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Why Do Residential Schools Even Matter?
Back in the mid-to-late-1800s, there was a push to assimilate Canadian indigenous cultures that continued well into 1996, when the last residential school shut its doors. It was believed that by establishing residential schools, the government would be able to make the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people, among others, more like the White population and therefore "civilize" them.
These kids in the residential school system were taken from their families and forced to follow Christianity, in addition to being severely punished for speaking their own languages and following their own faiths. It was a terrible history, one where the Department of Indian Affairs in Canada actually encouraged the operation of residential schools. Thousands of children were physically, mentally, and sexually abused and died from a variety of conditions.
It's horrific to be ripped away from your parents, but to be under the constant threat of disease and assault is even worse.
There are countless survivors of the residential school system and several have gone on to publish memoirs of their time in the system. This is a very good thing, though it's certain that their stories would be extremely difficult to write. Thankfully, these people did demonstrate a great deal of bravery and did write their stories; without them, no one would truly know what happened during the time in which the residential school system was functioning.
Ripped Away, Just as Her Identity Nearly Was
Phyllis Webstad was the third generation of her family to go to the Mission, a residential school more formally known as St. Joseph's Residential School in William's Lake, British Columbia. She'd chosen an orange shirt to wear for the occasion, but that shirt was promptly ripped from her body when she showed up at the school and she never saw it again. Unlike several kids who would end up spending years in the residential school system, Webstad stayed 300 days, but that was long enough. A day would have been long enough to bear witness to the terrible abuses going on in the Mission and in other schools.
She started the first Orange Shirt Day in September 2013, and there have been a growing number of participants. It's something that she says has helped her through the healing process because, for the longest time, the color orange represented something terrible. She admits that she felt like no one cared about her or her feelings, or those of the 150,000 other First Nations children who would have attended these residential schools designed to "take the Indian out of the child."
Not only were kids abused both mentally and physically should they slip and use their own native language, but there was also effectively mental genocide that went on. The cultural genocide is obvious; when you're punished for expressing your own culture, how much longer will your culture continue?
While there are countless students who are very much aware of the residential school fiasco, there are those who are most certainly not aware. Some might attempt to argue that those affected by the residential schools experience directly should simply "get over themselves" because it's been 20 years since the last one closed, and in at least one other case, a former residential school has been transformed into Blue Quills First Nations College, a tribal college in Alberta.
Anyone who has been through extensive trauma will tell you there is no simple path to "getting over it," and in the case of residential schools, while former Prime Minister Stephen Harper did offer an apology to those affected by residential schools in 2008, the apology is not enough.
The racism that was so prevalent behind the decision to even open residential schools in the first place still exists today. There are still people who talk about the "damn (insert race of choice here)" as though having such discussions using such language is perfectly acceptable. There are still those who think it's acceptable to pound on someone simply because of the color of their skin.
Here's the hard truth for those who need to hear it still: there are lousy people of all races, creeds, and colors. Blaming others for the flaws and faults perceived in very few others is not only inappropriate, but it's also dangerous. It throws us back to the mistakes of our past when we tried to make everyone exactly the same, and we can't do that. Ever. We aren't ever going to be the same as everyone else, and that's all right.
We need to celebrate individuality rather than try and snuff it out. We see it through all marginalized groups, and it's through events like Orange Shirt Day that we can recall those who did not survive the trauma of being marginalized and learn to apologize for the mistakes of our past.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.