“Why don’t they get over it? How much longer do I have to hear about those Indian residential schools?”
I believe that the above sentiments, sadly, are held by many non-Indigenous Canadians. I am a non-Indigenous woman and an ally working on reconciliation.
I live on the unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation and I do not share these sentiments. I want to speak to why that is.
Imagine you are five years old and a stranger who speaks a language you do not understand comes to your house.
He tells your parents that they must send you to his school, or they will be taken to jail. Despite your crying and protests, you are made to go with that stranger.
For 10 months a year, or longer, you don’t see your parents or siblings. There are no visits or letters allowed.
Within hours of your arrival at the school the adults, who don’t dress or look like your parents, cut your long hair. These adults on a daily basis say that you are dirty and stupid.
If you speak the language you learned from your parents, the only language you know, they shout at you and hit you.
Many days you get little to eat. Never do you get the same vegetables, meat or fish that your parents fed you.
You don’t learn to bead or carve, fish or hunt. You don’t hear the stories of the elders. You might be sexually abused. You will certainly be physically abused.
Often you’ll bear witness to the abuse of other Indigenous children like yourself.
So, what are you, a young boy or young girl, learning at that school? Yes, you might be learning to read and write a little in English or French. You might learn how to garden and wash the floors and dishes.
More importantly, you are learning that the world is a scary place. You are learning to be on edge, on guard, to be good so you won’t get hit.
You are learning that the language, culture and spirituality you grew up with is bad and wrong. You are also learning that adults do hurtful things to your private parts and that they lie about what they do.
You are learning that no one wants to listen to your fears, shame or anger. And above all, you are learning that all the bad things that are happening to you are not to be spoken about. Ever.
Let us consider what the average young child is learning who doesn’t attend residential school.
In the best-case scenario, that young child learns from his parents how to be in relationship. How to listen. How to calm himself. He learns how to trust, to trust that someone will be there when he is frightened, sad and in need of comfort.
Parents show their children that the world is a safe place. They show their children that other people can be trusted.
If you think I am exaggerating about what went on in the residential schools, please read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, published in 2015.
Six thousand Indigenous people testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. It is estimated that 150,000 Indigenous children — Indian, Métis, Inuit — were taken to residential schools.
I concur with Senator Murray Sinclair’s observations that we do not ask survivors of the Holocaust, or 9/11, or the Vietnam War, or other comparable horrific events to get over it, so why do we ask that of residential school survivors?
For almost 30 years I worked as a clinical psychologist. I treated many people, mostly women, who were survivors of childhood abuse — sexual, physical and emotional — some of whom were Indigenous.
Some, not all, of those women were married with children, well-educated and regularly employed. Even so, none of those women had grown out of their traumatic childhood experiences.
Try as they might, they could not talk themselves out of what their priest, teacher, uncle or father had done to them. And consequently they struggled with anxiety, depression, intimacy and addictions issues.
Decades of psychological and psychiatric research confirm that childhood abusive experiences are embedded in the body and the brain. They are not discarded.
And recent research in the area of epigenetics suggests that in the case of a person/parent who has experienced trauma, there are physiological pathways that enable the transmission of that trauma to the next generation.
So let’s return to the questions posed at the outset of this essay.
Consider what I have told you about the effect of childhood trauma and how it stays with a person throughout their life. That being so, Indigenous people in this country, and worldwide, won’t “just get over it.”
I leave you with a final question. Would you want what was done to Indigenous children in residential schools to be done to your precious, sweet, lovable, funny child, granddaughter or niece?
Dr. Lynda Archer, clinical psychologist (retired), lives on Gabriola Island.