Punishing Native American Children

Canadian Truth and Reconciliation speaker at Concord's Restorative Justice organization.

This week I focus on serious topics: apologies, forgiveness and Indian residential schools in Canada. The Reverend Dr. Barbara Smith-Moran, a Concord resident and member of the town's chapter of Communities for Restorative Justice (c4rj) is my connection. Last Thursday I was invited to hear Smith-Moran speak about her volunteer role in the Canadian Truth & Reconciliation Commission's National Event, which was held in Winnipeg June 16 through 19. The event stemmed from a legal settlement between the Canadian government and thousands of victims who claimed they were physically, emotionally and sexually abused while students at the government-run Indian residential schools. Smith-Moran gave her 40-plus audience a little background on the subject, which is just becoming known though it began more than 150 years ago. I will also note here that though thousands of students were either maimed, scarred, killed or went missing, there were students who had positive experiences.

Between the years 1831 and 1996 the Canadian government, in partnership with the Church of England, the Presbyterian, United Church of Canada, Methodist, Roman Catholic and Baptist churches and the Salvation Army operated 130 Indian residential schools. These schools were mandatory for aboriginal children from ages 5 through 15. There were no bittersweet farewells between parent and child, and parents were not allowed to visit the schools. The children were plucked from their homes by staffers and distributed to various schools throughout the country. Care was taken to separate siblings and other members from the same tribe. Once in their respective schools, the children were forbidden to speak their native language, practice their customs and traditions and dress. The children were required to participate only in Westernized customs

"They were made to 'kill the Indian in the child,'" said Smith-Moran, quoting from 1920s literature of the schools' missions. "They suffered the loss of their identity, family, culture and language,"

Discipline at many of the schools was intense and failure to comply often had lasting consequences. An artist of the Winnipeg event painted an image of his grandmother's maimed hand. As a girl, the grandmother was caught speaking her native Inuit. She was thrown down a flight of stairs as punishment and permanently injured her hand. Medical assistance was denied.

Smith-Moran said great care was taken to make the Winnipeg event, which is one of seven such events to take place throughout Canada over the next five years, resemble First Nation traditions. A sacred fire was lit. Dream catchers hung from tents inside which chairs were arranged in circles. Survivors were encouraged to sit in a circle and take turns sharing their stories. Smudgers - First Nation members who rub a mixture of herbs and incense on someone to bring positive feelings - elders and water carriers assisted those overcome with grief.

"So much care was given to making sure the place was comforting and beautiful," said Smith-Moran, adding there was a traditional pipe ceremony and speeches by First Nation people, government officials and representative of the various churches involved.  "Kleenex boxes were everywhere because it was so emotionally wrenching." The tear-stained tissues, she added were offered to The Creator through the sacred fire.

Most survivors began their stories in their native languages, said Smith-Moran, then reverted to English, One man, however, was so distraught, he carried on in his native language, then began speaking very loudly before wailing against a post holding up the tent. Smudgers, water carriers and elders gently assisted the man back to his seat and tended to him. "It was so moving," said Smith-Moran.

Several survivors talked about getting caned and kicked for speaking their native language. Another said he was forced to fondle a nun while she lay naked on her bed. One man said he and other students witnessed one staffer murder another. When the murderer realized he was being watched, he made the boys drag the body into a field and burn it beyond recognition. It took them three days, she said, adding the job was even more traumatic because First Nation people do not mistreat the human body, even in death.

The Canadian government did not publicly acknowledge the abuse until a young survivor from Nova Scotia filed a class-action suit seeking compensation for her peoples' loss of language, culture and traditions. Within months the government was the defendant in more than 12,000 similar lawsuits. Besides small monetary cash settlements, the settlement included healing venues where survivors could share their experiences without judgment or questioning. "They were believed," said Smith-Moran. "It was beautiful."

In early 1998, then-Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart publicly acknowledged her country's involvement in the torture and abuse of generations of Indian children.  She read the "Statement of Reconciliation: Gathering Strength," before the Canadian House of Commons. Victims, however, did not view the "statement," which was not endorsed by then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien, as a sincere apology, Smith-Moran said.

"It never uses the word 'apology.' and you can see the fingerprints of lawyers all over it," said Smith-Moran. "You can see she was trying to limit additional lawsuits."

Smith-Moran only needed to refer to the second sentence: "Our purpose is not to rewrite history, but rather to learn from our past ..."   in the two-page statement to make her case. Canadian history, she said, needs to be rewritten to include the Indian residential schools, which historians purposely omitted.

Victims received their overdue apology 10 years later when Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered an :"Apology to Former Students of Indian Residential Schools" to the House of Commons on June 11, 2008.

"The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history," read the second sentence of the apology. Further along the apology stated: "Tragically, some of these children died while attending residential schools and others never returned home."

This was more adequate," she said of Harper's statements.  "He used the words apology or apologizes nine times." Smith-Moran did not agree with critics who claimed the prime minister's address was insincere, though she did not like that he asked for forgiveness. "To ask for yet one more thing is not appropriate."

Forgiveness, known as the "F" word in C4RJ, should only be brought up by victims, not abusers, explained Jennifer Larson Sawin, executive director for the Concord C4RJ. "Asking for forgiveness places an additional burden on the victim," she said. "It is one more thing they are expected to do."

I could only touch upon this intense subject here. If you would like to learn more about C4RJ go to www.c4rj.com. If you would like to learn more about the lawsuit, you may go to  www.trc.ca. I hope the Rev. Dr. Barbara Smith-Moran holds another talk on this subject.  It was an amazing, eye-opening experience to learn about an attempted cultural genocide that has been simmering in our backyard.


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