The damage that was inflicted on First Nations children within residential schools is a painful part of Canadian history. Children were forced to assimilate into Western culture, having their language and customs beaten out of them. Even when they had forgotten their native tongue and their home, they were always seen as outcasts, as peoples who never truly belonged in Canadian society.
On June 2, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released a final report which included 94 recommendations on how Canadians can begin to move forward in repairing the “cultural genocide” committed by residential school staff, as well as their relationships with First Nations peoples. These recommendations included the creation of a National Centre and Council for Truth and Reconciliation, and policy objectives regarding Aboriginal health, education, justice, and commemoration, among others.
While Stephen Harper publicly apologized to former residential school students in 2008, the pain and sorrow inflicted by these institutions is not something that a simple apology can fix. The atrocities committed at residential schools were actually far worse than the few details that Canadian public social studies and history classes imply.
In 1965, Russell Moses wrote a letter to the Indian Affairs branch of the federal government detailing his experiences in a residential school, after they had asked for a candid account of his schooling.
Education and legislature is important for raising awareness about what First Nations peoples have been through.
Moses spoke of scarcely having enough to eat, while some children resorted to stealing food scraps meant for the pigs to feed their own empty bellies. The children had no toothbrushes, no underwear, and were beaten if they were caught speaking their native tongue. Religion was forced upon them, but it lacked any sentiment of Christian love and care.
Even back in the ‘60s, Moses emphasized the importance of the preservation of Aboriginal culture and, most of all, that people received a proper education. The TRC echoes this by combatting stigma and judgment against First Nations peoples, through putting an emphasis on educating the public about residential school history.
Education and legislation are important first steps towards raising awareness about what First Nations peoples have been through, but we can’t truly erase the hurt of the past. While the recommendations of the Commission are certainly admirable, they can only be put into action through collaboration with First Nations peoples on how to best implement these principles. Their input needs to be valued in order to ensure that their people and their culture are fully respected.
True reconciliation will only come with forgiveness, and the focus that the government and the general public place on making sure that history doesn’t repeat itself. We all have a part to play in remembering this dark part of Canada’s history, and moving forward to a future filled with hope and understanding.