Canada Needs Reckoning with Continued Impact of Residential Schools


By Refik Hodzic*

“Residential schools affected everything about how we live. They targeted and destroyed our strong family unit, the basic foundation of our communities. They destroyed the glue that holds us together—love, respect and sharing.” These words, spoken by Charlie Furlong, a community leader of the Gwich'in people of Canada’s Northwest Territories, sum up the chilling legacy of the country’s policy of forced assimilation of indigenous cultures implemented through a system of Indian Residential Schools (IRS) from the 1870s to 1998.

The policy is one that saw about 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children taken from their families and placed in more than 130 residential schools run by different churches with the aim to “kill the Indian in a child.” It is a policy that impacted far beyond pupils of the residential schools who suffered through forced separation from their families and frequent abuse in their dorms. It is a policy that continues to impact Aboriginal peoples in this country through transfer of trauma from one generation to another, resulting in broken families and communities. And it is a policy that requires a substantive and sustained response from the Canadian government, a response that will provide survivors and affected communities justice, acknowledgement by the wider society and programs to help deal with the legacy of the residential schools.

Charlie Furlong spoke before the silent crowd of survivors of residential schools and witnesses gathered in the gym of the Alexander Mackenzie School in Inuvik at the Northern Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). As survivors took turns speaking, many in the audience wept. Memories were woven into heartbreaking stories of children torn from their families, forbidden to speak their language and taught to be ashamed of their heritage. Personal accounts of shattered families, devastated communities and broken lives unfolded to reveal systemic patterns of abuse, sometimes resulting in death and disappearance.

A destructive pattern emerged as the stories spanned several generations from grandparents and parents who suffered as residential schools students to the children who inherited their traumas. “I had to build a hard shell around me, to protect myself. The abuse made me unable to love, to express my feelings,” explained Nick Sibbeston, a senator and former minister in the provincial government. The testimonies painted a disturbing picture of the vicious cycle in which people traumatized by their experiences turned to alcoholism and against their families. And, as families and communities fell apart as a result, the racist attitudes of the wider society, ignorant to the roots of the problem, further helped the isolation and deepened the suffering.

Nothing illustrated this ignorance better than a short documentary produced by two brave young girls from Yellowknife, Marlisa Brown and Molly Tilden, who set out to ask their peers how much they knew about residential schools and their legacy. Their responses could be best summarized as: “I don’t know and I don’t care.” “It happened a long time ago, these people should get over it and stop feeling sorry for themselves,” asserted a    

Our Truth: The Youth Perspective on Residential Schools

teenager, not older than 17. Nothing could be further from what actually needs to be done.

It is crucial for Canadian society to understand these are not the stories of suffering situated in some distant past. This is the reality of their fellow Canadians; this is the terrible present for many survivors and their families, for their communities. There is an epidemic of alcoholism and mental health problems in the Aboriginal communities, decisively contributed to by the legacy of residential schools. The fact that more than 60 percent of youth in the Northwest Territories between 15 and 24 are heavy drinkers amounts to nothing short of a crisis.

And then there is suicide: The rate of suicides in Aboriginal communities is staggering, far above the national average. One man speaking in Inuvik listed five people from his immediate family who killed themselves, all former students of residential schools. Another spoke about a settlement in the north where there is almost no Inuit family that has not had a suicide. This is the reality of Canadian society today, the causes of which must be acknowledged and understood by the wider society. The ignorance about the impact of IRS has resulted in denial and racist stereotypes that only serve to deepen the trauma of those already suffering.

The 2008 apology of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is, without a doubt, a step in the right direction for the government of Canada to address the horrific impact of the policy that instituted Indian Residential Schools and kept them alive until late in the 20th century. The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement resulted in financial reparations to survivors included in it and, at their insistence and financial backing, the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The mandate of the TRC is to produce a comprehensive report that will include recommendations to the government of Canada regarding “the history, purpose, operation and supervision of the IRS system, the effect and consequences of IRS (including systemic harms, intergenerational consequences and the impact on human dignity) and the ongoing legacy of the residential schools.”

As a mechanism aiming to provide acknowledgement and safe space for the victims, one of the goals of the TRC is to “promote awareness and public education of Canadians about the IRS system and its impacts.” But it is certain that it cannot achieve this on its own. This must fall to the government, and not only because it was the government that established residential schools, but because of the responsibility to its own citizens and international obligations that guarantee the victims’ right to truth about systemic human rights abuses.

ICTJ | Canada TRC Youth Retreat.

    The inclusion of information on residential schools in the history and social studies curriculum in Northwest Territories is an example to be followed by the federal government. The ignorance of the young Canadians demonstrated in the short film from Yellowknife is a breeding ground for racism and must be taken seriously.

It is important to remember the TRC was not established unilaterally by the Canadian government actively pursuing a full reckoning of society with this horrible policy, but as an outcome of a court case settlement with survivors and the churches that ran the schools. The same goes for the financial compensation, from which survivors finance TRC’s functioning. These measures are a welcome evidence of survivors’ strength and resilience, but by no means do they reflect the full extent of what needs to be done to counter the legacy of residential schools.

Coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country with its own troubled past, I am aware of many projects supported by Canada to help Bosnians overcome the legacy of the horrible violence and destruction our communities suffered in the nineties. They promoted the highest human rights principles and an honest societal effort to deal with the bloody past. It is only natural to expect that the same principles are embraced in Canada’s own reckoning with the poisonous legacy of Indian Residential Schools.

Refik Hodzic is Communications Director at ICTJ and a Honorary Witness at the Northern National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.