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The Traumatic Truth Behind Canada’s Residential Schools

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

The year 2021 has brought much grief upon the world’s global community as we grapple with a pandemic, political turmoil, and a shift in the world’s overall morale. 

However, the indigenous and first nations population in Canada find themselves in an increasingly painful position with the recent discovery of children remains throughout previous various residential schools within Canada’s sovereign borders.

For over a century- beginning in the 1880s- the Canadian government set up a school system with the purpose of providing education to Indigenous children, administered by churches in the area. However, rather than fostering the growth of students, many first nation children were forcibly indoctrinated into practicing Christianity and erasing their culture.

Children were made to speak English and remove all expressions of their culture and background; often being beaten or punished for speaking their native language.

Around the mid 20th century, an estimated one-third of all indigenous children were enrolled as a part of a residential school, usually completely separated from their family and disconnected from their home. 

Survivors of these institutions cited that they faced abuse in the highest degree: both sexual, physical, emotional, and psychological. This being an experience that has caused long lasting trauma on the indigenous community.

The abuse perpetuated by residential schools contributed to the deaths of hundreds of indigenous students, many of whom were buried in mass, unmarked graves and never returned or alerted to their families. 

In May of 2021, 215 unmarked graves were found for children who were reported as missing throughout the course of the 20th century. After extensive searching of only 4 of 139 schools, the death toll has risen to 1,300 and is expected to increase as more schools are searched.

This systematic targeting of the indigenous population is a clear indicator of genocide, and lives on in the memory of the families and survivors as one of the darkest points of their personal and cultural history.

In 1907, a report administered by the Indian Affairs chief medical officer concluded that over 25% of all students who attended each school had died, with some institutions having rates as high as 69% of all attendees- more than half.

This report only reflects data from 1907, the statistics for the 100 years and ensued are unclear, but likely higher. 

Other than the consistent abuse faced by first nations, between 1948 and 1952, Indigenous children were used as subjects for a series of nutrition experiments. However, malnutrition raged throughout the system, with food quantities provided by the government amounting to less than half of the necessary amount to sustain students.

In 1997, the last residential school was closed. This, being only 24 years ago, exhibits how the grief and pain of Canada’s first nations remains recent, and deserves to be acknowledged. 

After the 1990s, the government and churches involved began to recognized their part in contributing to the centuries old suffering of the Indigenous population.

In 2008 an official apology was presented in parliament by the Canadian government, but the effects remain irreversible as parents, siblings, and friends mourned the absence of countless children who were stripped of their culture, language, family, and- in some cases- life.

With the discovery of more than 1,300 unmarked graves, it is clear how expansive the oppression by the Canadian government extends. 

The actions by both Canada and the churches involved will forever be recorded as a blatant, systematic attempt to decimate the indigenous population.

Thus, now more than ever, it is increasingly necessary to amplify indigenous voices and highlight the injustices committed against them for the last several centuries. 

The truth behind the actions of the Canadian government in the 19th and 20th centuries is inexcusable. The remains of countless children are evidence of how a government can subjugate and attempt to end a particular ethnic or cultural group.

The pain of Canada’s indigenous population will never truly be solved by any measure of policy or apologies, but the Canadian government has a responsibility to continue to take accountability for the actions that have ruined the lives of so many innocent children and families. 

May the 1,300 children- and those who have not yet been discovered- rest in peace.

Sheila Martinez is a Cuban-American immigrant currently residing in Miami and attending Florida International University. She is studying International Relations and Political Science with a concentration in human rights and political transitions and is uniquely passionate about empowering women in her community. In the future, Sheila hopes to leverage her passion for representing the underprivileged through a life-long career in the public sector. Some of Sheila's hobbies include reading, going to the movies, and visiting museums.
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