‘I thought I understood’ residential schools, but I did not know

As I sit in front of my computer I find myself struggling to communicate the necessary words to describe my experience with residential schools.

The only words I have are … I thought I understood.

My uncle, my mother’s brother, was sent to a residential school so I thought I understood. His time at the residential school was never spoken of, so I thought I understood. My uncle, on my wife’s side of the family, taught at Blue Quills residential school, so I thought I understood.

Until I listened to the words and heard the stories, I did not know.

There were no choices given when the RCMP came and simply stated: “Surrender your child or go to jail.”

Children were shipped off to residential school, were separated from their families, had their hair cut off, their clothing removed and were washed down with kerosene. They were scared and they were alone. They no longer had names, they had become a number.

I heard the stories.

These children required our care and our protection and, tragically, they were abused, beaten and forced to give up their way of life. Many a child did not survive to graduate from the residential school system. If you died, you weren’t sent home to be buried with your ancestors. Why, because it was too expensive to send a dead child home.

I have heard the stories and I understand. These stories must be shared. Everyone must hear and understand what has happened, so we can begin to heal.

“How did we not know this?”

“How did this happen here?”

Until you listen to the stories, you will not understand.

I will leave you with these words of Duncan Campbell Scott, as deputy superintendent general of Indian Affairs from 1913 until 1932. Scott took on the groundwork of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s legacy of repressive policies towards indigenous peoples further down the continuum of assimilation.

“It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habitating so closely in these schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is being geared towards the final solution of our Indian problem.” 1910.

We knew what was happening and yet we did nothing.