Aboriginals, the breaking of hearts, a Canadian problem

Consider: one clear morning government trustees arrive at your door and collect your children, put them on a train and ship them to a Christian boarding school. Upon arrival, their clothes are taken, their heads are shaved and their bodies scrubbed raw–all in an effort to purge, physically, psychologically, spiritually, what it is that makes your children who they are, what it is that makes you you.

Consider your daughter’s fear, grief and confusion as she tries to understand what it was she did wrong that brought her here.

Now consider her average day. She is not allowed to speak your language, the only one she knows. She is allowed to speak only the one called English and if she should slip and speak a word of your language, she is slapped, strapped or put in a closet. 

Though she may occasionally catch sight of her brother through a page-wire fence, speaking to him brings harsh punishment. Her isolation feels absolute. She is able to make some furtive friends, and there is some support, but she understands finally that her survival is to withdraw into herself and try to keep a crumb of herself alive. Her memories of home and love fade, as daily she is taught to embrace a culture in which she will never find acceptance.

You, as parent, are able to visit your children, but only during designated times, and only if you apply for a pass which binds you to non-interference, the terms of which can not be questioned. Visits are always chaperoned and must be conducted in English. And while you may know a few words, you are forced to be content with sitting by your children for the allotted time. Your daughter agonizes to tell you her pain but is pulled to silence for what she believes is your protection.

Until our hearts are broken by the enormity of the atrocity of what we did in the residential schools project, our governments won’t find the moral outrage and courage in the people they govern to make any meaningful changes.

So commented my brother Sam on my last post. And while you would hope that some within government would find the moral outrage and courage on their own, it is true that our own hearts need to be broken.

Aboriginal,residential-truthreconciliation-Feb1,2012But the breaking of hearts over the Aboriginal problem requires an aliveness to what’s beneath our feet and in our air, a sensitivity to place, language, spirit.

And of course it’s not an Aboriginal problem, it’s a Canadian problem. As I read in the interim report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “In talking about residential schools and their legacy, we are not talking about an Aboriginal problem, but a Canadian problem. It is not simply a dark chapter from our past. It was integral to the making of Canada. Although the schools are no longer in operation, the last ones did not close until the 1990s. The colonial framework of which they were a central element has not been dismantled.”

The double bind of Canadian colonialism, the implicit massive racism, that is, the historical aim to “Christianize and civilize the savage,” but never to include, lurks. We see it in the inner-city. We see it in the social, economic, and political burdens and barriers that Aboriginals struggle with each day.

Yes, there are some who wear the mantle of victimhood to harm. Still the onus remains with us. The underpinnings of Canadian society are racist. Canada is built on a land grab. It’s been four years since Prime Minister Harper delivered an apology to the Aboriginal people of Canada, three years of Truth and Reconciliation, progress has been made, and there have been steps backward. Those of us advantaged by this history still need experiences of empathy. 

We still need to grow mercy, we need broken hearts. The stories of heartbreak are nearby, if one looks.


  1. I know these stories of heartbreak. If we are to grow mercy, we need to have a friend who is First Nations. They will teach us to grow. To have mercy. To understand.

  2. “The underpinnings of Canadian society are racist.” Please explain how you came to this (which reads as an on-going) conclusion, as this is a huge statement.

  3. Thanks for this, Steve. I wish every white Canadian could sit with a native neighbour and witness the tears and the heartbreak. The child-grab had to be the most vicious part of all of the atrocities.

  4. Thank you Meredith. I may answer by asking how, given that Protestant and Catholic missionaries’ stated goal, backed and sponsored by government, was to “kill the Indian in the child” and “civilize the savage,” is it possible to reach a different conclusion? (See “History of Residential Schools”) Consider that it wasn’t until 1966 that Aboriginals were allowed to vote; consider ongoing social and economic discrimination, the ignoring of treaties and agreements as recent as Bill C-38. There has been progress, as I said. But much more needs to be done to break down those “underpinnings” of colonialism.

  5. Thank you for your article. I am so saddened by this. I had not know the Canadian government treated their aboriginals this way. I suppose it pales in comparison to the atrocities done by the US. I had thought, however, that the Canadians embraced the original peoples culture and traditions. What a different world this would be if the culture and wisdom had been accepted and had been allowed to influence the rest of the world. What a loss.

  6. This story is true for not only Canada but North America in general… we had schools here in America too. My ancestors were Cherokee, and fortunately they made the decision to leave North Carolina and move west before the government forced them onto the Trail of Tears, many others made the same decision. They were the lucky ones.. they became “white”. Moved into an area where no one knew them and farmed. They were forced to brainwash their own children, forbid them from learning their own language, forbid them to mention their Native connections just in order to stay alive. I have, in the process of following my genealogy, just recently discovered the extent of my native heritage. It was a well kept secret in the family…. amazing what a small group of people can do in just a couple of generations. But being the child of a psychiatric social worker, I am beginning to wonder if some of the inherent depression and tending toward alcoholism in that side of my family can be traced to racial memory, to denying the great heritage in order to stay alive. And also to watch a beautiful naturally thriving country that we had resided in for thousands of years with no significant negative impact fall prey to a society that arrogantly slashed and burned, contaminated and destroyed, the native people and the land because they believed they were better and more important than all those things. I am proud of my ancestors, my heart bleeds for the horrible things they went through. But I also believe they got off easy by comparison to others. At least my family wasn’t ripped apart and the children sent away.
    We have to fix this. I have completely revised the way I see history in the last few years.
    The truth is slowly beginning to come out, but the Native population is so incredibly damaged from the things they have been through it’s difficult to even get some to pay attention. The sad part is, that if the Natives had ‘won’ and the country was still theirs, the entire world might not be in the horrific shape that it is in. The school children on the res in North Carolina are learning their own language and history again… and in other places around the country, but it’s going to be a long hard road back.

  7. Difficult words, yours and Sam’s, but embarrassing truth. While we encountered cooperative commitment in 1960 to offer educational opportunity in Northern Alberta, other than Residential Schools, by forming the Northland School Division (Education Minister A.O.Aalborg and J.W.Chalmers, Director of School Administration), attitudes and comments by the Minister of Health at the time, unfit to quote here, disclosed rank racism in high places. Too much evidence of that legacy and its impact in Alberta still prevails.

  8. Hello Liza. Thank you so much for sharing your story here. While the damage done to your ancestors and your family can never be repaired or repaid, I’m encouraged that there are indications of hope. For awareness and change, the truth needs to keep surfacing. The very best and continued courage as you trace out your history and traditions. Thank you again for adding your voice.

  9. Ike, Thank you, I value your perspective, particularly as someone who tried to change a system before the great majority of Canadians even understood there was a problem. We owe much to people like you and your wife.

  10. Stephen,
    As you know, I think deeply about injustices, so have been very interested in these two posts of yours related to the treatment of aboriginal peoples in Canada. Sadly, I don’t know much about this specific history. But your posts and some recent events prompted me to write the following post on my own blog: http://anewprosperity.blogspot.com/2012/07/independence-day-2012.html.

    It is bound to irritate some that I know, especially that I wrote it on such a patriotic day in this country.

  11. Rodney Clifton writes “…my experience is that most of the people who worked in residential schools wanted to help the children receive a good education that would allow them to survive in the modern world. Most of these people also wanted to fulfill the evangelistic calling of committed Christians: to help the poor, tend to the weak and treat the sick.”


  12. Thanks for the quote Ian. Perspective is important. Not every student’s experience was wholly negative, and certainly, not every teacher was dissolute. For a far broader perspective than Rodney Clifton’s, consider the book (Truth and Reconciliation Report): http://growmercy.org/wp-content/uploads/They_Came_for_the_Children1.pdf See especially the Staff Experience. What remains however, regardless of individual experience, is that children were wrenched from their families. This was the initial crime that was subsequently, but not always, exacerbated in horrendous ways.

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