By JOANNE LABELLE
Today the words “residential school” are not as foreign as 10 years ago. It depends on whom you're speaking to.
If you were to say it to the members of Harper’s federal government, they may respond by telling you the federal government is doing what it can to make right this horrendous experience in the eyes of the aboriginals. If you were to ask the Christian church, it too would recognize and apologize for the suffering caused by the very church that was supposed to protect them.
And if you were to mention residential schooling to an aboriginal, you may hear a story so disturbing you wouldn't wish the experience on your worst enemy.
Residential schooling began in the 1860s, but it wasn't until the 1920s when it became part of the Indian Treaty Act forcing children from the ages five to15 to attend and live at one of these government-run schools for a minimum of 10 months a year.
When Europeans came to Canada, they wanted to tame the savage-like aboriginals and force the Anglo-Christian homogenous Canadian way of life on them. This meant to assimilate them into a non-aboriginal country by forcing them to speak English and cut their hair. Basically, they were to lose their culture by not being allowed to continue any of their native rituals or ceremonies. Many cultures and languages were lost.
Unfortunately, the children who went to residential schools were often mistreated physically and mentally by the faculty of nuns and priests.
Vivienne Lariviere, 64, was just a little girl when she was forced from her home in Beauval, Sask., and put into a residential school for girls. Lariviere witnessed many terrible things done to her and others but hasn't felt comfortable speaking about any of the abuse until recently.
“I’ve never mentioned my experience with residential schooling with anyone – that was my secret. The first person I spoke to about this was Stephen [Quesnelle] from the Metis Centre [in Welland], and I broke down then,” Lariviere said crying.
“I was too ashamed so speak about this or even seek professional help.”
However, many native people willingly sent their children to residential schooling. Clementine Morin, 86, said she knew she couldn't provide what these schools promised, an education, so, she sent all of her girls there, willingly.
Many aboriginals did the same thing.
In 1996, the government set up the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and recognized that Canada had much work to do to mend relations with native people. The Commission (as it's more commonly known), indicates residential schooling was a system that failed and didn't deliver what it promised to the parents of the children who attended.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Commission form parts of the government responsible for helping natives heal.
In a formal apology on June 11, 2008, Harper referred to the Commission as a “unique opportunity to educate all Canadians on the Indian Residential Schools system.”
Harper went on to say the Commission was a “positive step in forging a new relationship between aboriginal peoples and other Canadians.” It was also recognized during this apology that the whole residential school system was a failure to Canada and to the natives who attended the schools.
Lariviere says the abuse will always be part of her. Although she says she felt for a long time the government was sweeping the acknowledgement of these crimes under the rug, she is “happy the government is doing something about this. It feels like they're trying to make a wrong a right.”
Even the Vatican is recognizing the crimes against native children.
After a meeting with Chief Phil Fontaine in 2009, Pope Benedict and the Vatican released this official statement on the church's role in residential schools.
“His Holiness recalled that since the earliest days of her presence in Canada, the Church, particularly through her missionary personnel, has closely accompanied the indigenous peoples. Given the sufferings that some indigenous children experienced in the Canadian Residential School system, the Holy Father expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity. His Holiness emphasized that acts of abuse cannot be tolerated in society. He prayed that all those affected would experience healing, and he encouraged First Nations Peoples to continue to move forward with renewed hope.”
With the failure of residential schooling out in the open and the shame of abuse disappearing, the only question left is this: is this going to help a culture that was almost wiped out?
Lariviere believes so.
“Before you were ashamed to say you were native in this country, but now we [aboriginals] are screaming to anyone who will listen: we have a culture.”
The time has come to begin healing and mending relations between the government and the native people who give this country such a rich culture and history.
As Lariviere says, “It's not a story. We really do exist.”
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