For 120 years, the Canadian government operated a network of Indian Residential Schools that were meant to assimilate young indigenous students into western Canadian culture. Indian agents would take children from their homes as young as two or three and send them to church-run boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their native languages or observing any indigenous traditions, routinely sexually and physically assaulted, and in some extreme instances subjected to medical experimentation and sterilization.
The last residential school closed in 1996. The Canadian government issued its first formal apology in 2008.
When the Anglican Church issued their apology (much earlier, in 1993), Archbishop Michael Peers said:
“I accept and I confess before God and you, our failures in the residential schools. We failed you. We failed ourselves. We failed God. I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family. I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity.”
Generations of Canada’s First Nations forgot who they were. Languages died out, sacred ceremonies were criminalized and suppressed. “‘You stupid Indian’ were the first English words I ever learned,” Tom Janvier told me. He was sent to residential school as a 3-year-old, where he was bullied, beaten, and sexually molested. “It became self-fulfilling. My identity was held against me.”
As a way to cope, or to forget, or simply because any notion of self-esteem or self worth had been obliterated with their identities, a disproportionate number of First Nations people began to engage in high-risk behavior. In the 1970s, more potent narcotics began to appear in Canada. In the 1980s, HIV/AIDS arrived. By the turn of the century, HIV prevalence rates in Canada’s indigenous groups were 5-10 times higher than in comparable populations in Australia, New Zealand, or the United States. In an era where new HIV infection rates are lowering in most parts of the globe and are an expected statistic in a country with one of the largest and most developed economies in the world, the number of Aboriginal Canadians living with HIV increased by 24 percent between 2005 and 2010.
This project examines not only the legacy of the residential school system, but also looks forward to the future–for the first time in decades, children are being brought up speaking Ojibwe and Cree and Blackfoot again. Potlatches and sun dances and sweat lodges have returned. There is a new revitalization of First Nations culture that is undeniably linked to the collective healing process, and to reclaiming their voice in Canada.