Written by: Sofia Watt Sjöström, Lives for Literacy Intern
The residential schools were terrible, but they were in the past, right? Why are we still talking about them? Why can’t Indigenous people just get over it? It wasn’t me; it was my ancestors. Or my neighbour’s ancestors. I didn’t do anything wrong. So, what do you want me to do? Can’t we just shut up and move on?
The impact of the residential school system is a bit more complicated than that. The last school closed 27 years ago, but survivors from then and before that live on, and we can hardly expect them to just shut up and move on (“Timeline”). Many have dealt with physical or mental health problems related to what they endured – chronic bronchitis, disordered eating, suicidal thoughts, to name a few (“Honouring the Truth” 159). The loss of culture and familial estrangement has had deep-rooted consequences: according to UNESCO, 70% of Canadian Indigenous languages are endangered, and more than half of these are spoken only by great-grandparent generations (“Honouring the Truth” 155). Moreover, given the inadequacy of their education, many survivors have been limited in terms of their job opportunities (“Honouring the Truth” 146-147). This contributes to disproportionate unemployment and poverty amongst Indigenous people today (“Honouring the Truth” 145-147).
The legacy of the residential schools extends well beyond survivors’ lives. For instance, Indigenous communities have disproportionately high rates of infant mortality, diabetes, suicide, and substance-induced deaths (“Honouring the Truth” 160-161). Indigenous people are 58% more likely than non-Indigenous ones to be the victims of crimes (“Honouring the Truth” 179). 1079 Indigenous women were killed from 1980 to 2012, and still, they continue to go missing (“Honouring the Truth” 180). Also, Indigenous people are overrepresented as the perpetrators of crimes. Although they only represent 4% of the general population, they make up 28% of those in custody (“Honouring the Truth” 170). Finally, Indigenous people have suffered disproportionately during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past year, on-reserve Indigenous people were 6 times more likely than the rest of the population to be infected with the disease (“Confirmed”).
The reasons for this situation are complex, but one thing is clear: we are talking about intergenerational trauma. The violence and ill health that started with the residential schools continues to make itself felt (“Honouring the Truth” 171). I spoke to a man whose child was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Like many others, this child’s “life is shackled, through no fault of his own”. His suffering extends to everyone around him, too – through violent acts and emotions, and a criminal justice system that was designed to punish rather than to help. As the legacy of the residential schools is most likely what turned his mother towards alcohol, this disability is a concrete manifestation of intergenerational trauma. In other cases, the trauma does not take such an obvious physical form.
Another issue is the disproportionate representation of Indigenous people in child welfare (“Honouring the Truth” 136). 3.6% of their children are in this system, compared to 0.3% of non-Indigenous ones (“Honouring the Truth” 138). That isn’t to say that foster care isn’t necessary in some cases. For some, I’m sure that it represents an escape and a relief. However, the removal of children from their families does smell eerily reminiscent of residential schooling. Too often, it is the first resort when it should really be the last (“Honouring the Truth” 138-139). Too often, parents cannot afford to offer their children a better situation due to poverty, and circumstances beyond their control (“Honouring the Truth” 138-139). If they themselves endured residential schooling, they may perpetuate systems of violence, discipline, or neglect, but they deserve a chance to heal (“Honouring the Truth” 136-138). This is a complicated, sensitive topic, but we should not shy away from it. Indigenous children today deserve better. They deserve at least the basic standards of care that generations before them have been denied.
Who am I to tell you all this? Quite literally, the wrong person. As a white person, descended at least in part from settlers, I should not, and do not wish to, have my voice dominate this discussion. However, I’ve been given this platform, and I want to use it for good. I also do not think it’s appropriate to say that Indigenous people must do all the advocacy work themselves. Not only is that unjust, but I believe that it only aggravates bitterness towards the Indigenous community. If this is going to work, we need to do this together. We need to break through the stigma, and have good, honest conversations. We need Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to both get involved. We need to stop being afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. Instead of biting our tongues, we need to use mistakes as “opportunities to grow” (Dennis).
Murray Sinclair, Chief of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said: “Do not feel ashamed of the past; do not feel guilty. They don’t do any good at all. Do something about it!” (“Opening”).
In writing to you about all this, I hope that I am contributing to a conversation. This conversation may be upsetting, but I hope it doesn’t permanently ruin your mood. I rather hope that it changes your mind in a positive way – and perhaps, even encourages you to do something. Which, as I’ll discuss in my next article, can mean a lot of different things…
“Confirmed Cases of COVID-19”. Government of Canada: Indigenous Services, 07 July 2021, https://www.sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1598625105013/1598625167707.
Dennis, Mary Kate et al. “After the Circles: Practicing Solidarity and Living Reconciliation.” Circles for Reconciliation, August 2020, https://circlesforreconciliation.ca/gathering-theme-after-the-circles-practicing-solidarity-and-living-reconciliation/.
“Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.” Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015, https://ehprnh2mwo3.exactdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Executive_Summary_English_Web.pdf.
“Opening Guidelines (Zoom Circles)”. Circles for Reconciliation, March 2021, https://circlesforreconciliation.ca/opening-guidelines-for-zoom-circles/.
“Timeline of Residential Schools, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission”. CBC News, 25 Mar 2014, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/a-timeline-of-residential-schools-the-truth-and-reconciliation-commission-1.724434.
About the Author:
Sofia is an incoming McGill Law student, passionate about writing and justice. She feels that it would be relevant to state that she herself is non-Indigenous. Although she has done research and interviews to inform this series of articles, she wants to acknowledge the limitations of her point of view. However, she believes that Reconciliation is an issue that concerns all of us, non-Indigenous and Indigenous both.