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  • Zohra Bouzitoun

The White Man's Legacy to Aboriginal Children and Their Children

Dernière mise à jour : 2 juin 2020

The University of Ottawa recognizes its location on traditional Algonquin territory. All students, faculty members, and staff are encouraged to acknowledge the campus' location on traditional Algonquin territory and to learn more about our unique relationship with the Indigenous peoples of Canada.

Little or no interest at all is given to aboriginal complex social and cultural situation. Our lack of understanding, and presence of bias and stereotypes create a very deep and large gap between aboriginal communities and the rest of Canadian’s society. They have been marginalized for as long as history can remember.

How is it that aboriginal populations faces a social crisis, while its part of one of the wealthiest and successful countries in the world ? How come their rates of drug and alcohol abuse, high school drop outs and teen pregnancy are substantially higher than those of the rest of Canada? Many have tried to answer these questions.

Some specialists tried to diagnose the problem. Dr. Charles Bradsfield believes that the current situation is something that relates to the residential schools’ syndrome. The name finds its origin in the residential school system set in place by the government of Canada and Catholic churches to assimilate children from aboriginal communities to the white man’s way of life. Studies have shown that survivors of residential schools demonstrate the same symptoms as people who have attended boarding schools on a long term basis. Also, these survivors show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Whether its “recurrent intrusive memories, nightmares, occasional flashbacks, and quite striking avoidance of anything that might be reminiscent of the Indian residential school experience”, or a lack of basic skills when it comes to social interactions. Dr Bradsfield adds that there is also “a significant detachment from others, and relationship difficulties” amongst aboriginal communities.

What about their own communities? Residential schools also impacted aboriginals on their culture. Children were taken far away from their parents, were forbidden to speak their mother tongues, and could not dress or have accessories from their culture. Girls with braids were forced to cut their hair and siblings were separated. Chief Bobby Joseph of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society recounted his story and said that one of the aftermath of residential schools was his lack of social skills. He believes that he had no idea “how to interact with girls and never even got to know his own sister beyond a mere wave in the dining room”.

This lack of education on their own culture, and the lack of a cultural identity created generations of aboriginals marginalized from their very own culture. These children, who have now become survivors, were stripped away of any sense of identity. Therefore, in today’s aboriginal communities, social cohesion has been very much weakened. The generations of aboriginals that are currently considered the active group of these communities know very little of their culture and heritage.

Residential schools are a very important factor that impacted today’s situation in regards to aboriginals. To understand this impact, we also need to understand the purpose of these schools.

Residential schools were part of the assimilation agenda of the Canadian government. The government of Canada, with the church’s collaboration, built a project to ensure aboriginal children were assimilated to the white man’s way of life. After all, “aboriginal culture was unable to adapt to a rapidly modernizing society native children could be successful if they assimilated into mainstream Canadian society by adoption Christianity and speaking English or French”. They thought the only way to move forward was to “Kill the Indian in the child ”.

The cultural genocide that happened in the residential schools, was only the tip of the iceberg. Children were constantly abused physically, psychologically or sexually. They were kept under human dignity’s standard. With very little food, clothes or blankets to keep them warm at night, they were treated as prisoners.

In the last couple of years, many started speaking up about their traumatic experiences in the residential schools. A very alarming episode of history was brought to the everyone's attention: from 1940 to 1950’s, nutritional experiments were conducted on malnourished aboriginal children from residential schools. Not only these experiments happened but the federal government was very much aware of these atrocities and did not take action to protect the mistreated students. These experiments are only one of the many examples in which aboriginals were treated as means of experiment by the ethnic majority. An article written in 2013, explains that :

The experiments started when an Indian Affairs doctor, along with two others from New York and the University of Toronto, visited the reserve and linked malnutrition to a tuberculosis epidemic and cases of blindness. Instead of improving the food available to all 300 Cree in Norway House, the doctors decided to give nutritional supplements to just 125. Two years later, researchers noted an improvement in the health of the group given the vitamins. Recent research by Canadian food historian Ian Mosby revealed that at least 1,300 aboriginal people — most of them children — were used as test subjects in the 1940s and 1950s by researchers probing the effectiveness of vitamin supplements”.

On top of being involuntarily participating in these awful experiments, these children barely saw their families. They had, over time, no knowledge of what a functional family life was like. Because they were deprived of affection, attention and psychological support, it impacted them and their community and keeps impacting young generations. With over 150 0000 aboriginal children attending residential schools, the aftermath of the residential school’s traumatic experiences is still felt in today’s society.

Even now we can see tangible consequences of the legacy residential schools left. The aboriginal communities has a systematic struggle to fight social issues. One of the greatest problem that residential schools created is the fact that members of the aboriginal community lack in knowledge when it comes to parenting. Not only, residential schools are the root of an important impairment for aboriginal communities, but they also caused psychological damage to its residents and highly compromised aboriginal communities by the inadequate education it provided the children with.

Aboriginal children, taken away to the residential schools were not educated in terms of their own practices, culture and way of life. Residential schools designed that problem and the least they could have done was to provide these children with a valuable education to succeed in the white man’s world. Instead of receiving the same standard of education as other Canadian students, aboriginal students were taught to conform to Western's culture.

Girls were taught how to clean and do housework (e.g. laundry, sewing, cooking). Boys were taught practical skills like carpentry, tinsmithing, and farming. This education was destined to make aboriginal children minimal low-skill workers.

One of the survivors testifies about his school experience and says :

I didn’t even get an education. I didn’t go to a class or anything... They made you work down there all the time. I didn’t do any learning. I was on the farm, that’s all I was doing... There used to be rocks all over the fields, big boulders and they used horses and picked them all up. That’s how they got that meadow there to make hay. We’d go out in the morning and first we’d clean the barn, pigs, chicken, we’d do that in the morning and then in the afternoon we’d go to the field. No time for the classroom. I can’t even read or write, some of these heavy words”.

While aboriginal children were at the residential schools, their curricular consisted on half-time academic courses and half-time labour for the school. The work was involuntary and unpaid. Some might say that because this happened in the late 1890 and mid-1900 explains the little knowledge we had on children’s education. Some might even say that this was considered normal at that time’s standard. Those who favour this premise have to keep in mind that during this period, white Canadian children were educated at much higher standards. It wasn’t about that time’s practices and education culture. It was clearly about race.

That being said, I would like to honour the memory of all the lost children and survivors of this historical tragedy. Let us all remember to acknowledge the historical trauma aboriginal communities have been suffering ever since the first colonizer stepped on this land before we cast judgements and stereotypes upon aboriginal social issues. The government taking action and compensating them by offering support and specific social assistance groups is not an act of generosity, but an overdue obligation they have towards the aboriginal communities.

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