Catholic Church of Montreal > News > Topics > Truth and Reconciliation Commission > Aboriginal Residential Schools: A Wail of Anguish

Aboriginal Residential Schools: A Wail of Anguish

She cries out, or rather screams, contrasting the large lavish hall in Montreal's Queen Elizabeth Hotel, "Yesterday, my daughter hanged herself!"

It's during the middle of the afternoon of Thursday, April 25, as the Quebec National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) ceremony begins that the mother becomes to shriek. However, the dignitaries will not hear it, as they have already entered the Grand Salon for the opening ceremony and speeches.

This grieving woman is followed by a procession of volunteers recognizable by their colored jackets. They seem to allow the outburst of sorrow to ring through the halls before comforting the aboriginal woman.

She humanized the stories of hardships often associated with life in Aboriginal communities, involving alcoholism, violence and suicide. According to Health Canada, "suicide and self-injury are the leading causes of death among First Nations people, 44 years old or less. (Statistical Profile on the Health of First Nations in Canada for the year 2000, Health Canada, 2003). The suicide rate "is five or six times higher among Aboriginal youth than non-Aboriginal. "

"Kill the Indian in the child"

This voice recalls the wounds suffered by the Aboriginal children forced into Residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996. However the wounds are still fresh, intense and perpetuated in First Nations communities, in my mind, this lady has become the symbol of the Aboriginal generations who have been uprooted from their families and their communities.

It is estimated that 150,000 indigenous children passed through these schools since 1831. Of these, 80,000 are still living and are named "survivors." Under the government of John A. MacDonald in 1883, this type of education became compulsory.

However, according to the report by TRC entitled They Came for the Children, attempts were made as early as 1620 to school aboriginal children in this manner. Missionaries from France began to lay the groundwork for the residential school system, but without success. Survivors of the most recent systems met at this national event held at the hotel in Montreal. Several told me "they tried to lock us up, but we escaped."

The commissioners - Judge Murray Sinclair, Chief Wilton Littlechild and Marie Wilson - wrote that "schools were designed to remove indigenous peoples as a distinct group within Canadian society," an "attempt to destroy in the name of civilization." Several of those responsible for the implementation of the system used the phrase "Kill the Indian in the child."

Civilize? To what end?

Reading this report, a piece of our history, is more than useful for anyone interested in indigenous issues: it is essential. However, this report also avoids generalities, stating that, "It would be foolish and wrong to say that no Aboriginal people have benefited from the Residential schools."

A lot of people appearing before the TRC have expressed their gratitude to the men and women who worked in the schools. They also believe that "bonds were forged there." According to them, it is "a complex history."

Despite the positives aspects, the commissioners refute that these institutions were successful in making "the leap to civilization."  The claim that "despite their detestable acts," these facilities helped the First Nations to become "civilized", and that the pain they caused is just "the price of progress" is "unacceptable" to the commissioners.

Towards Reconciliation

The general purpose of the meeting was to heal the old wounds. While churches are not spared criticism, their presence is greeted politely. On the other hand, the hurt is still evident, and new approaches to reconciliation are necessary. As indicated by Commissioner Murray at the opening ceremony, this not a time for condemnation, but for humility and healing. This is the path for reconciliation.


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