“We instil in them a pronounced distaste for the native life so that they will be humiliated when reminded of their origins,” wrote Bishop Grandin, Catholic Church, in 1875. “When they graduate from our institutions, the children have lost everything Native, except their blood.”
As many, I thought residentials schools were a part of our country’s blood-stained hands from the past. The more mindfully aware I become of the affects of colonization and residential schools, the more honestly and realistically I can see how the First People of this land feel the affects of this profoundly, in this very moment, here and now.
“I am going to be a little blunt,” I shared with my friend Kirby Hill. When I was young and growing up, I was aware that the Indigenous Reservation struggled with poverty and that the people had a higher rate of alcoholism and diabetes. Admittedly, back then I had no idea what the pre-existing factors were, the causes that impacted these statistics, and the ongoing reality of current circumstances.
Hill lived on Six Nation reserve until he was four, 55 years ago now. His native mother, married a white man and when they left the reserve, by law they were deemed not allowed back on and his “First Person rights” were sold and bought out by the government for $5. It’s been a long process for him, to come to an understanding that he doesn’t need those papers to feel his roots and lineage.
“My granddad grabbed up his children and moved to the U.S., but he couldn’t get a job. His money ran out and they had to come back. As soon as they did, they scooped them up and took them away,” said Kirby Hill, Norfolk County.
Hill’s Aunt, he describes as the “gentlest soul you’ve ever met and when you were near her, you felt her energy wrap around you lovingly,” was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 56. However, when she was a child in the residential school she was labelled as “mentally deficient” because she was not learning due to having seizures, or recovering from them. Against her will and unknowingly until she was an adult, she had been sterilized by the school staff deemed unfit to be a mother.
Kirby’s life has been ravaged by the infestation of trauma caused by colonial government rules and Indian residential schools. The abuse that his family experienced was not articulated often, but many survivors have shared the atrocities: physical, sexual, mental and emotional abuse, neglect, child labour – forced to work the schools’ kitchens and farms, nutritional neglect and experimentation and of course, the threat of death was very real.
All this, while experiencing extreme isolation from their families. Most of the time students were prohibited from visiting their families at all until they were 18. This included holidays and even the funerals of loved ones (the deaths of whom the children were sometimes never informed of). The children had to write letters home in languages that were foreign to their parents, and any gifts or letters their parents sent back were withheld by the priests and nuns that ran the schools.
Hill’s family story is a common Canadian story.
In the last two weeks, Canada has found the graves of 392 indigenous children at residential schools. Survivors and descendants have long spoken about unmarked graves and children who never came home.
As we continue to learn about our history, in next week’s column we will explore Kirby’s story in the present moment and the message of compassion and kindness he has for us.