The Indian Residential Schools not only were the cause of much suffering to the First Nations people during the 18 and 19 hundreds, but they have also extended this suffering to all generations that have followed. These schools have played a large role in the loss of traditions, language, and beliefs that First Nations people held in such high regard through humiliation, violence, and isolation.
Anglican and Catholic churches managed the Indian Residential Schools from the 1870's to the early 1980's by following the legislative mandate that they were given by the Canadian Government (Meseyton, 2005). Kipling and Stout (2003) say that "by 1930, 75 per cent of First Nations children between the ages of 7 and 15 years were enrolled in one of 80 such schools across the country and in the 1940s, attendance was expanded to include Inuit children as well" (p.29). There were about 150, 000 Frist Nations, Inuit, and Métis children taken from their homes and put in Indian Residential Schools (CBC New, 2009). In Nova Scotia, there was one Residential School for First Nations people, which resided in Shubenacadie. The Shubenacadie Residential School opened in 1930 and it closed its doors in June of 1967 (Knockwood, 1992, Paul, 2006).
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The object of the Indian Residential Schools were used as a part of colonialism to assimilate the First Nations people by destroying their culture, language, identity, history, and spirituality (Longboat, 1987; Meseyton, 2005). Taking away the First Nations heritage was seen to change whom they were and make them blend in to Canadian Society. Battiste (1986) explains that the Indian Residential Schools were evaluated based on their "ability to transform the Indian" (p. 35). This transformation came with brutal force and no regard to the children's self-esteem because they were portrayed as savages, heathens, pagans and wild Indians (Knockwood, 1992).
The Shubenacadie Residential School followed the Nova Scotia curriculum with a few changes in the religion course and they were also taught to be ashamed of who they were (Paul, 2006). Paul (2006) also says that the "children were taught about all the advantages of Caucasian life and all the evils of First Nations' isolation, language and culture" (p. 283). First Nations children going into the residential schools were not allowed to speak their own language. Knockwood (1992) says, "Speaking Mi'Kmaw was not permitted in the school because it held children back in the classroom in reading, pronouncing and writing English" (p. 26). Taking the children from their families and forcing them not to speak their language was the first steps in taking away their identity.
Even though the churches and Government made the First Nations people believe that they had a choice to send their children to school, this was not the case. According to Daniel Paul (2006), because of how the Indian Act was written, the children were considered wards of the Crown and did not have laws to protect them so families could do nothing. Families filled out forms to allow their children to attend these schools, but Paul (2006) says that it did not matter because these forms were just "window dressings" and the Indian Agents did not need the parents' permission and could do whatever they wanted with the children.
Abuse of the First Nations children was commonly used in the Indian Residential Schools for control and assimilation. The children were forced to give up their identities through beatings, threats, and isolation. Isabelle Knockwood (1992) conducted an interview with Peter Julian, former student at the Shubenacadie Residential School, that said by the time he left the school he was ashamed to speak his own language for the little bit that he could remember. Speaking the Mi'Kmaw language was not the only thing that brought on abuse. Isabelle Knockwood was also a former student of the Shubenacadie Residential School. She can remember watching a nun shake a little girl while yelling, "Look at me" because the nun did not realize that direct eye contact between a child and an adult was considered arrogant in the native culture (Knockwood, 1992, p. 50). The abuse made the children forget about their culture though fear. Knockwood (1992) says we "were forcibly disconnected from everything our parents and elders had taught us, and everything new was learned in an atmosphere of fear" (p. 50). At times physical and sexual abuse was used together. The children were being sexual abused by the nuns and priest and if they did not comply with it, they would be beat (Knockwood, 1992).
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Physical and sexual abuse was not the only forms of punishment used in the Indian Residential Schools. As stated earlier, isolation from families were also used to assimilate the First Nations children. Children were not allowed to see their families often and for some they did not get to see their families at all because of the travelling distance to the school. During the Christmas break, the children were forced to stay at the school instead of being home with their families (Knockwood, 1992; Paul, 2006). Even though the children could not go home for Christmas, they remember fondly being able to spend it with their siblings that were at the school also. Knockwood (1992) remembers this as the only good thing about Christmas and says, "we'd get our presents from home and get to sit with our brothers and sisters" (p. 38). However, Doug Knockwood remembers one Christmas were his father travelled to the school to bring Christmas gifts and the nuns refused to allow the children to have them and made him take the gifts back home (Knockwood, 1992).
Christmas is one of the major holidays where families are close. This was a way to disconnect the bonds between the children and the parents and take away the happiness associated with it. The children's gifts were the only thing left that made them feel like children. According to Knockwood (1992), the children were only allowed to play with their gifts until January 6 and then they were packed up and never seen again. Taking these gifts from the children would be like taking them from their families again because these gifts were the only thing every year that connected them to and reminded them of their families.
Many of the parents also had difficulty accepting that their children could not come home for Christmas. These parents would write letters or hire lawyers to get their children home, but all they would receive was rude letters from the school denying them (Paul, 2006). Other families stuck together as a community to try to get their children home. Paul (2006) explains briefly that the Cambridge Reserve hired a man to go to the school to pick their children up but the Principal would not let them go. These are examples of how determined the churches and Canadian Government were in assimilating the First Nations people.
The Indian Residential Schools did not provide the education that other Nova Scotia schools provided. The students were taught very basic education and the rest was manual labour (Knockwood, 1992). Learning only the basic education was so First Nations people could get by living in society by understanding English, but not receive too much education so they obtain careers such as lawyer, teachers and doctors. Making them do manual labour was in some way 'killing two birds with one stone'. The Government could assimilate them into Western Society and not have to pay anyone to do the manual work at the school. The children that attended these schools were not trained to do the work and most time they were in the position to do manual work that was unsafe. Knockwood (1992) describes that many of the children got physically hurt because they were too small or untrained to run the machinery.
There was very little time to do anything fun at the school. Knockwood (1992) remembers being able to play baseball and going skating. For the children that attended these schools, holding on to the memories of these times is what helped them make it through each day. This was one of the times, other than Christmas, that the children that had brothers or sisters at the school would get to see them even for just a few minutes (Knockwood, 1992). These tactics were ways that the churches and Government thought would isolate the children and cut bonds with other family members.
This was not the only way that the Indian Residential Schools managed to strip First Nations children of their identity. The children did not have the opportunity to grow up and see what a normal family life would look like because they were at school for 10 months a year with no parental contact other than letters, which were no use, because they were written in English so the parents could not read them (CBC News, 2009). This further goes to show how isolation was used to remove the bonds within the families so they could fit into Canadian society more efficiently.
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There were also residential day schools and some children were sent off to schools in other provinces so they would learn to "reject their traditional cultural ways in favour of the life of the individual in the dominant Canadian society" (Battiste, 1986, p. 36). No matter where the First Nations children were sent for education, the main outcome the Canadian Government desired was assimilation of the 'Indian'. Daniel Paul attended an Indian Day School on the Indian Brook Reserve where assimilation was still in progress (Paul, 2006) Paul (2006) recalls his time in this school and says he "cannot recall any effort being made - except for a brief reference to basket weaving and other traditional crafts - to teach us about heritage and culture" (p. 291). The lack of teaching of the First Nations heritage and culture in the Indian day schools was just another attempt of the Canadian Government to assimilate the First Nations people.
Assimilation of the First Nations people did not go like the Canadian Government planned. There are still First Nations people widely spread all across Canada. Did the Indian Residential Schools affect the First Nations culture and their identity? According to Kipling and Stout (2003), the parents that grew up in Indian Residential Schools create what they call "intergenerational" Survivors by passing the trauma they experienced down to their children (p. 51). The effects of the schools not only affected the First Nations people in them at the time but for generation to come. Kipling and Stout (2003) explains this to be "like a pebble dropped in a pond, traumatic effects tend to ripple outward form victims to touch all those who surround them, including children and grandchildren" (p. 51).
The survivors of the Indian Residential Schools never had a chance to become close with their families and learn what healthy relationships were. Kipling and Stout (2003) suggest that the violence that the survivors encountered at the schools was used towards their own children later in their lives because they did not know how to express affection. This is what causes a cycle of abuse. Unless this cycle is stopped, every generation will suffer the same kind of violence from their parents. The abuse can also stem from frustration. When children were old enough they returned home to their parents where they felt like they did not belong because they did not have the skills to help their parents out and ended up becoming ashamed of who they were (CBC News, 2009).
Not everyone experienced the same things in the Indian Residential Schools. Some First Nations people believe they learned valuable skills such as speaking English, how to keep their homes in good shape, sewing, cooking and praying, while others thought it was the most horrible place to be (Knockwood, 1992). Knockwood (1992) also explains that some of the students thought the beatings were deserved, while some thought it was a refuge from home because their parents abused them, and some students were the priests and nuns favourites so they did not suffer the punishments. Even though there were some First Nations people that seen the schools as a good place to be while they were there, this did not stop the suffering of the First Nations culture and identity.
The First Nations culture and language are threatened because "several generations of children having grown up in a setting where any manifestation of Aboriginality was disparaged and devalued" (Kipling & Stout, 2003, p. 34). Kipling and Stout (2003) also suggest that many survivors are trying to cope with both the abuse they suffered at the Indian Residential Schools along with the loss of their culture. First Nations communities need to stick together to heal if they want to bring back the culture and language of their ancestors. Without the teaching of traditions and language, the First Nations identity will be completely gone.
Randolph Bowers considers himself a Mi'kmaq man that is trying to discover his own identity while trying to help others understand themselves better by uncovering their own identity (Bowers, 2008). The Indian Residential School did not affect Bowers directly but he states how it affected his family indirectly by saying:
My family was not impacted by the residential school era directly. We were influenced indirectly. My grandmother Honora Elizabeth Richard-Bowers lived during an era when the residential schools were enforced in Nova Scotia. For Metis families I suspect there was a constant fear of government officials. Foster homes, wards of the state, and residential schools were not far distant realities for relatively poor Acadian families. Hiding their Aboriginal ancestry was most likely very necessary during the late 1800s and early 1900s (Bowers, 2008, p.37).
This shows that the Frist Nations people did not have to be forced into an Indian Residential School to be stripped of their culture and language. Some of the families felt giving up their identity was better than the alternative. Bowers (2008) goes on to say, "My experience is of being a non-status Indian growing up in a family that had almost lost our connections to Aboriginal heritage and culture. There was always a void in my heart, a huge part of me that was missing" (p. 29).
Bowers shows us that knowing your heritage is important in knowing who you are. The evidence proves that the Indian Residential Schools took something from the First Nations people that was very important to their identity. It is important for anyone to know who they are and where they came from, but for the First Nations people it is extremely important because finding their identity though their traditions and language help heal the suffering brought on by the Indian Residential Schools.
Healing is an important step in regaining the culture and language of the First Nations people. Knockwood (1992) explains that it is important that the survivors of the Indian Residential Schools talk with other survivors to help with the healing process. Moayeri and Smith (2010) conducted interviews with two First Nations mothers that were former students at the Indian Residential Schools. These women have lost their identity because of the abuse they suffered and the isolation they endured. In these interviews, the women explained that they were trying to regain their identity back by taking some power over their lives (Moayeri & Smith, 2010). Many students are still trying to heal themselves in one way or another and with the support of their First Nations communities, the process of healing would benefit the survivor as well as generations to come.
In conclusion, the Indian Residential Schools along with other attempts of assimilation of the First Nations heritage, culture, language, and identity have affected the First Nations people. Bowers (2008) says, "We are Canadians, but if we do not know where we come from and who we are, we are nothing" (p. 38). Reconnecting with the First Nations communities and learning about their lost heritage will help heal the suffering for the future generations of First Nations children. Reclaiming their identities will make the First Nations communities stronger to fight any other forms of assimilation that may occur in the future.