canada’s Indian residential schools’ Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Undergraduate Transitional Justice Review, 4(1), 51-64.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to action. (2015). Web.
Weiss, J. Z. (2015). Challenging reconciliation: Indeterminacy, disagreement, and Canada’s Indian residential schools’ Truth and Reconciliation Commission. International Journal of Canadian Studies, 54(1), 27-55.