The Residential School System: More Victims, Another Perspective

The Indian Residential School System in Canada lasted almost 150 years. It was funded and operated by the Federal Government and the prominent Christian denominations, the Catholic Church being the most involved. At the time, in European countries including the Colonies of the British Empire and America, it was universally accepted by respected elected government officials, high ranking clergy and in deed, the public at large, that aboriginal societies were to be treated as “simple children” who needed to be aggressively taught the superiority of European ways, not only for their own salvation, but also so that they would assimilate and become productive members of Canadian society. How wrong that philosophy is judged to be today.

How was it that the brightest minds in society deemed what they were doing to be the “righteous and charitable thing to do”, when in retrospect it was a concerted, ill-conceived program of cultural genocide. It is only now that we are beginning to realize the damage that was done over the lifespan of this inherently dysfunctional system which not only tore a generational wound into the culture of aboriginal peoples, but also dehumanized and desensitized so many other victims, the dedicated non-aboriginal priests, nuns and brothers who were drafted to serve on the front lines, and who ultimately became overwhelmed by the burden of psychopathologic stress which led to destructive behaviors like alcoholism, sexual abuse and suicide.

Residential School Abuse Claims Top 3.5 Billion

As reported in the July 23 issue of the Globe and Mail, claims for previous residential school abuse could easily top $3.5 billion, far more than the $960 million which was originally budgeted by the federal government. In addition to the Common Experience Payment, which pays former students in accordance to the number of years they spent in the schools, the total compensation awarded to former residential school students could approach $5.4 billion.

With an average settlement of $117,613.00, one would hope that this money is used to provide decent housing along with access to adequate health and educational resources for the survivors and their children. I trust that the leaders of Assembly of First Nations and The Truth and Reconciliation Commission will provide programs to assist the survivors in channelling these resources for the maximum benefit of each individual.

If this $5.4 billion figure amount seems outrageous to the average Canadian taxpayer who may not be aware of the carnage that occurred in the schools, they should obtain a copy of Blue Saltwater and read about what Blue experienced when he was exiled to the St Ignatius Residential School. This surely will change their minds and make it clear that these payments are the least that the government and churches can do to re-mediate the damage and thereby engender a process of reconciliation and growth.

Workfare for Reserves

The Federal Conservative government is planning a Workfare Program that would oblige young aboriginals on reserves to undertake job training in return for a welfare cheque.

This new money will be added to the $400 million which is already being spent on aboriginal training programs and it is likely that this additional funding will be warmly received by First Nations leaders. What they may not be as happy about however, is the idea that young band members may have their benefits cut if they don’t sign up for programs.

With aboriginal birth rates soaring well beyond the Canadian norm and current unemployment levels approaching 50% in jurisdictions where the unemployment rate is around 5%  (Saskatchewan and Manitoba) , it is irresponsible for First Nations leaders to be resistant to such initiatives.

If these levels of high unemployment are allowed to persist by allowing the status quo of welfare dependency to continue, a smoking time bomb is being primed for 15-20 years in the future when this aboriginal baby boom will arrive at a desolate landscape of hopelessness and unemployment that will breed nothing but trouble in the form of skyrocketing suicide and crime rates.

First Nations leaders must take advantage of this opportunity by partnering with the government to encourage and if necessary, pressure, their young people to take training, get jobs and become self-supporting in order to smash this revolving door of dependence and realize the dream of AFN Chief Shawn Atleo for a future that is not governed by the paternalistic Indian Act.  

Youth Community Service Corps

A totally apolitical, Youth Community Service Corps should be established to train the thousands of under-served and unemployed aboriginal youth in attainable, practical occupations such as community health care, building construction and maintenance, that will bring immediate tangible benefits to the living conditions within their communities while at the same time providing the participants with both financial and personal incentives that go far beyond what they now receive for hanging around, being depressed and receiving welfare cheques.

For being committed and actively involved in the program, meaningful incentives, public acknowledgement and support by aboriginal leaders and government bureaucrats would provide a public stage whereby participants could become role models for  younger individuals to emulate.

To be successful in the long term and to be respected as real and genuine by the youth peer group, the program must avoid the mistakes of the past and not be allowed to be co-opted by groups or individuals with political agendas to advance. It must be designed to provide community driven down-to-earth services, that provide attainable jobs skills which can accomplish attainable goals. 



On-the-Job Suicide Prevention

Cowichan Tribal Chief Harvey Alphonse reached out for help this week to stem the tidal wave of youth suicides that is overwhelming his community on Vancouver Island. Chief Alphonse blames this problem on the intergenerational legacy of residential schools combined with a lack of resources for mental health counseling.. Cowichan acting health director Jennifer Jones says her nine counselors are suffering job related burn-out and is calling for more staff to take a more preventative approach.

All the above may be true, but the primary problem is a youth unemployment rate of 80-90% and the sense of hopelessness it breeds, which will drive any young person towards suicidal depression whether they be aboriginal, white, educated or otherwise. Until this is addressed, nothing will change, no matter how many counselors are hired. Kids need a purpose in life and a reason to feel good about themselves.

Rather than pumping more financial resources into band-aid solutions, government and aboriginal leaders must provide decent paying jobs for these kids. The place to start is in their own backyards where there is a pile of construction, maintenance, electrical and plumbing work that needs to be done. It is sad to think that most of these young people have already dropped out of school and are illiterate. In view of this, a new model of on-the-job training should be started immediately to allow those aboriginal youth who are willing, able and ambitious, to embark on a multi-year program that will begin rewarding them immediately with a graduated pay cheque that will increase in step with their level of achievement. This program would initially emphasize learning by seeing and doing, with most of the classroom work and theory coming later as individuals work their way up the ladder toward fully qualified tradespeople.


Rethinking Remote Reserves

Under the Indian Act, the Federal government is responsible for funding health, education, police services and child welfare on all reserves in Canada including those with small populations in the north. New research cited by the Assembly of First Nations indicates that children living on these reserves receive less in services than those living off reserves. Why is this? The main reason would seem to be that it is cost prohibitive to provide a variety of comprehensive services to such small populations in such isolated locations. It may be a romantic dream to live off the land as the ancestors did in olden times but those days are past my friends. People living on these reserves suffer from chronic unemployment which leads to all the social ills that plaque these communities today.

There are now three times as many First Nations children being removed from their dysfunctional families than there was at the peak of the residential school system in 1949. There are now 27,500 children in foster care compared to the 8900 who were placed in the schools. This is heartbreaking and it needs to change for the sake of the children.

The AFN, Chief Shawn Atleo and the Federal government  must work together to encourage members of these communities to relocate to centers where services can be provided to allow their children to grow and thrive rather than condemning them to live in these desolate depressing outposts, which are literally patches of hell on earth, leading so many young people to snuff out their lives as the only way out.

The Necessities of Life

Just had the opportunity last night to view the film, The Necessities of Life,  at the Festival of Native Film and Culture in Palm Springs, California. This is an extremely moving story about an Inuit man’s struggle to battle Tuberculosis in Quebec City, separated from his family, set adrift within a culture, that feels as foreign to him as it would to any human being just arriving on Mars. Benoit Pilon has done fantastic work directing this film by inspiring each actor to excel in bringing each character to life. The entire cast deserves a round of applause. Definitely a must see.

TRC Interim Report

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Residential Schools released its interim report on February 24, entitled They Came for the Children. The basic conclusions were that the residential school system had been an assault on aboriginal children, culture, families and that the impact of the system was immediate and ongoing. Lastly, the commission concluded that Canadians have been denied full and proper education about this sad chapter in our history.

Even though the Canadian government and the various religious denominations who were involved in operating the system have apologized for the assaults on the aboriginal community and are providing monetary compensation to the survivors, it will never be enough.

However when it comes to the the Canadian public being denied full and proper education on the matter, there is a degree of self serving rhetoric on the part of the TRC, the AFN and other First Nations Organizations who seem to more interested in perpetuating their own beaurocratic agendas for continued funding by acting as gatekeepers regarding just what information will be provided to the public,  particularly young Canadians of high school age who have so many other media distractions vying for their attention.

A journalistic report like this is really just another expensive example of the many that have preceeded it, pretty well saying all the same things. It will be read only by a few academics and maybe by some high school students who will cough back a few answers to pass their exams. The Canadian public will not be any the wiser and it will shortly end up in the dustbin of history.

Yet when given the opportunity to lever a story like Blue Saltwater to engage Canadians on an emotional level and thereby raise awareness about the schools and the sytemic dysfunction they generated within the aboriginal community, the gatekeepers inexplicably remain silent and unsupportive. Why is that?

Similar Problems Suggest Similar Solutions

A deadly crime spree on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, highlights the similarities of crime and drug abuse which also plague reservations in the United States just as they do here in Canada. Williams, Indian Reservation&st=cse&scp=1&pagewanted=print.

Average life spans on American reservations are 49 years, twenty fewer than in Iraq. Unemployment hovers around 80 percent whereas the rate for all Wyoming is 6 percent. Teenagers are twice as likely to kill themselves as their peers elsewhere in Wyoming. The high school drop-out rate is twice the state average. Child abuse, teen pregnancy, sexual assault are endemic. Alcoholism and drug abuse are so prevalent that positive results on drug tests prevent aboriginals from getting jobs on Wyoming’s booming oil fields.

What the hell is wrong with this picture? Why do aboriginals in North America continue to spiral into this endless vortex of hopelessness? What prevents them from thriving like immigrants from war torn countries such as the Vietnamese who faced circumstances that were in many cases far worse than what was ever experienced in residential schools and who find a way to shake off the tragedies of the past and move on.

Are these the same sorry circumstances that resulted in governments setting up the residential schools in the first place? As a way to help  aboriginal kids to escape a culture that does not provide the framework to enable them to earn their place in mainstream society. I pity the kids borne into this cultural prison since there appears to be no way out, except by slitting your own throat or losing your mind in a bag of gas fumes.



Strombo’s Interview with Shawn Atleo

Asemmbly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo’s interview with George Strombolopolous on CBC television revealed a man with a sharp intellect and clear vision for what will be a brighter future for First Nations people in Canada. With a Conservative government majority, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Chief Atleo have the perfect opportunity to dismantle the antiquated Indian Act, replacing it with a new legislative agreement which will provide the framework for First Nations to grow, prosper and become an integral partner in the social fabric of Canada.