Finally An Apology: The Canadian Native Residential Schools Rant
Canada's Shame: Generations of Children Kidnapped and Brutalized In The Name of "Civilization" and "Christianity"
Yesterday was truly a great day for Canada. After years and years of waffling and procrastination, the federal government finally did what everyone knew had to be done: The Prime Minister, on the floor of the House of Commons, apologized to the Native People of Canada for the horrific and racist residential school system that this country ran for more than a century, a system that destroyed tens of thousands of lives. It's the single most shameful chapter in this country's recent history and an official apology simply had to be made. So, it's certainly not very often that you'll find me heaping praise on Stephen Harper, but today he most definitely deserves it.
It was an apology not only to the actual victims who attended the schools, but also to their children and grandchildren who had to live through the resulting cycles of violence and whose parents had no idea how to parent them after having been taken from their own families from such a young age. Furthermore, it was an apology to all Native people for a system that, for decades, taught them that their religion, their traditions, their culture and their languages were all primitive and worthy of little more than ridicule. In short, it was an apology for trying to teach generations of Natives to hate themselves.
I know that when interviewed on the news yesterday, immediately following Harper's speech, some Natives were saying that they didn't feel he sounded totally sincere, but I don't really think it matters how sincere he personally was in his heart. What matters is that the Prime Minister of Canada got up in Parliament and read a very sincere and full statement of apology from this country to its Native population. And it was about bloody time too!!
A Terrible Legacy
For all you non-Canadians out there, here's a little information about a part of Canada's past you've probably never heard anything about. The Residential School System involved removing all Native children in remote communities from their families and forcing them to live year-round at church-run residential schools hundreds of miles away from their homes. We're talking about children as young as four here, though the normal age was from six on up. This was not a voluntary program. In fact, from 1920 onwards attendance became compulsory by law for all children between ages 6 and 15. And families were threatened with prison if they failed to send their children willingly. Seriously!
For the remainder of their childhoods many of these kids only saw their parents for visits in the summers. Some didn't return home for years at a time. And due to an astonishingly high death rate from disease and other, often unexplained, causes, many never returned home at all. Speaking their native languages at these schools, in or out of class, was strictly prohibited, and those who defied this rule, even when they knew no other language, were beaten.
It was a forced program of assimilation. And believe me there was nothing good about it. Not even, as some claim, the intentions.
Kill The Indian In The Child
This despicable program, at least in its government-run form, had its origins in pre-Confederation Canada. The schools were originally only run by the churches. However, under a 1857 act known as the "Gradual Civilization Act" it started to become a government-sponsored program.
Yes, that's right, the "Gradual Civilization Act", but, if you ask me, it was White Canadians, not the Natives, who were in obvious need of civilizing. Forcibly taking kids from their families (a.k.a. kidnapping) is not part of any civilized behavior I know of, unless, of course, we're talking about Great Civilizations like the Third Reich or Pol Pot's Cambodia.
These kids were not only ripped away from the love, support and protection of their families, they were also taken from their proud culture, traditions and sense of identity. And the acknowledged, conscious intent of the whole program was to "kill the Indian in the child", which involved teaching these kids to hate everything about themselves and their own people.
"Civilizing the savages" of course meant forcing them to convert to Christianity. That is, brainwashing these little kids with fear, violence and intimidation. These weren't genuine conversions, since no one ever had the option to "choose Christianity". It was the ONLY option.
Again, some may claim that the people running these schools had good intentions, but to that I simply say bullshit!! This whole program was based on racism, a scornful sense of superiority and an obvious feeling of repulsion about the fact that some of these "savages" still remained in "our country". Of course, like with the Nazis and Mao's Red Guards and Stalin's henchmen, there were, undoubtedly, some kind decent people among the ranks of the priests, nuns and administrators running these hell holes. However, the majority, at least according to all the anecdotal evidence, seemed to not only enjoy beating "the Indian out of the child", but also seemed to relish punishing those who dared to either resist indoctrination or, heaven help us, speak their own "savage" language. I'm not saying everyone enjoyed buggering the children, but I am pretty certain they all knew it was going on. How much blood on the sheets and clothes does it take till you figure that one out?
Amazingly, I've heard some people say that this whole issue is from way in the past and should just be forgotten, but, with approximately 80,000 living survivors still among us, not to mention all the pain and anger that lives on in future generations, that, it would seem to me, is a lot like telling Holocaust survivors that "It's all in the past, forget about it already!"
I'd say that all those who want this to simply be considered ancient history are seriously lacking in empathy. What I'd like to say to any such people is this: Imagine if your mom and dad had been raised without parents, beaten and tormented and raped. Or what about your kids?
Think about it, is there anything you can imagine worse than someone coming and taking your kids away from you and then only letting you see them once a year, or not at all for years at a time? Is there anything more heartbreaking? How about if your kids were taken someplace with no love, affection or kindness? Now think about your kids being molested. No, make that raped and/or sodomized. Not something you'd easily handle if it were your kids, right? Well, it happened to tens of thousands of other people's kids. Right here in Canada. I'd say that if you can't feel deep sorrow about that, then perhaps your heart is stone &*%$ing cold.
There was an added twist to all this, of course. Imagine being one of those kids and trying to get your head around the fact that the people abusing you in the cruelest ways - physically, emotionally, sexually - are the exact same people who this supposedly-superior White culture looks up to as the most respect-worthy group of all: priests and nuns. Now that's not going to help you understand or want to belong to this twisted foreign culture, is it?
Physical, emotional, spiritual and sexual abuse and degradation... and the perpetrators were members of the Church working under a federal government program. Meanwhile, your parents were far away and couldn't help you in any way. And if you complained you were labeled a liar and punished. It's a wonder everyone involved didn't simply go crazy... or just try to kill themselves. Which, of course, is exactly what some eventually did.
A Native woman we know told us how her older sister, while at a residential school on Vancouver Island, was forced, along with all the other students, to view the hanging body of a girl who had killed herself once she could no longer take it anymore. Besides the trauma of having to witness this horrible scene they were all also told that this dead friend of theirs was a sinner who was going to hell. Nice people these priests. Very civilized.
Guantanamo Bay a Club Med In Comparison
We're not talking about slavery in America here. Nor anything else from centuries past, we're talking about things - horrific, brutal things - that were going on right here in Canada within my lifetime, just a few short decades ago. In the 1960s and '70s.
We're also talking about a system that makes Guantanamo Bay look rather humane. Seriously. Think about it. Tortured, tormented people held against their will in prison-like conditions. As Harper himself said in his apology, "many were inadequately fed, clothed and housed". There was overcrowding, poor sanitation and a lack of medical care and extremely high death rates from tuberculosis and other illnesses. However, unlike those held at Guantanamo Bay, these were little children, guilty of no crime aside from their race. And, besides, how many of the so-called "detainees" at the gulag in Guantanamo have been repeatedly raped week after week, month after month, year after year?
My Own Personal Glimpse
I, myself, as a child, had a glimpse into some of the pain these kids must have gone through. Soon after my parents' separation, when I was just seven years old, I had to live with my aunt and uncle (not the nicest of people, to put it mildly) for one whole year. It was a horrible experience. However, unlike these Native kids in the residential schools, I got to see my mom every weekend. And still that year was traumatically lonely and painful. I can't even imagine what it would have been like not to see either of my parents even once for a full year (or years) at a time. Five days at a time separated from my mom over a year was torture enough. Ten years of that would have crushed my entire spirit and soul.
Churches Guilty As Hell, But Government Ultimately Responsible
In the end it's the Canadian government who set up and paid for this system whereby children were forcibly removed from their families and placed with a bunch of pedophiles. Of course the churches are to blame too and it seems most of them have been sincere in trying to make amends, though, amazingly, the Catholic Church alone has refused to issue a formal apology. Ultimately, however, it was the government's responsibility and, therefore, the entire country's. And that's why this official apology was so important.
So, I repeat, what a great day for all the people of Canada. And not just because of Harper's speech. Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, whose party was in power most of the time this whole criminal system was in operation, also issued an apology from the floor of the House of Commons, as did the NDP's Jack Layton, who choked up with emotion while delivering his. Finally, and very importantly, there were the speeches of Chief Phil Fontaine, head of the Assembly of First Nations, and other Native leaders, who were invited to reply to Harper's speech right in Parliament. It made for some rather moving moments.
Why the hell did it take so long for this apology to finally be issued? I have no idea. And was it perhaps forced on the government due to pending lawsuits? Maybe. But it's still a monumental event and, obviously, an extremely important step in the healing process. This apology, together with the previously-announced $2bn compensation package and the just-started Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is the beginning of the end of this sad, shameful chapter in our country's history. Let the healing begin.
Click here to read Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Statement of Apology to Parliament
Read More: CBC: PM cites 'sad chapter' in apology for residential schools
Mike Cowie (Oredakedo)
Thursday, June 12th, 2008
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And for a rant about American politics read this: The Obama Rave or The Audacity Of Hoping For The Obvious Choice