Canada has a terrible history with the indigenous population here, similar to the stories of many colonized nations we showed up, claimed to own the land actual people had been living on just fine loooong before us, lied to them, and then imposed our rules, religion, and “governing” onto them (usually with violence). Assimilate or die (truthfully die anyway because colonizers aren’t a benevolent force). The concept of colonizing is like showing up at a stranger’s house and beating them when they don’t agree you now own it, taking their children somewhere else to be taught your values, then building a system to prevent them from ever being equal to you inside that home.
Residential schools were compulsory schools funded by the government and often run by religious organizations. The 1894 “Indian Act” ruled that indigenous children were required to attend Western school so they would theoretically have an equal education to the non-indigenous population. They operated for about 130 years in Canada. Indigenous children were sent to these schools and could be kept there til they turned 18. They are part of a complicated and heartbreaking history Canada has with our indigenous population.
The recent discovery of 215 deceased children on residential school property in British Columbia has reopened a wound for many that has never been healed. It’s shown how little the Canadian government did to protect those families, and put the raw horrible truth of it on display for the world.
The responses to generational trauma inflicted from the violence, broken treaties, stolen children, poverty, and continued abuse to this day have become the scapegoat excuse for our indigenous population’s continued mistreatment. “If they could just be more like ~us~ they’d be fine” is the same banner raised against poverty, people of color, and basically any group that’s been deliberately marginalized by the systems in place. The concept of bullying marginalized people into assimilation hasn’t worked for any group, but curiously remains the default response.
Canada is only about 150 years old, which is extremely young for a country and our revolting past isn’t that distant. Children who attended residential schools are still alive, the last one only closed in 1996. The schools may have seemed like a way to assimilate indigenous children into a Western culture and to provide them with an education promised by the government, but they largely operated as a way to silence their existing culture and often concealed abuse, sickness, and starvation. They were underfunded and records were not kept well if at all.
“Many students who went to residential school never returned. They were lost to their families. They died at rates that were far higher than those experienced by the general school-aged population. Their parents were often uninformed of their sickness and death. They were buried away from their families in long-neglected graves. No one took care to count how many died or to record where they were buried.” (source)
“It is only in the 1950s that the residential school death rates decline to a level comparable with that of the general school-aged population. As late as the period from 1941 to 1945, the Named and Unnamed combined death rate for children at residential schools is 4.90 times higher than the general death rate for Canadian schoolchildren. In the 1960s, even though the residential school death rates were much lower than their historic highs, they were still double those of the general school-aged population.” (source)
Our government also used these schools as testing grounds, including the “nutrition experiments” performed in the 1940-1950s, under the guise of testing childrens’ responses to nutritional supplements while being purposely starved. “One school deliberately held milk rations for two years to less than half the recommended amount to get a ‘baseline’ reading for when the allowance was increased. At another, children were divided into one group that received vitamin, iron and iodine supplements and one that didn’t” (source). The health problems resulting from these experiments (or the general starvation reported at many schools) have lingered into adulthood for many. Health records are scant from the schools, policy claimed they could be destroyed after only two years so little remains to help the survivors sort out what happened to them.
Without adequate nutrition tuberculosis spread rampantly in the overcrowded and poorly heated schools. Other children were lost to fires or intestinal flues since many of the buildings were in serious disrepair or had inadequate sanitation. Schools were often forced to sell the crops or milk they’d farmed on their property in order to fund daily operation, thus leaving their charges at a significant disadvantage. We failed these children and their families at nearly every turn, and regardless of “good intentions” the lasting negative impact can’t be ignored.
The scars these schools have left on the families and survivors of them still remain. The Truth and Reconcilation Commission of Canada is calling for action for these 215 children, and all children lost to residential schools. You can read more about the schools about the commission’s demands at the link above.
As an ally you can educate yourself about Canada’s history with our indigenous population, knowing the pain we have wrought is important in preventing it from happening again. It’s time to help give these families closure, they deserve to know what happened to their children and where their bodies are. It’s time to heal.