Transmopolis » Wild Reports » Walking Tall: First Nations Activists Raise Awareness of Residential Schools in Canada

Walking Tall: First Nations Activists Raise Awareness of Residential Schools in Canada

by Michael Jack Lawlor | 25 November 2011 |

Canada’s residential schools were created by the federal government in the 19th century to force indigenous people to conform to the economic, linguistic and religious system that was imposed on them by the British during the process of colonization.

Native children were wrenched from their families and detained at residential schools across the country. Legislation enabled the government to jail parents if they did not serve their children up to the residential school system.

Children suffered corporal punishment if they were caught socializing in their native language or practicing family customs in the schools. The government expected detained children to speak English or French.

To subvert traditional native culture, kids were forced by residential school employees to attend agriculture classes which the government thought would ready them for the capitalist mode of production that had been introduced by colonialism.

On July 29, 2011, survivors of Canada’s residential school system and their children started walking from Cochrane, Ontario to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“We walked from Cochrane, Ontario for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission national event in Halifax,” said Patrick Ethrington, Jr at the Occupy Nova Scotia encampment on the Grand Parade in Halifax on October 25, 2011. “We’re walking to raise awareness of the impacts on both the survivors and their families of residential schools.”

Ethrington Jr was joined on the 2200 km walk by his father, Patrick Ethrington Sr, Francis Wiskeychan, Robert Hunter, James Kioke and Sam Koosees.

“Residential school has impacted all of our lives, especially as the children of survivors. They were taken to those schools when they were very young. They were deprived of the basic necessities of life. They were deprived of the love that only a parent can give. They weren’t allowed to practice their own language.”

Children were detained for 8 to 10 months at a time. Since the detention facilities were far from family homes, many children lost contact with their parents and brothers and sisters. Kids were forced to write letters home in English, a language their parents could not read.

Silenced by the prohibitions and punishments that prevented them from communicating with their parents, children found themselves vulnerable and alone. Many were raped in the residential schools.

“A lot of sexual abuse happened there,” said Ethrington Jr. “Fuckin’ right. Excuse my French. Priests were the ones who ran it, they’re the ones who did it.”

The day to day operation of the residential schools was out-sourced to the Catholic, Anglican and United churches by the federal government, which underfunded the program and relied on the forced labour of indigenous children to maintain the detention facilities.

Indigenous activists and historians have made the hidden history of the residential schools visible and changed the language that is used to discuss the issue.

The language of Government policy – terms like civilization, enfranchisement and assimilation – has been replaced with the language of social justice. Canada’s residential school system is now discussed in the context of racism and cultural genocide.

“Long time ago imagine being taken away from your parents,” said Etherington Jr. “Your head is shaved and you are deloused and you are thrown in with a bunch of other kids that don’t know nothin’ except to bully you. You’re not allowed to communicate with your brother or sister. You are not allowed to say “meegweetch” – thank you – in your own language.”

Canada’s Justice Minister Irwin Cotler described the placement of indigenous children in residential schools as “the single most harmful, disgraceful and racist act in our history.”

The last residential school closed in 1996.

“Residential schools had a very negative effect on the survivors. Our parents grew up with a lot of substance abuse – alcohol and drugs. We were taught nothin’ really. We don’t know how to express love to our own kids.”

Survivors of the system sued the Canadian government and the churches that ran the schools. In 2006 a $2 billion dollar class action settlement was awarded. In 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a formal apology to the indigenous people who had been forced to attend the federally funded residential schools.

Harper’s apology draws attention to Duncan Scott Campbell, the bureaucratic leader of the Department of Indian Affairs from from 1913 to 1932. Campbell described the residential school program as an attempt “to kill the Indian in the child.”

Mortality rates at the residential schools soared during Campbell’s reign. Many students contracted tuberculosis and were forced to sit through classes as their health deteriorated, ensuring that healthy students would be exposed to the virus.

Campbell addressed the issue in 1924 in one of the most chilling statements in Canadian history.

“It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this does not justify a change in the policy of this Department which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian Problem.”

Patrick Etherington Jr received two standing ovations when he spoke to the audience at the Truth and Reconciliation conference in Halifax.

Time is on the side of the survivors and their children.

“We had a lot of time to think when we were walkin’, said Etherington Jr. “Every time I saw a church I’d get mad. They call it truth and reconciliation, right. So you have to at least attempt to reconcile. I’ve come to realize I’m not mad at the church anymore. It’s sick people that did that. Not the church actually. Gets me angry every time I think about it. They did that shit to my dad.”

Read Terrified: Twentieth-Century Education for Native Americans – Residential Schools by Dan Paul.

Check out Broken Circle: The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools by Theodore Fontaine and Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools by J.R. Miller at your local library.

About Duncan Scott Campbell

As head of the Department of Indian Affairs from from 1913 to 1932, Duncan Scott Campbell was responsible for the direction and management of Canada’s residential school system.

The Encyclopedia Britannica reports that he “allowed school staff to use a variety of inhumane punishments to implement and enforce the assimilation of these children.”

Campbell left a record of his thoughts during his 20 year command of the Department of Indian Affairs. His duplicitous writing reveals a carefully crafted policy of cultural genocide. It is chilling to realize that Campbell wrote the following policy statements in the 1920’s.

“The policy of the Dominion has always been to protect Indians, to guard
the identity as a race and at the same time to apply methods which will
destroy that identity and lead eventually to their disappearance as a
separate division of the population.”

“It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this does not justify a change in the policy of this Department which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian Problem.”

Scott’s role as a Department of Indian Affairs bureaucrat enabled him to travel on Indian territory at tax payer expense and write pretentious lamentations about the people he was determined to destroy. In one of his so-called “Indian Poems”, Scott wrote:

She stands full-throated and with careless pose,
This woman of a weird and waning race,
The tragic savage lurking in her face,
Where all her pagan passion burns and glows;
Her blood is mingled with her ancient foes,
And thrills with war and wildness in her veins;
Her rebel lips are dabbled with the stains
Of feuds and forays and her father’s woes.

And closer in the shawl about her breast,
The latest promise of her nation’s doom,
Paler than she her baby clings and lies,
The primal warrior gleaming from his eyes;
He sulks, and burdened with his infant gloom,
He draws his heavy brows and will not rest.

3 Comments

  • Robert MacLellan said:

    Mike,

    Very good report, I am glad to be associated with a professional like yourself. With your straight forward approach there is only the facts and the rest is left to the reader to reconcile there emotions.

  • Mongo Taribubu said:

    Mike,
    You are a man with a crusader’s conscience. Born and schooled
    in a country that boast so many great accompliments and achiev-
    ments, you refuse to ignore the history it has, for so long,
    swept under the rug or has remained hidden – Africville for one.
    This is another great article, detailing racial discrimination, a
    supremacy mindset, and a national bigotry fostered by people in
    power. You have opened my eyes and I hope other eyes are opened
    to First Nation Activist and Walk Tall with them.

  • pat jr said:

    Rite on……Thanks Mike
    I’m glad u shared our story. Mad respect bro
    When I read what I said….lol I can hardly remember saying it…but I remember meeting you…and all I did was just speak from the heart….just like I did at The TRC gathering in Halifax..Mad respect bro

Share Your Thoughts