In Canada, residential school trauma continues to haunt survivors ‘broken’ by years of abuse

“This visit evokes many emotions.” Four months after acknowledging the Catholic Church’s role in the forced enrollment of Indigenous children in Canada’s residential schools, Pope Francis is set to meet with some of these communities during a visit that begins in Alberta. on Sunday July 24. The occasion to repeat the official apology, in the areas where these populations have been victimized flaw for decades, says the Globe and Mail*.

This trip was organized after the discovery, in 2021, of hundreds of unmarked graves near former boarding schools. “JI am shocked by the shameful policies that steal indigenous children from their communities”, then answered the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. He recognized the “Canada’s Sin”thirteen years after the first official apology given by his predecessor, the Conservative Stephen Harper.

These establishments, mostly run by religious people, are the central tool of a “System set up by the Canadian federal government to tear Aboriginal children from their families, to ‘civilize’ them and turn them into Christians”, explains Marie-Pierre Bousquet, director of the Indigenous studies program at the Université de Montréal. Between 1880 and 1996, about 150,000 Métis, Inuit and First Nations (the designation of some groups of Aboriginal peoples in Canada) children were sent to 139 residential schools across the country. A qualified system “cultural genocide” of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which published a report in 2015 documenting the violence committed in these establishments.

After thousands of hearings, the TRC revealed how the compulsory schooling of indigenous people from the age of 7, implemented in the 1920s, served to remove these children from their parents. When they arrived, the residents were already there “lost in their identity”, says anthropologist Marie-Pierre Bousquet. Their native names were replaced by French or English names. Wearing a uniform is compulsory and hair, “a very important cultural characteristic of many of these communities”abbreviated.

“We want to make them little white”, summarizes Natacha, a member of the Anishinabe nation. In the 1950s, his mother and some of his uncles and aunts were sent to boarding school in Saint-Marc-de-Figuery (Quebec).

“They were forbidden to speak their language and they were taught a version of history where the natives were evil, ignorant and ‘savage’ that the missionaries came to ‘save’. .”

Marie-Pierre Bousquet, anthropologist

at franceinfo

These children also become victims of verbal, psychological or physical violence. “One of my aunts tore her ear off from pulling too hard”, confirmed Natacha. His mother, “too old” to benefit from school lessons, doing homework for almost three years at boarding school. “He saw his brothers being abused and repeatedly tried to warn my grandparentsthe 50-year-old continued. This resulted in him being beaten and locked in a room alone, without food, all day long.”

This story is sadly common among survivors of residential schools. em>”I was always afraid, confirmed one of them in National Geographic*. I remember thinking, ‘Never mind,’ because I’ve seen what they do to kids like that.”

Indigenous children in a dormitory at an unidentified boarding school in Canada, 1950. (HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES)

Another survivor told guardian* ago “thrown under a cold shower every night, sometimes after rape”. “The living conditions vary according to the boarding schools but there are many cases of children suffering from malnutrition, victims of sexual violence and corporal punishment, insisted Marie-Pierre Bousquet. In some institutions, we conduct medical experiments on these children, who are deprived of certain nutrients to observe the effects.

Another psychological violence: children are completely cut off from their parents. To prevent any contact, they were taken to establishments several tens or even hundreds of kilometers from their community, lined up in Guardian*. Many have tried to flee the terror of residential schools to reunite with their families, according to National Geographic. But most were caught or died on the way, victims of drowning or hypothermia.

The fate of many other children remains unknown. The TRC estimates that 6,000 of them have “lost”reported by TV5 Monde. “When something happened to them, the boarding schools made no effort to inform their parents, especially if the latter were nomads, explained Marie-Pierre Bousquet. The bodies were not returned to the families and the children were buried in unmarked graves. “

Graves near Saint Eugene boarding school, in Cranbrook (British Columbia, Canada), June 30, 2021. (DAVE CHIDLEY / ANADOLU AGENCY / AFP)

In May 2021, the remains of 215 children were discovered at the site of the former boarding school in Kamloops (British Columbia), which is the largest in Canada. A month later, “715 unmarked graves” found near Marieval, Saskatchewan.

In total, at least 4,000 indigenous people died in boarding schools, victims of accidents, violence or disease, the TRC estimated. “Many boarding schools are affected by epidemics, especially tuberculosis, through total neglect. Sick children are left with those in good health, although we already know some sanitary steps at that time”, explained Marie-Pierre Bousquet. At the beginning of the 1900s, a doctor appointed by the State noticed an average mortality rate of 25% in these schools, says the Canadian Medical Association Journal*. In one establishment, it even reached 70%.

Natacha only realized the extent of abuse in residential schools when the TRC began its work in 2008. “My mother has told me about it sometimes, when I was a teenager, but only when she was in crisis”he testified, referring to “psychological disorder” where his mother was suffering. “I thought he was confused.” Véronique Rankin, also the daughter of a survivor, evokes the same “forbidden”. “I heard rumors, but it wasn’t until I started working as a tour guide in the reserve that I understood the horror of what happened”explains the director of the Wapikoni Mobile indigenous association to franceinfo.

“The Commission gave survivors the opportunity to speak their truth. Now our communities need to understand what happened to them and how it affects all generations.”

Natacha, member of the Anishinaabe Nation

at franceinfo

“Many come back devastated from residential schools and, in turn, their children also suffer this trauma”he insisted. “I do not speak the language of my ancestors, although I know some wordsNatacha confessed bitterly. In a way, the boarding school achieved its goal with my mother: we were raised as white people, far from the reservation. In communities where cultural transmission is based on oral tradition, banning children from speaking their native language has serious consequences. “Certain knowledge is forever forgotten. Most native languages, which are difficult to transmit, are declining”warned Marie-Pierre Bousquet.

First Nations and Inuit, however, have implemented a “great job to recover this knowledge”, according to the anthropologist. The Wapikoni Mobile association thus works on “revaluation of indigenous cultures” by making the film. “There are also many educational initiatives to promote specific learning, especially languages”, added Véronique Rankin. Within families, we also strive “to recover the culture”. “I spent a lot of time with my aunt Marianne. He introduced my children to language and practicesWelcome Natacha. My mother, returning to the creator in 2001, did not have the opportunity to do this. “

Inuit survivors listen to an apology from Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper, June 11, 2008, in Iqaluit, Nunavut.  (HOLDEN ROBERTA / KICK)

For Véronique Rankin, these efforts must be supported by the Canadian authorities, especially financially. The forty also called for the opening of the archives of the Catholic Church in Canada. “They can give us answers about our history, because religious people document the traditions of many natives”he pointed out.

Many hope that these documents will make it possible to learn more about the fate of the thousands who disappeared. “In the last two years, Canadians have understood that what is happening in residential schools is for everyone, and not just for indigenous people”, believes Marie-Pierre Bousquet. The anthropologist called for this knowledge, which happened “after the work of the TRC”contribution to “will lead to a more equal society”.

* Links followed by an asterisk refer to English content.

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