First Nations children were once living in residential schools under the thumb of priests, nuns and staff charged with purging these children of their culture and traditions and replacing them with their own. Several of the churches were engaged in the management of day and residential schools. This co-operation of the churches in the case of residential schools was as follows: Roman Catholic, 44; Church of England, 21; United Church, 13; Presbyterian Church, 2, making a total of 80. I have never understood why people try to hide history–great nations should never hide their history– but we did.
Today I discovered my truth in this matter by having a flashback and putting two and two together. Funny how that works- and after I had a good cry- I realized that all truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.
Years ago in the 1950s and 1960s I used to help my Grandmother with her Anglican church groups preparing “the bales” to go north as they told me. The bales were actually handmade quilts rolled up with warm mittens and scarves, along with books and treats. We made a lot of them each year, and in my young heart I envisioned they were being transported to the North Pole. Every year I saved up my allowance to buy treats for the families that I thought lived in igloos, wore snowsuits and had big smiles like in the books I read. I was wrong – they were being sent to residential schools.
“As early as 1921, one official report described living conditions in residential schools as “a national crime.” When children wet their beds, the nuns at the Sturgeon Lake residential school would wrap the soiled sheets around their heads. If they tried to run away from the school where they were forced to live until they were 16, their heads were shaved. If they dared to speak Cree, their hands were rapped with a ruler. But the thing that hurts the most is they forced their religion on the children day in and day out.”
As I type the above words I wondered if my grandmother’s church group should have sent boxes of hymn books like they used too. I was always told the children loved getting these books– and now I can see that they did not. We have rules now that the government can’t penalize you because of your religious beliefs– so why were these children forced with this injustice. The residential schools were conducted by church authorities, with financial assistance from the Dominion Government and supervised by the Indian affairs section of the Department of the Interior. Half these schools were under Roman Catholic control and they remain divided among the other denominations. An Anglican bishop in Alberta told the media churches must stop “beating themselves up” over the question of abuse at Indian residential schools and should return to the basics of preaching Christianity. Unfortunately, I can’t tell whether the bishop was being purposefully ironic, or he really couldn’t see the contradictions of his statements.
In the larger residential schools in the 1930s daily duties were allotted to the pupils, who took turns:
Set staff table. Clear away all staff dishes. Wait on the staff table. Dry staff dishes. Help to put dishes away In pantry. Sweep kitchen and dust. Clean kitchen stove and kettles.
Pack up and wash staff dishes while staff girl dries. Wash all pot and tea towel. Help with up school meal. Clean both kitchen table before meal.
Wash all tables. Sweep room after all meals. Dust the dining-room thoroughly. Sweep and tidy the lobby after breakfast and dinner. Take wood to the sitting–room when required. Keep the dining-room shelf tidy. Put all Bible and prayer books away tidily.
Dormitory Girl Every day, clean wash stands In both dormitories. Dust. Clean lamp globe.
Monday, prepare for school wash.
Tuesday, sweep and dust boys’ dormitory.
Wednesday, sort and put away clothes. Fill all lamps, also table lamp.
Thursday, sweep and dust girls’ dormitory.
Friday, sweep and dust top bedrooms.
Saturday, sweep both dormitories. Sweep sewing room. Fill all lamps.
After we packed the bales I went home to loving parents. I had a warm meal, watched television and slept in a cozy bed.The next morning I got up for school without having to do the above chores with a full breakfast in my stomach. I told all my friends how we had sent the bales to happy people in the north, not knowing it was all a lie. One hundred and forty articles knitted by the church group members, as well as cash and other things were being shipped to the residential schools. As well, I remember that our church help donate money for an organ so the children could be forced to sing hymns that were not part of their own religion. Why did this all seem so right to everyone when it was all so wrong?
So what should we do now? In a world of TV soap operas an apology is always followed by acceptance, and the story moves on after the required tears and hugs. But, it just doesn’t work quite that way in real life– and especially in this case. More than one in five former school pupils have applied for compensation for living in residential schools have been turned down. Thousands of children that were taken from their families filed claims stating they were sexually and physically abused and forced to learn English. It’s not like we can just turn a page and everything is good. We have to realize that this is not just a dark chapter in our country’s history, it’s something we as a country need to come to terms with when it comes to making decisions about everyones future. We all are connected in a circle of life that is far deeper than any of us can truly understand– and today my realized participation and ignorance came full circle. Apologies are not just enough– it’s a start– but we have to do more than that.
“In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.”
― Charles Dickens
Also read-Kamloops Industrial School– “A New Idea in Residential Schools” After the Fire 1925