Canada’s shameful legacy of cultural genocide
Recent revelations by University of Guelph food historian Ian Mosby explore details about experiments conducted by federal scientists on malnourished and hungry aboriginals on reserves and in residential schools. Between 1942 and 1952, experiments were conducted on 1300 people, studying the effects of nutritional supplements. Subjects were provided or denied vitamins, minerals and foods instead of being properly fed. Dental services were also withdrawn because researchers were concerned that healthier teeth and gums could skew results. The “subjects” used in the experiments were already hungry and suffering nutritionally prior to being experimented on. One of those children was Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo’s father, who attended a residential school in Port Alberni, B.C.
It is difficult and painful to think of people being deliberately deprived of food in this land of plenty, and adding to that hurt is the knowledge that they were treated as heartlessly as if they had been lab rats instead of human beings. In fact, the experiments and the complete lack of ethics involved with carrying them out sound like something that would have come out of Nazi Germany.
No one will ever be able to measure the lifelong damage done by these experiments, for when growing children are deprived of nutritious food, their development and learning outcomes are affected, and may suffer permanent effects. Add these horrible revelations about food deprivation to the stories of abuse, neglect and lack of medical care and sanitation that make up the legacy of residential schools. It all adds up to a profoundly shameful chapter of Canadian history.
History of residential schools
“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed. They are a weird and waning race…ready to break out at any moment in savage dances; in wild and desperate orgies.” – Duncan Campbell Scott, Head of Indian Affairs.
In the 19th century, the Canadian government believed it was responsible for educating and caring for the country’s aboriginal people. Nearly 1,100 students attended 69 residential schools across the country. In 1931, at the peak of the residential school system, there were about 80 schools operating in Canada. From the earliest school to the last, which closed in 1996, there were a total of about 130 schools in every territory, province (except Newfoundland, PEI and New Brunswick). In total, approximately 150,000 aboriginal, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their communities and from the care of their families, and forced to attend the schools.
Residential schools were established with the assumption that aboriginal culture was unable to adapt to a modern society. It was believed that native children could be successful if they assimilated into mainstream Canadian society by adopting Christianity and speaking English or French. Students were discouraged from speaking their first language or practising native traditions. If they were caught, they would experience severe punishment.
Residential schools were federally run, under the Department of Indian Affairs. Attendance was mandatory, and the Canadian government truly believed that aboriginals’ best chance for success was to learn English and adopt Christianity and Canadian customs. Ideally, they would pass their adopted lifestyle on to their children, and native traditions would diminish, or be completely abolished in a few generations.
Residential school students did not receive the same education as the general population in the public school system, and the schools were sorely underfunded. Teachings focused primarily on practical skills. Girls were primed for domestic service and taught to do laundry, sew, cook, and clean. Boys were taught carpentry and farming. Many students attended class part-time and worked for the school the rest of the time: girls did the housekeeping; boys, general maintenance and agriculture. This work, which was involuntary and unpaid, was presented as practical training for the students, but many of the residential schools could not run without it. With so little time spent in class, most students had only reached grade five by the time they were 18. At this point, students were sent away. Many were discouraged from pursuing further education.
Canada may have had good intensions in helping aboriginals to make the transition from a traditional lifestyle that they had been living for thousands of years to a different way of life, but something went terribly wrong, something that is still felt today in many communities. The forced assimilation of aboriginal people into western society was not in fact “assimilation” but genocide. There was a concise and deliberate plan to “kill the Indian in the child,” according to survivors of the schools.
Abuse at residential schools
“At 9, I was sent to residential school. A nun shaved my head and stripped me bare in front of all the other boys, followed by months of repeated beatings, whippings, sexual abuse and solitary confinement in a dark, locked closet. Why? Because I was bad and deserved it. That’s what they said.” – Stephen Kakfwi, former Premier of the North West Territories and residential school survivor.
The purpose of the schools was to eliminate all aspects of Aboriginal culture, so students were forced to cut their hair short, dress in uniforms, and live strictly regimented days. Boys and girls were kept separate, and siblings were rarely allowed to interact. Students were forbidden to speak their language or to practice Aboriginal customs or traditions, and violators were severely punished. Students at residential schools rarely had opportunities to see examples of normal family life. They were in school 10 months a year, away from their parents. All correspondence from the children was written in English, which many parents couldn’t read.
Abuse at the schools was widespread: emotional and psychological abuse was constant, physical abuse was meted out as punishment, and sexual abuse was also common. Survivors recall being beaten and strapped; some students were shackled to their beds; some had needles shoved in their tongues for speaking their native languages. These abuses, along with overcrowding, poor sanitation, and severely inadequate food and health care, resulted in a shockingly high death toll.
For three decades, Willie Blackwater suppressed the pain. At age 39, he released his torment when a compassionate RCMP officer named Al Franczak asked if he’d ever been sexually abused. What poured out was a horrific account of repeated rape and beatings 30 years earlier at the Port Alberni residential school on Vancouver Island. Blackwater’s courageous revelations, along with those of 17 other former students, helped seal some of the very first related criminal convictions against Arthur Henry Plint, a sadistic dormitory supervisor.
In addition to unhealthy conditions and corporal punishment, children were frequently assaulted, raped, or threatened by staff or other students. During the 2005 sentencing of Arthur Plint, a dorm supervisor at the Port Alberni Indian Residential School convicted of 16 counts of indecent assault, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Douglas Hogarth called Plint a “sexual terrorist.” Hogarth stated, “As far as the victims were concerned, the Indian residential school system was nothing more than institutionalized pedophilia.”
The extent to which Department of Indian Affairs and church officials knew of these abuses has been debated. However, the Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples and Dr John Milloy, among others, concluded that church and state officials were fully aware of the abuses and tragedies at the schools. Some inspectors and officials at the time expressed alarm at the horrifying death rates, yet those who spoke out and called for reform were generally met with silence and lack of support. The Department of Indian Affairs would promise to improve the schools, but the deplorable conditions persisted.
Some former students have fond memories of their time at residential schools, and certainly some of the priests and nuns who ran the schools treated the students as best they could given the circumstances. But even these “good” experiences occurred within a system aimed at destroying Aboriginal cultures and assimilating Aboriginal students.
When students returned to the reserve, they often found they didn’t belong. They didn’t have the skills to help their parents, and became ashamed of their native heritage. The skills taught at the schools were generally substandard; many found it hard to function in an urban setting. The aims of assimilation meant devastation for those who were subjected to years of mistreatment.
Although there is no exact tally, hundreds of First Nations children disappeared after being taken from their homes to attend residential schools from 1870 to the mid-1900s. An unknown number of aboriginal children died at residential schools without information of their deaths communicated to their families. In 1909 Dr. Peter Bryce, general medical superintendent for Indian Affairs reported to the Ministry that between 1894-1908 the mortality rate in western Canadian residential schools was between 35%-60%. That is between 52,500 – 90,000 children unaccounted for. Mass graves for deceased youth have already been discovered.
The figures above do not include children who died at home, where they were frequently sent when critically ill. Bryce reported that anywhere from 47 percent to 75 percent of students discharged from residential schools died shortly after returning home.
Apologies and reparations
Critics say the Church is guilty of atrocities and attempted genocide of Aboriginal people, but the Canadian government cannot shy away from responsibility. Ultimately, it was the Canadian government who set up and paid for this system whereby children were forcibly removed from their families and placed with a bunch of pedophiles and sadists. Of course the churches are to blame too and it seems most of them have been sincere in trying to make amends, though, amazingly, the Catholic Church alone has refused to issue a formal apology.
The Canadian government’s formal apology, together with the previously-announced $2 billion compensation package and the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is the beginning of the end of this sad, shameful chapter in our country’s history.