My Grandmother (who has since passed away) grew up with her family on the Garden River First Nations Indian Reserve in Sault Ste. Marie. I have been to Garden River recently; my first time just this past 2015 summer. Being there gave me a sense of wonder, but also sadness. It made me want to belong, but still unsure of how. Indian Reserves are so beautiful with the community togetherness, the art, and the respect for nature. It is truly something completely different than “the outside world”. But it is also very sad and heartbreaking. If you look beyond the art, the trees and the community centre you’ll see the poverty, the addictions, and the people who are pushed to the side.
My Grandmother was taken from her family when she was very young and brought to the Shingwauk Indian Residential School (IRS), away from her Reserve. I am unaware of what happened to her during her time there, it is not something I would have ever wanted to ask her. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) the goal of the IRS was to “Kill the Indian in the Child”. The Churches ran the schools and they wanted to force assimilation upon Indian children to make them more like them. The way they forced this assimilation was through cultural genocide. Indian children were physically, emotionally and sexually abused. Upon arrival to the schools, their clothes were taken and their hair was cut, and that might not seem like a big deal, but each piece of clothing would have been handmade and beaded with beautiful art by someone who loved them. During their stay they would be separated from their siblings, prohibited to participate in anything that was a part of their culture or their traditions, unable to speak their own language, and forced to learn the Catholic ways. Even worse, some girls were sterilized so they could not have children of their own in the future, children died from malnutrition and abuse among other reasons, and not one child in the school system was shown any love.
I remember talking to my grandmother about Shingwauk once. She told me when she tried to run away, the RCMP were the ones who dragged her back. She told me there was no escaping and going back to your family.
The last IRS closed in 1996, meaning that residential schools existed in Canada for over 100 years. The Canadian government never even acknowledged what they allowed to happen, until recently. What happened is considered cultural genocide, but I think it was more than that. What happened 50 years ago to my Grandmother, affects me today. I was never taught anything about my culture growing up, my dad and his siblings were taught in school that it was shameful to be Native. No one wanted to be associated with the word. People would bully you if they knew what you were. Instead of being taught what really happened to the Native people and its culture, people in school were taught to continue alienating them. There are so many First Nations today who do not self identify because they are scared to – they are afraid of the government, afraid of the unknown, afraid to be discriminated against, and so much more. Being Indian is such a powerful thing, but it can be used against someone in such negative way. There are so many stereotypes surrounding Aboriginals. Many that I have heard are; they are lazy and therefore do not care about school or jobs, they are alcoholics, they are drug addicts, they are bad mothers, they don’t care for progress, they have free land and houses, and they all live on Reserves. I can tell you that these stereotypes are not true. Yes many Aboriginals have problems with alcohol and drugs, but it is from intergenerational trauma from the IRS. Imagine growing up in the IRS without any love and being abused, and then years later having your own children. How would you know how to raise a child with love, if you were never loved? Being a good parent is something that is learned, you learn from how your parents raised you. How would someone raised in an IRS know how to raise their own children? Many Aboriginals turn to alcohol and drugs because of what has happened to them, and the lack of opportunities Reserves can offer them. As for schooling, Aboriginals already have a challenging relationship with education because of the history of residential schooling. As well, there is no curriculum for the schools on reserves because reserves are federally run, not provincially. The land Natives do have now is what was convenient for the government to “give” them. It is usually out of the way and land that is considered awful compared to what these people would have been used to. The government has broken many land treaties and Indians relocated as a result. Every single person who is Indian is affect by what happen in the Indian Residential School System. I grew up not knowing what it meant to be Native. I did not know what my culture was. I was never taught what happened to my people. Today with all the personal research I have done, I still have troubles feeling like I really belong. Sure I have my status card, but really that only means that the government has my name on a piece of paper saying I am Indian. I have to continuously remind myself it does not matter what percentage I am, it only matters that I am. I have to continuously search and learn about these things that were kept from me. So many Aboriginal people have the same identity crisis that I have and it’s really sad to think about. My culture was banned under the law, and we all have to work together to rebuild what was broken.
Through all our history, heartbreak and a government attempt to end our culture, we are still here, even if we have some issues. It is something we need to be supported for, by our families, friends, strangers as well as something the government will have to step up and help us do.