Chapter Five - Revitalization
Page 6 of 7
From the appearance of the first residential school in the early 1800s, until the closing of the last school in 1998, thousands of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were forced into an education system that removed their languages, their cultures, and their personal identities. The abusive attempts to assimilate these Aboriginal students into mainstream Canadian culture have had long-term effects on individuals and communities that are still being felt today.
We are now starting to hear the stories of those who survived the residential school experience, stories that all Canadians need to hear. All Canadians should not forget a time in their history when people were abused simply because they were different. We need to study history in order to learn what happened in the residential school system, and to help us identify the long-term effects of the school experience on everyone: victims, victimizers, bystanders, and everyday citizens.
When we make an effort to learn about the residential school experience, we make an effort to acknowledge the great loss to Aboriginal communities: the children who died of malnutrition and disease, the children who died of poor health shortly after being released from the schools, the Survivors who have tried to forget their experiences, and those who have tried to deny who they were because of shame and hatred. In recognizing that the pain and suffering of Survivors was - and is - real, we also help those Survivors accept that the events did happen, which is an important step in the healing process.
Since the 1980s, Aboriginal people and organizations have studied the healing needs of residential school Survivors. They have identified a number of promising healing practices that can help with residential school trauma, as well as address prior and subsequent traumas to which Aboriginal peoples have been subjected. These healing practices include four key components: acknowledgement, redress, reconciliation, and healing. Wrongs must first be acknowledged before a situation can be rectified, because this will re-establish a respectful relationship between Survivors and other Canadians, and reconciliation can follow. Only then can true healing occur.
The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) has similarly identified acknowledgement and resolution of residential school issues as key components in restoring a relationship of mutual trust and respect between peoples. As the Commission explained:
We believe firmly that the time has come to resolve a fundamental contraction at the heart of Canada: that while we assume the role of defender of human rights in the international community, we retain, in our conception of Canada's origins and makeup, the remnants of colonial attitudes of cultural superiority that do violence to the Aboriginal peoples to whom they are directed.
National Chief Phil Fontaine reiterated the theme of human rights and restoration in his address to the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. He was discussing the Assembly of First Nations' (AFN) proposal for compensating residential school Survivors, and he said that
Our model will prove to be the one in which Canada and Canadians can be proud. It will enhance Canada's reputation as a world leader of human rights, while at the same time increase the stature and respect for first peoples at home and abroad. It would also set an international standard and methodology for dealing with mass violations of human rights. Finally, it will put behind us, in an honourable way, the most disgraceful, harmful, racist experiment ever conducted in our history.
Chief Fontaine, himself a Survivor of residential school abuse, was speaking to the issue of redress, with the unanimous endorsement of First Nations chiefs at a special meeting in 2004. His passionate pursuit of redress is fuelled not only by his personal experience. It also expresses the sentiment of countless Aboriginal people who see the abuse of residential school children as symbolic of the discrimination that they themselves have experienced and continue to encounter. In this context, the healing of residential school trauma gains a much greater purpose, because it includes the healing of racist divisions in today's society, too.
Many Canadians have been slow to recognize the negative and long-lasting effects that residential schools have had on Survivors and Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal people themselves, in many cases, have also been unaware of the connection between the deprivation, humiliation, and violence that they experienced in residential schools and the subsequent challenges to their physical, social, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Survivors of residential schools often speak of the long road that they walk, the setbacks to be overcome, and the relationships that sustain them on their healing journey.
Healing has diverse meanings, depending on the individuals, agencies, or communities that are consulted. Elders and leaders in the Aboriginal healing movement see healing as a process of restoring physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual balance to individuals, families, communities, and nations that have suffered repeated assaults on their well-being over the course of generations.
The discussion of residential school abuse is often referred to as "breaking the silence," and can be a catalyst for healing. By educating Survivors, intergenerational Survivors, youth, non-Aboriginal people, health and social service providers about this legacy, we help to open the lines of communication with the Survivors. Some communities have organized cultural events like feasts or ceremonies to honour Survivors, or have aired radio broadcasts in Aboriginal languages, or used theatre presentations and films to raise the awareness of residential schools. Education and knowledge help to create a supportive environment in which Survivors can begin the healing journey, an act of courage and self-empowerment, and a rightful reclamation of culture and balance.
Reclaiming a strong Aboriginal identity and a healthy way of life that was disrupted in childhood is a long-term healing process that involves all members in a community. Effective ways of reclaiming that identity can be accomplished by learning and speaking an Aboriginal language, harvesting or eating traditional foods, visiting sacred places, and participating in traditional activities like talking circles or sweats. The revival of many Aboriginal ceremonies has given Survivors ways to actively participate in their own healing and wellness. Cultural traditions like sharing circles, healing circles, smudging, Sundances, the Potlatch, and Pow-wows have provided important traditional healing pathways for Survivors, all while offering people a chance to reconnect with their cultural roots. These cultural reconnections empower Survivors and other individuals with a sense of pride and belonging, and therefore a strong sense of self. By reclaiming their culture, Survivors reclaim the sense of completeness that was once taken from them.
As Survivors regain personal wellness, they often develop the capacity to give back to the community and support others on their healing journey. Survivors can become role models for others, and then Aboriginal communities benefit from home-grown expertise and solutions based on an Aboriginal world view. A resurgence has begun across the country that shows Aboriginal culture, traditions, and languages being resurrected from the ashes of the dark days of attempted assimilation. Activities "aimed at renewing and reviving Aboriginal cultures contribute to individual and community healing."
Through the use of healing programs, communities are better able to deal with issues related to justice and social services. A good example of this involves the healing process at the Hollow Water First Nation, which has been documented in the report A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Hollow Water's Community Holistic Circle Healing Process, a project co-funded by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and the Solicitor General of Canada in 2001.
The Hollow Water First Nation is a small Anishinabe community in Manitoba that has been deeply impacted by the legacy of residential schools. In the mid-1980s, Hollow Water introduced a Community Holistic Circle Healing (CHCH) process as an alternative way of dealing with sexual offenders in its community. Offenders who admitted their offence could then choose to participate in the 13-step CHCH process, rather than be incarcerated. Over the ten-year period reviewed in the report, CHCH dealt with 107 victimizers and 400 to 500 victims, primarily of sexual abuse. The overall outcome demonstrates the program's cost effectiveness and lower recidivism rate; as well as, noted added benefits for the community, such as improved health and education.
A number of other community healing projects funded by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation have reported similar restorative changes that have taken place across the country. After participating in a letting go ceremony at a healing camp in British Columbia, for example, an elder reported that he was able to fall asleep with the lights off for the first time since leaving residential school. In an urban art therapy program in Ontario, parents and children described how family life improved when they really started to listen to one another. And in a residential healing program in Atlantic Canada, dramatic changes were seen among some of its female participants, whose anger and aggression were being replaced by a nurturing attitude toward fellow participants.
Other Aboriginal communities have noted a rise in volunteerism, as people are beginning to believe in their communities again. Elsewhere, youth are turning to their Elders with questions about the past. Elders are the primary source of cultural knowledge in Aboriginal communities. Therefore it is significant that they once again "have an audience and most important[ly], play a vital role in [the] community." Along with sharing their knowledge of Aboriginal ceremonies, Elders are also helping to renew the popularity of the oral tradition of storytelling among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal groups alike. In this way, young people can learn about the past, about the old ways, and about how people are connected to each other and to the world they live in. The importance of these connections between individuals and their communities, and younger and older generations is paramount in the Aboriginal world view.
Church and Government Apologies
By 2008, most of the church denominations that were responsible for the operation of the residential schools in Canada had publicly apologized for their role in the neglect, abuse, and suffering of the children placed in their care. Most denominations apologized through their national offices, except for the Catholic Church, who left it to individual dioceses to make apologies.
In June of 2008, the Federal Government of Canada also apologized for its historical role in the residential school system. By saying "we are sorry," Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledged the Canadian government's role in a century of isolating native children from their homes, families, and cultures. Harper called residential schools a sad chapter in Canadian history, and took responsibility on behalf of the federal government for the misguided and destructive policies that supported and protected the system.
To make the apology as public as possible, Parliament stopped regular proceedings, and arranged for the speech to be broadcast live on national television. The galleries were filled with Residential School Survivors and the Aboriginal leaders entered the House of Commons with Prime Minister Harper to hear his speech of apology.
After Harper spoke, leaders of the other government parties responded, as did Native leaders. Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief, Phil Fontaine, articulated the need for equality between racial groups:
Brave Survivors, through telling their stories, have stripped white supremacy of its legitimacy," he said. "Never again will this house consider us 'the Indian problem' just for being who we are. What happened today signifies a new dawn on the relationship between us and the rest of Canada . . . We are all part of one garment of destiny. The ties that bind us are deeper than those that separate us. We still have to struggle, but now we are in this together.
For the thousands of Survivors watching from across Canada, the government's apology was an historic occasion, although their overall responses were mixed. Most believe there is still much to be done.
To help redress the legacy of the residential school system, in 2007 the Canadian government negotiated and implemented the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement. The agreement set in place a comprehensive approach that would include: a lump sum payment for all Survivors; a more efficient and effective process to deal with serious claims of abuse; a national "truth-telling" commission to bring greater understanding and awareness of this issue; expedited compensation payments for the elderly; and healing and commemoration.90 The lump sum payment is called the Common Experience Payment (CEP) and the process to deal with serious claims of abuse is the Individual Assessment Process (IAP). Both initiatives were designed to help deal with the long-standing and destructive impacts of the Indian Residential School System, including lateral violence, suicide, poverty, alcoholism, lack of parenting skills, weakening or destruction of cultures and languages, and lack of capacity to build and sustain healthy families and communities. The Common Experience Payment provides direct payments to all former students of Indian residential schools. While the payment in no way makes up for the pain and suffering of residential school Survivors, the purpose of this payment plan is to avoid decades of legal confrontation, and to provide a timely, symbolic out-of-court settlement.
Today, we look back at a system that tried to erase Aboriginal culture from history. While there is still much to be done to heal the communities that have been affected by the residential school system, real progress has already been made. This progress is the result of hard work, dedication, and a commitment to changing the dynamics that have plagued the relations between Canada and Aboriginal people. Hopefully, we will one day think of this healing time as another milestone along our journey toward peace, reconciliation, and better relations. We look forward to a future where a relationship of mutual respect exists between Aboriginal peoples and Canadians, as articulated in the historic treaties.