Canada is one of the most multicultural and tolerant countries in the world. That’s why millions of immigrants have come here, to escape persecution and live in freedom. It’s why I came in 1979, looking for a place where my bi-racial children could grow up in safety and have equal opportunity regardless of skin colour. So it’s hard to comprehend that while the Canadian government gave immigrants the opportunity for a better life, they behaved so badly toward Aboriginal People.
In June 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission completed the long and painful task of recording the personal experiences of residential school survivors from all over Canada. Justice Murray Sinclair, who chaired this daunting project, concludes that, “the residential school experience is clearly one of the darkest and most troubling chapters in our collective history… leaving in its path the pain and despair felt by thousands of Indigenous people today.”
Justice Murray Sinclair challenges all Canadians to be part of the reconciliation process. “Reconciliation,” he says, “is not an Aboriginal Problem. It is a Canadian problem. It involves all of us.”
So what is reconciliation? The dictionary definition includes restoring to friendship or harmony/ resolving difficulties. In my mind, it means making things right. But we can’t make things right if we don’t know what’s wrong. So the first step toward reconciliation is learning the truth. Thanks to the voluntary testimony of over 6,750 survivors as well as school staff, we now know the truth. We can no longer ignore or deny that 150,000 children were forcibly removed from their homes and families for one reason alone: they were Aboriginal. We can also no longer deny that the rift between Aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada today is very real, and is largely due to the residential school system.
During the 140 years in which Aboriginal children were being taught that they were inferior, white children were being taught that they themselves were superior. Ever since settlers arrived here, this colonial mentality has been alive and well in Canadian classrooms. But children are not born racist. Racism and prejudice are learned. The hope of true reconciliation lies with the youth of today, and with their teachers and educators. Just as systemic racism was taught in the old schools, it can be “untaught” in today’s schools. Elementary school teachers in Ontario are now required to teach a unit on residential schools. This is a big step in the right direction , however most teachers were not taught anything about residential schools or the Indian Act when they were in school, because this shameful part of Canadian history had been silenced. They know little about it. Over the last year many of them have commented that Red Wolf has opened their eyes to this difficult subject, helping them to teach their students. A teacher recently tweeted that her act of reconciliation is to read Red Wolf in her classroom! My act of reconciliation was to write it!
“We have described for you a mountain. We have shown you a path to the top. We call upon you to do the climbing.”
- Murray Sinclair
Red Wolf is a residential school story set in the late 1800s. This is the historic backdrop to the story
The Indian Act took away the rights of parents, giving educational control of Aboriginal children to the government. For more than a hundred years, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and their predecessor, the North West Mounted Police, enforced the law, enabling government employees known as Indian Agents to wrest children from their homes and incarcerate them in residential schools often hundreds of miles away. Each child was given a new name and a number, forbidden to speak his own language, and taught that he was a savage. Not all children were abused, but now that the silence is finally being broken, it is obvious that many were. Even those treated with kindness still experienced the traumatic separation from family, community, language and culture that has had far reaching effects.
Bruce County Indian Residential School, depicted in Red Wolf, does not exist, nor to my knowledge did it ever exist. It is a fictional amalgamation of many schools across Canada, based on the experiences and memories of First Peoples. The schools pictured on this page, however, were very real. Records are sketchy, but between 1840 and 1984 over 100,000 children passed through the 76 residential schools in this land. The government left the day-to-day running of these schools to four major churches: Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and United, paying them a stipend for each child enrolled. The churches were thus empowered to change Indian culture without societal checks and balances. This freedom set the stage for blatant abuse.
History of Indian Residential Schools
The United States had a similar policy of assimilation, calling their schools Indian Boarding Schools rather than Indian Residential Schools.
The photograph below was taken at the Carlisle Indian Boarding School in Pennsylvania, circa 1900.
The photographs in this slideshow all come from Canadian, provincial, or church archives. It is interesting to compare the informal photos of the children with the more formal school photos which were used to update church and government on the successful assimilation of the Indian children.
In 1883 Canada's soon-to-be Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald said, " When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write . . . Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men."
- From The House of Commons, Debates, 46 Vict. (May 9, 1883) 14: 1107-1108