Chapter Four - Impacts
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In forcing assimilation upon the Aboriginal peoples, the Canadian government was ruthless in its systematic attempt to take the Indian out of the Child. The result was a permanent loss of Aboriginal language, culture, and identity. As part of their apology to residential school Survivors, church groups have now acknowledged the extent of these losses or "the broader issue of cultural impacts . . . the loss of language through forced English speaking, the loss of traditional ways of being on the land, the loss of parenting skills through the absences of four or five generations of children from Native communities, and the learned behaviour of despising Native identity."
Impacts on Language
The most significant impact of assimilation and integration policies on Aboriginal peoples was the extensive loss of language. Assimilation required that all Aboriginal elements had to be removed from the students' world view, and school officials quickly realized that "the central challenge they faced in civilizing the children [was] . . . their identification of language as the most critical issue in the curriculum."
For many students, the fear of punishment for speaking their Native languages went with them when they left the residential school system. Some repressed the desire to retain their traditional languages, while others who could still speak Native languages often refused to teach them to their own children because of residual fears that their children would in some way be punished, too.
While the schools were not entirely successful in their attempt to eradicate Aboriginal languages in Canada, statistics show that assimilation policies did result in significant language losses. In 1996, Statistics Canada released the following information:
- During the past 100 years or more, some 10 of Canada's once-flourishing Aboriginal languages have become extinct, and at least a dozen are on the brink of extinction.
- As of 1996, only three out of 50 Aboriginal languages - Cree, Inuktitut, and Ojibwe - had large enough populations to be considered truly secure from the threat of extinction. This is not surprising in light of the current situation. Of 800,000 people who claimed an Aboriginal identity in 1996, only 26% said an Aboriginal language was their mother tongue, and even fewer spoke it at home.
- The three largest language families together represent 93% of persons with an Aboriginal mother tongue. About 147,000 people have Algonquian as their mother tongue, the language family that includes Cree and Ojibwe. Another 28,000 have Inuktitut, and 20,000 have Athabaskan. The remaining eight language families account for 7% of persons with an Aboriginal mother tongue, an indication of the relative size of these languages.
- Since a large number of speakers is among the essential factors to ensure long-term viability, the more speakers a language has, the better are its chances of survival. Inuktitut, Cree, and Ojibwe all boast more than 20,000 people with an Aboriginal mother tongue.
- In contrast, endangered languages rarely have more than a few thousand speakers; they often have only a few hundred. For instance, the two smallest and weakest language groups, Kutenai and Tlingit, have mother tongue populations of only 120 and 145, respectively.
- Erosion of languages can be difficult to resist if an individual does not have the support of a close-knit community, and is also immersed in the language and culture of the dominant society.
- Aboriginal elders, teachers, and other leaders, however, are well aware of the gravity of the linguistic situation, and are taking steps to preserve indigenous languages. These include such measures as language instruction programmes, Aboriginal media programming, and the recording of Elders' stories, songs, and accounts of history in Aboriginal languages.
Many schools in Canada have now instituted Aboriginal language instruction as part of their school curricula, a move that has increased language retention and rejuvenation. However, the survival of Aboriginal languages ultimately depends upon the use of these languages within Aboriginal homes. Unfortunately, this is not the case among many Aboriginal people, particularly those living off-reserve, and this increases the likelihood of more languages being permanently lost.
Beginning in 1884, the Canadian government determined that Aboriginal populations needed to be saved from themselves. In that year, several west coast groups were banned from practicing their traditional ceremonies, including the Potlatch and the Tamanawas dances. Potlatch was a combination feast, dance, and giveaway that celebrated the significant events in a community. The Tamanawas dances were spiritual in nature, and involved initiations that conflicted with the Christian sensibilities of government officials and the Canadian mainstream. The punishment for participating in these ceremonies carried a jail sentence of between two and six months.
For the first time, the government was now directly attacking Aboriginal culture. The residential schools arguably tried to replace Aboriginal culture with Eurocentric ideals, but ceremony banning was an outright destruction of Aboriginal traditions. The government did not understand the significance or purpose of the ceremonies; they only feared them. Therefore, these ceremonies had to be eliminated.
Additional changes to legislation extended the ban to ceremonies practised among the Plains people, like the Sundance and the thirst dance. While the government was less concerned about the dancing element of these ceremonies, it objected to the giving away of personal property and the self-inflicted wounds that were sometimes part of the rituals. However, these were important spiritual components, and without them, the ceremonies were meaningless.
In 1914, when agricultural exhibitions and fairs became popular in western Canada, yet another amendment was enacted. Aboriginal peoples were now prohibited from attending exhibitions or fairs in Aboriginal dress, unless they had the permission of an Indian agent. If they disobeyed, they could be arrested. Four years later, after arrest numbers increased significantly, Indian agents were then permitted to prosecute anyone caught dancing in regalia at these exhibitions.
The government assumed that legal measures would completely end the practice of various Aboriginal ceremonies, but they merely created an underground cultural movement. Groups continued to hold potlatches and Tamanawas dances, but held them in places and at times when they would not be discovered by government agents. Despite these individual efforts and the eventual removal of all bans against traditional ceremonies, the long-term cultural damage has been great, and many "Indian traditional ways have been subverted and have sometimes disappeared. This has left many Indian communities trapped between what remains of traditional ways of doing things and the fear of importing too much more of mainstream Canadian cultural values into reserve life."
Impacts on Identity
Survivors of the residential school system did not only lose their language and culture; but they almost universally lost a sense of individual self. The alien and abusive environment of the schools left permanent emotional scars. Not only were the students unable to find a place in the European Christian world it was compounded with the feeling that they did not belong in their home communities because they often could not communicate in their traditional language and were taught to despise their traditional ways. As well, the non-Aboriginal community did not want to see the Indians working in their towns, taking away the jobs of their community members. And the Aboriginal communities did not know how to deal with the students who came home filled with this shame about their traditional ways. Therefore, the Survivors of the residential schools felt that they were fundamentally left homeless.
As Aboriginal individuals struggled with these issues, they developed a number of negative coping mechanisms to help them find ways to fit in somewhere, or to disguise the fact that they did not seem to fit in anywhere. One of most prevalent coping mechanisms was substance addiction, which is the top health concern for both on and off-reserve Aboriginal people in Canada today. Not all residential school Survivors have succumbed to the lure of drugs and alcohol, however. A return to traditional ways of life has played a substantial role in helping a number of Survivors find a means of healing.
Unfortunately, though, many individuals have been caught in a cycle of abusive lifestyles. Survivors mimicked the abusive behaviours they learned at the schools, which they then taught to their children. Second and third generation residential school children were therefore often doubly disadvantaged, because substance abuse and violence were already part of their lives before they experienced the abuses in the school system.
Residential school children developed a number of coping strategies to help them survive the abuses of the school system. But while these strategies enabled the students to function in the schools, they often prevented the children from functioning within their families and communities when they returned home.
For example, some students learned to protect themselves from painful experiences by emotionally and psychologically detaching themselves from their surroundings. They could detach by withdrawing, or they could look and act tough. However, both strategies required the children to block their true emotions and thoughts, which made it extremely difficult for many of them to reconnect with their families and communities in supportive or meaningful ways.
Residential students would also re-interpret or rationalize events, which helped them to reduce the negative feelings or emotions they experienced on a daily basis. They might create rationalizations to excuse the poor food and clothing, or they might choose to re-interpret their own behaviour as a spiritual strength, rather than a child's vulnerability. Again, while this conditioned behaviour may have helped the children survive the school system; it created conflict and communication problems when the children returned to their Aboriginal homes.
For pragmatic reasons, some of the students made deals with the people who were in charge of them. If students co-operated with teachers or obeyed the rules, they might reduce their work assignments or receive lighter duties. They sometimes might even receive extra privileges for good behaviour. Co-operation could be as simple as showing respect for an adult in the school, or could be much more damaging, as in the case where a young boy used "sexual favours [for] protection, sweets (a rarity in the school), and even money to buy booze."
Still other students were able to exercise some control over their environment by means of resistance, the most common form being the stealing of food. Because students were often underfed, stealing food became a necessity. But it also became a form of solidarity, where the students worked collaboratively toward a common goal and against a common enemy, and because the food was most often shared among all the students, regardless of whether they took part in the theft.
The most difficult and most daring act of resistance was running away. While the results of escape could be tragic, those who attempted it were held in very high regard by the other students, and the attempts often brought to light the abuses that were happening at the schools. For example, there were "several instances in which the Department of Indian Affairs was forced to launch investigations after children were injured or killed while on the run from their school."
Acts of resistance, like the other coping strategies that children developed in the schools, were further evidence of unhealthy, conditioned behaviours. These coping strategies may have helped many children survive the residential school experience, but they almost completely destroyed the children's long-term chances of survival. When the students returned to their Aboriginal homes, they took with them the learned behaviours of detachment, rationalization, and resistance. Combined with a conflicting sense of identity and a poor self image, the Survivors were all but incapable of forming healthy and supportive relationships with other people in their families and communities.
The legacy of residential schools has made some Survivors stronger people, who are now able to cope with the memories of abuse and intolerance. For others less fortunate, poor coping strategies have led to desperate acts of abuse and self-destruction. Efforts are currently being made to recognize and help residential school Survivor's return to a life of peace and meaning that does not try to belittle their experience, but to acknowledge it, and move on to a better, more positive future.