I’m quite happy to see that there will be a regional residential school conference happening in Eeyou Istchee. Most people look at the problems associated with residential schools mainly as those that happened only to the students who attended these schools.
The effects are considerably more far reaching, however. It is now seen, and rightly so, as a problem that has affected generations.
Even the beginning of the schools where it seemed benign compared to later would create problems. Anyone who has seen the film Cree Spoken Here knows that in the earlier days Cree syllabics were taught and there wasn’t quite the fanaticism to destroy any vestiges of Aboriginal culture. However, what was done was bad enough to the culture even then. You removed children from their homes and parents by force. A trauma in itself that would haunt and shape children for the rest of their lives. You were basically shown that you and your people had no rights, no recourse and no power to shape your own destiny.
Then by virtue of being taken from your parents you had no role models to enable you to be an effective parent. On a subconscious level your parents had been supplemented and it was shown that they could not protect you. Any role model you had was often an aloof task master in the form of a teacher, principal or other official of the residential school.
Then the Canadian government stepped up its assimilation program (a genocidal step as defined by The Hague). Reports of sexual and physical abuse were often ignored or hidden away. Even today, many of the abusers are unrepentant.
The symptoms of the residential schools are with us today. You see the rise in gangs, alcohol and drug abuse, the high suicide rates and a host of other problems. Parents can’t or don’t know how to discipline or control their children. One only has to go into any of the Cree communities after midnight to see the children out on the streets. We’re not even talking teenagers here but younger lost souls. Such patterns led to the gangs and high rates of theft we are now seeing.
Remember when doors weren’t locked and stealing another person’s equipment or possessions was unthinkable? This is part of the multi-generational effect of residential schools and it gets worse unless something is done about it.
One merely has to look at Moosonee and Moose Factory, where Horden Hall residential school was. I’m sure many a Cree remembers the shanty town across the bridge in Moosonee or the tarpaper shacks in Moose Factory and the craziness that went on there.
Look at those locations today though and you will see a different story. I went back after 20 years and was amazed. The shacks are gone and in their place are beautiful homes and a sense of community pride. The drinking isn’t as crazy and wild as it once was.
It was because the people there got tired of what was happening and decided to take control of their own destiny. They wanted something better for themselves and their children.
We need to do the same thing and a regional conference on residential schools is a step in the right direction.