NORTH VANCOUVER (CUP) — Canada is known for welcoming different ethnicities with open arms. It is a land where multiculturalism allows its citizens to create stronger bonds amongst each other. Despite all of this, many of us have forgotten the origin of this country and our ancestors who shaped our nation to what it is today, for there is an ominous past within our history: the Indian Residential School system implemented mainly in the first half of the twentieth century. Although the government has apologized and taken action in restoring relationships, it has not been enough to unite our communities and move away from the events that occurred.
On Sept. 22, an estimated 70,000 people walked for reconciliation in the streets of Vancouver in the pouring rain. This event was open to anyone who wanted to participate in the healing and learning process.
“It’s a shared history that we have and it’s important that we recognize and honour each of our unique histories,” says Michelle Cho, Community Engagement Lead of Reconciliation Canada, a non-profit organization which is organizing the event. Formed in 2012, Reconciliation Canada was born from the vision of Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation and an Indian Residential School survivor.
“His vision is to have 50,000 people walk together in the spirit of reconciliation so it’s something that he’s been dreaming about and sort of working on for many years now,” informs Cho.
In the 1870s, the federal government — faced with the task of providing formal education for Aboriginal children — developed an “effective” system which they believed would make the children assimilate into the new dominant society. As a result, the Indian Residential School system was developed. These schools were government-funded and run by churches. The objective of these schools was to remove and isolate the children from the influence of their tradition, cultures, and families and to teach them the ways of Western civilization. The children were also forbidden to speak their own language. By separating the children from their parents, it was believed, they would be able to convert the children to Christianity. As a result, the harsh treatment in these schools reached extremes.
According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forcibly placed in these schools. The people who worked at the schools not only taught the children about the European way of life, but also prepared them to be accustomed to the economic system. The schools gave them the opportunity to learn different kinds of musical instruments, play sports and perform in theatrical shows. However, many of these institutions were underfunded by the government and were poorly constructed.
The environment of the schools was often unbearable. The staff of the institutions beat the children if they were caught speaking in their own language and practicing their culture. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported that the students of these schools were stripped of their original names and were called by European names instead; they were also forced to wear European clothing and were fed unfamiliar food. On top of that, children were physically abused and violated when being disciplined by the staff. Their parents had no means of stopping the harsh conditions that their children were going through because they were also ignored by the government and the institutions. We are still to this day learning of new information about what really went on in these schools.
By the 1940s, the Indian Residential School system was finally seen as a failure by the federal government. However, this did not stop them to build more schools throughout the country. It wasn’t until 30 years later that the federal government started shutting down the schools or handing them over to the educational authorities in the region. The last residential school would not be shut down until 1996.
After years of the Aboriginal community fighting for justice, they were finally heard in the year 2007. A settlement agreement was reached when the First Nations, Inuit organizations and survivors of the residential schools took the churches and federal government to court.
The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) is known to be the largest class-action settlement in our country’s history. The agreement included a number of actions for the victims of the school. According to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, the IRSSA includes the Common Experience Payment (CEP) which is to be paid to eligible former students of a recognized Indian Residential School and an Independent Assessment Process, which is offered for claims of sexual and physical abuse.
The objective of the IRSSA is to support the healing of the Aboriginal community through programs and foundations like the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program, funded by the government.
However, it wasn’t until June 11, 2008 that the government recognized the need to apologize to Residential School Survivors.
“The treatment of children in Indian Residential Schools is a sad chapter in our history,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper during a formal apology. “The Government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.” He reminded the nation that the survivors should not have struggled in achieving justice for what happened to them. This formal apology marked what many hope is the beginning of a new chapter in Canadian history.
One of the biggest breakthroughs of the establishment of the IRSSA was the development of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
According to Michelle Cho, the TRC is a federally mandated organization, which has gone across the country to record and honor the experiences of the survivors as a beginning towards healing and reconciliation. It was built to provide awareness and learn the truth about the residential schools. The experience has been an emotional one for many survivors and their families, as many of them are speaking out about their experiences for the first time and, quite often, even their families are hearing them for the first time.
“They also go into each community and do hearings where survivors talk about their experiences and then there are also witnesses. I think that the idea is that these experiences are recorded in Canadian history as well so that survivors can have the opportunity to tell their experiences,” Cho adds.
The records they collect and the people who speak at these hearings are not only the former students but also their families, authorities of the institutions and anyone who was affected by or took part in the residential schools. The TRC’s task is to collect sufficient information from the people who resided in these schools in order to officially record it in our history. They organize statement gatherings, community and national events, and commemoration activities. “[To hope is to] guide and inspire First Nations, Inuit, and Métis and Canadians in a process of truth and healing leading to reconciliation and renewed relationships based on mutual understanding and respect,” says the TRC.
The hearings that they organize are open to anyone interested in learning and partaking in this process. On the other hand, national events are hosted in seven different regions in Canada. These national events began in 2010 and host cities include Winnipeg, Inuvik, Halifax, Saskatoon, Montréal, Vancouver, and Edmonton, while the national ceremony closing will take place in Ottawa. The national events were constructed in order to educate Canadians about the Indian Residential School system and to honour survivors of the residential schools.
Vancouver City Council proclaimed that June 21, 2013 to June 20, 2014 will be the Year of Reconciliation in the west coast city.
“It’s important that all Vancouver residents build our understanding of the histories, contributions, and persistent challenges faced by Aboriginal people in Canada,” announced Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson. “The Year of Reconciliation in Vancouver will provide an opportunity for people of all cultures to engage in dialogue and work together for a shared future that fully supports the rights and aspirations of Aboriginal people living in and around Vancouver.”
For the past year, Reconciliation Canada has not only been working towards supporting TRC’s national event but was also preparing the residents of Vancouver for the Week of Reconciliation, which occurred during the week of Sept. 16 – 22, 2013 through workshops and projects.
“We’ve been doing several dialogue workshops and the very first event that we have had was a dialogue circle from elders from all different cultural communities. Basically, this elder circle was really significant because it sort of jump-started the dialogue circles about what Reconciliation meant to each of their cultures,” explained Cho. “And you know, they realized how much similarity there was and it’s not something that people realized until they get together and talk to each other.” She adds that it jumpstarted Reconciliation dialogue circles with other communities, including the Jewish community, Japanese community,
and the Chinese community.
The organization has also included the participation of elementary school children in the process of reconciliation by creating the ‘Tiles Project’ from the Project of Hearts. “We’ve taken on this project with the goal of getting 50,000 tiles decorated by school aged children in honour of the Indian Residential School children but also in celebration of moving forward and celebrating a new way forward between all Canadians and in spirit of Reconciliation,” says Cho. These tiles were given out at the end of the walk to honor all of the walk participants’ commitment to reconciliation.
Post-secondary institutions like UBC, Simon Fraser and Capilano all participated in the Week of Reconciliation.
“Capilano University’s North Vancouver campus sits on traditional Squamish and Tsleil-watuth lands, and the Sechelt campus is on traditional Sechelt land,” explains Clay Little, First Nations Liaison at the university. “I have personally experienced the inter-generational effects of the residential school system.” He and his family participated in the Walk for Reconciliation in order to acknowledge the impact on him and his ancestors.
While the government continues to struggle to build a better relationship between Canadians from all walks of life, let us support the healing and prosperity of Indian Residential School survivors. “It is important that we all understand and respect each other in order to live in the same place together,” concludes Michelle Cho. “We need to recognize that we’re all human and not all different.”
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