Language warriors and more

Earl Sack (left), kept the sacred fire burning during the four-day Atlantic National Event. Photo: Marites N. Sison
Earl Sack (left), kept the sacred fire burning during the four-day Atlantic National Event. Photo: Marites N. Sison
Published December 1, 2011

From the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, about 150,000 aboriginal children were put into residential schools across Canada as part of a federal government initiative to assimilate indigenous cultures. The Anglican Church of Canada operated 35 of these schools.

The Atlantic region had one residential school-Shubenacadie-which was operated by the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Halifax, on behalf of the federal government. Later, the school was managed by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

In the 1990s, hundreds of survivors from Shubenacadie were the first to file a class action lawsuit against the federal government for loss of language and culture, and for physical and sexual abuse.

The Atlantic event, the third of seven national events hosted by the TRC, drew about 500 former residential school students and their families, as well as representatives from churches, government and the public sector. Senior staff writer Marites N. Sison covered the event and filed these reports and photos. An unabridged version, including videos, is available at

Language warriors
Starr Sock did not attend a residential school. But she remembers, as a child, seeing the students who came home for the summer.

“When they got off that bus, they were strangers,” recalled Sock, of the youngsters of the Eskasoni First Nation, one of five Mi’kmaq communities in Cape Breton, N.S.

Stripped of their native language and culture, the children could no longer speak to their families or be understood. Neither did they understand traditional ways.

The granddaughter of a grand chief, Sock feels fortunate to have been raised by aunts who taught her to be proud of her heritage.

Today, Sock and her friends and colleagues, Sherise Paul-Gould and Ida Denny, have become “language warriors.” Through their efforts, a Mi’kmaq Immersion Program (MIP) pilot project was launched at Eskasoni in 2000. The program, which has had a huge positive impact on this community of 4,000, continues to this day.

Study of the program has revealed students taught exclusively in Mi’kmaq from kindergarten to Grade 3 perform better, excelling in Mi’kmaq and, later, in English literacy. In addition, these students have higher levels of self-esteem, more self-confidence and are more eager to get involved in extra-curricular activities. Why? Because “they know who they are, they are proud of their identity,” said Paul-Gould.

Accepting the truth
Bishop Sue Moxley, of the diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, said her life changed in 1993 after listening to former residential school students talk about their experiences. It was then, said Bishop Moxley, that she realized “The church I loved has this great big black blotch on its history.”

In another forum, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, offered an apology to students “for the years of lost love” and for “the aggressive efforts to remake you in our image.

“I am sorry for the bruising of your bodies, the crushing of your spirits and the violation of your innocence,” said Archbishop Hiltz. “I am deeply sorry for the terrible pain we inflicted, and for the terrible memories that many of you still carry today. I, and my church, must listen to your stories, your hurts, the humiliation and the burden of our sins on your lives.”

The Anglican church first offered its apology to students in 1993.

University apology important
The chair of the TRC has applauded a formal apology made to residential school survivors by the University of Manitoba.

“This gesture cannot be underestimated,” said Justice Murray Sinclair. “It’s one of the most important we’ve received and we hope that it will be one of many.”

Sinclair, who is a graduate of the University of Manitoba, said the apology will change what students are told about aboriginal people.

“Our institution failed to recognize or challenge the forced assimilation of aboriginal peoples and the subsequent loss of their language, culture and traditions,” said David Barnard, president of the university. “Physical, sexual and emotional abuses that occurred at residential schools were among the most deplorable acts committed against any people at any time in Canada’s history. We apologize to our aboriginal students and faculty. They are survivors.”

The University of Manitoba has one of the largest populations of aboriginal students and faculty in Canada.

Teach your children well
For many of Canada’s aboriginal children, the residential school experience taught them to hate themselves, their families and their culture.

Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the TRC, said that while not all native children went to residential schools, every aboriginal community in Canada has been affected. They are plagued by a lack of education and high rates of crime, suicide, addiction and other dynamics that “wouldn’t be allowed to exist in any other community” in Canada, said Sinclair.

He urged former students to share their experiences with their families. “It is important that your children know how you survived. You have a great deal to teach them.”

“My life flat-lined”
Isabelle Knockwood was just four years old when she was sent to the Shubenacadie residential school. Now 80, Knockwood said the experience shifted her world- view “violently, suddenly, permanently.

“I cannot remember talking, feeling, crying or even growing,” said Knockwood, who is an elder and author of Out of the Depths: The Experiences of Mi’kmaw Children at the Indian Residential School at Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia. “My life flat-lined.”

The Mi’kmaq had a hunting and gathering tradition and their own customs, ceremonies, language and belief system. This was supplanted by “artificiality, dogma and Christianity,” said Knockwood, who earned a degree in anthropology and English from Saint Mary’s University in Halifax at the age of 58.


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