(Photo: Courtesy of Madyson Arscott) Every day, I sit in a grade 10 classroom in Toronto learning what my school board considers to be “Canadian history”—things like Canada’s role in World War I, the Charleston dance and the lyrics to “I Am The Walrus” by The Beatles.
Nine days out of ten, I am bored out of my mind. I’m never really interested in the history we are taught at school because it doesn’t feel like it had any real relevance to my life.
But then we got to the point in the school year when we (briefly) covered the history of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. We touched on the difference between a traditional Indigenous education compared to modern European schooling and why some Native men wear their hair long. Finally, my teacher started talking about residential schools.
Since grade 1, when kids used to make fun of me for being Native, I’ve usually been the only Indigenous person in the classroom. The topic of residential schools has always been close to my heart, so I already had boatloads of information on the topic—but it was interesting to see how those around me reacted to the skeletons kept in Canada’s closet. Responses varied from tears to confusion to laughter (which made me roll my eyes and scowl).
And then, our student teacher told me something I didn’t know about residential schools: our first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, had introduced them to Canada. I was taken aback and questions flooded my mind, but one stuck out in particular: Why had I always learned he was a hero? Until this point, I hadn’t known he had introduced residential schools to Canada, because none of my teachers had addressed that. It took 15 years of schooling for this fact to come up in a lesson. I was furious. The residential school system, explained
These institutions, which were in place from the 1870s to the 1990s, caused irreparable harm to Indigenous peoples, and the Canadian government’s justification for this system was horrible.
In the eyes of MacDonald, residential schools had two different purposes to serve Canada. They were to be a “solution” to the problem that he and many members of Canadian government at the time had with Indigenous peoples. MacDonald saw Canada’s Indigenous population as almost sub-human. As a burden. Opposite to what he wanted Canada to be. He wanted assimilation, and he didn’t hide those feelings, saying in 1879 : “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
MacDonald also wanted to rid Indigenous populations of their traditions, cultures and languages, as the Harper government later admitted in its official apology —something that didn’t happen until 2008, by the way. Under MacDonald, the Canadian government actively tried to make sure there wouldn’t be a future for Indigenous peoples. It isolated Indigenous children from their traditions and culture. It presented them with European, Catholic values they had never seen before. It stripped them of their identities. They were given uniforms and were forbidden to speak their own languages; boys with long hair had it cut […]
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