This September, I entered the second year of my studies at UBC. I decided it was high time to enroll in courses within the First Nations Studies Program- it is very important to me to understand where I come from. Since graduating high school, I have lived in Germany, learned to speak German, started learning French, and travelled through Europe. But what do I really know about being First Nations or even Canadian? I have seen more of China than I have of Canada. My two courses within the Program, Indigenous Foundations and the Politics of Recognition and Reconciliation have given me tons of food for thought. One thing I am actively trying to do is use what I have learned to understand my family and our relationships. Last week, I attended UBC’s Dialogue on Residential Schools. Some things I have learned about residential schools since September:
- The goal of the residential school program was to “kill the Indian within the child”- consistent with our colonial government’s policy of assimilation and dispossession.
- The positive stories of residential school are far outnumbered by the stories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse experienced in these severely underfunded institutions which were overseen and managed by several different churches.
- In 2008, Steven Harper issued an apology on behalf of Canada for the residential school program. While the sincerity of his apology is highly questionable, the apology marked the move towards the language of reconciliation.
These basic facts are just to give you a brief history if you weren’t aware, but are nowhere near enough information to fully understand this tragic part of Canada’s past and ongoing history.
I say ongoing history, because although the last residential school closed its doors in 1996 (!), the way that the lives of survivors and intergenerational survivors have been affected by residential schools is still very present today, and will be for generations to come. Marie Wilson is a Commissioner on Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was formed as a result of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action lawsuit in the history of Canada. Marie was a guest speaker in one of my classes after the dialogue, and she asked us if any of us were intergenerational survivors of residential schools, or maybe if we could be but didn’t know. Until then, I had never thought about it. But later, I reflected on how the effects of my grandmother attending a residential school may have played a role in some of the strained relationships in my extended family. Hearing from other survivors, some of the recurring behavioral and psychological themes sound familiar. At a family dinner, I brought it up with my aunt. She told me that when her, my dad and my aunts and uncles were kids they were told to tell other people that they were French, to explain the colour of their skin. Things like this explain a lot about my family. It’s not a happy story, but it is an important one and it is one that I would not have heard otherwise, if I was not pursuing this education. Now that I understand better how residential schools have touched my family, yes, I do identify as an intergenerational survivor.