The now-defunct Indian residential school system may be one of the most well-known examples of how imperialism has done deep damage to Canada’s First Nations, but it was only a symptom of a larger problem.
This was the message driven home at a public forum organized by the Hart House debates committee at the University of Toronto on Feb. 25.
“The evil of the system, and the part that is hardest for us now to grapple with, is the fact that the children taken were Indian children, and the reason they were taken was to strip them of their culture and language,” said Douglas Sanderson, a law professor at the University of Toronto, former government advisor, and member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation.
“Money payments and criminal trials do nothing to address the inter-generational implications of having parents and grandparents who were never taught to love and care for their brothers and sisters…who were instead taught to hate their cultures, languages, and by implication, their communities and families.”
Sanderson was part of a four-person panel titled “The Legacy of the Residential Schools System,” moderated by legal scholar and Trinity College provost Mayo Moran. Other panelists included Delia Opekokew, a Cree lawyer from Canoe Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan and one-time candidate for leadership of the Assembly of First Nations, and Bob Rae, former NDP premier of Ontario and former interim Liberal leader.
The panellists looked both at the origins of the residential school system in blatantly racist European colonial policies, and also at the ways in which the damage done by the residential schools goes far beyond the individuals who attended them.
For Rae, understanding the toxic attitudes of European superiority is necessary to understanding where the system came from in the first place. “If you believe that the cultures in which young people are living are inferior cultures,” he said, “then you delude yourself into thinking that you are doing them all a favour by taking them out of that inferior culture.”
The ongoing denial of the colonial project in Canada, Rae noted, is manifested by Stephen Harper’s claim in 2009 that “Canada has no history of colonialism.”
“Canada’s history is the history of colonialism,” Rae said. “That’s who we are, that’s where we come from as a country.”
For Rae, actually moving toward reconciliation will mean a radical shift in indigenous-settler relations, not least of all when dealing with issues like governance. “How do we create a postcolonial agenda for Canada,” he asked rhetorically, “recognizing that we are a product of the colonial experience?”
That sense of European superiority is ingrained in the education system, and actually moving past the residential schools requires a rethinking of the system itself, Sanderson said. “First Nations must be able to make a system that reflects their own values,” he said, “and positively affirms their cultures and values and traditions. Otherwise, we do nothing more than ask indigenous communities to create their own little residential school systems.”
Opekokew, who is herself a residential school survivor, focused on talking about how the effects of residential schools have created rifts between indigenous peoples and communities. “People who have suffered abuse at the school learned that behaviour,” she explained “and have unfortunately continued that behaviour in their adult lives.” For her, one of the most important areas where reconciliation needs to happen is within indigenous individuals and communities.
One of the events organizers, undergraduate student Sarah Harrison, said she and her fellow-organizers were inspired to organize the event after hearing Mayo Moran speak on the residential schools resolution process.