Thursday, March 3, 2011


Residential school survivor overcame ordeal
By Mark Lemstra, Special to The StarPheonix March 3, 2011 On Tuesday night, Doreen, a close friend of mine, passed away.

She was a survivor of residential schools. Doreen's story is remarkable not only for the trauma to which she was exposed as a child, but for the way she chose to respond to such adversity.

Instead of quitting, she rose to obtain a university degree in social work and spent her time counselling other victims of residential schools.

Residential schools were first conceptualized in 1820 by the Sir Peregrine Maitland, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, to gain "influence over children." The Department of Indian Affairs rationalized that the government needs to "kill the Indian in order to save the man," and that to do so, "It is to the young we must look for the complete change of condition."

The Gavin Report of 1879 recommended forcibly removing children from their parents, placing them in custody of the government and church, and maintaining separation from parents for as long as possible -"the better for success."

The other justification was to maintain order. After the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, Superintendent James McRae from Indian Affairs concluded: "It is unlikely that any tribe would give trouble of a serious nature to a government whose members had children completely under government control."

To keep parents away from their children, the secretary general of Indian Affairs, Edgar Dewdney, in 1891 authorized "the employment of the police to keep the visitors off the precincts."

The goal was to take Indian children from their parents "at earliest age possible," which was deemed to be six years of age. Removal from the parents for 10 years was needed to ensure that "all the Indian there is in the race should be dead."

Duncan Campbell Scott, superintendent of Indian education, declared before Parliament in 1920: "I want to get rid of the Indian problem. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question."

The first major problem was chronic underfunding of residential schools. It took $185.55 per student per year to provide basic services. Regrettably, only $115 per student was allocated. Thus the underfunded schools were poorly built and maintained, and over-crowded, resulting in a crisis of sanitation and health.

It also forced the children to work extreme amounts of physical labour in order to pay their own way. The Indian Affairs Department labelled the residential schools "a disgrace to anybody."

Dr. P.H. Bryce, chief medical health officer for the department, wrote in 1922: "Fifty per cent of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education they had received therein." Bryce concluded that these schools were a "criminal disregard" and " a national crime" of the responsibility placed on the government and its thirdparty provider.

In fact, the legal opinion from S.H. Blake to cabinet minister Frank Oliver was that: "The appalling number of deaths among the younger children appeals loudly to the guardians of our Indians. In doing nothing to obviate the preventable causes of death, brings the department within unpleasant nearness to the charge of manslaughter."

For example, the death rate from tuberculosis in residential schools was 86.1 per 1,000 children, compared to 0.09 deaths per 1,000 children in Canadian cities.

To save costs from the high death rates, Indian children were buried two per grave.

The second major problem was physical and sexual abuse committed against the children. Children were often strapped, whipped, chained to beds and locked in cold, dark rooms. Reviews conducted by Indian Affairs of the abuse concluded that "beating was the norm, more or less, in every boarding school in the country."

Approximately 80 per cent of the children were routinely physically abused and 50 per cent sexually assaulted. The last school closed in 1986.

Doreen was kind enough to share her personal stories and wisdom with me for about half an hour at a time, almost daily, for two years. She gave me an education I could never receive by reading books.

As well, she often attended my university classes to share her stories with graduate students. When she got to the part about how she was prepared by the nun, and what she was forced to do with the priest, there was never a dry eye in the room.

Perhaps most surprisingly my friend believed in forgiveness. Instead of hating the government or the church, she believed it was the work of individual failings.

Doreen also believed in the spiritual world. I have no doubt that she is there now. I will never forget her.

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