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Alissa Schacter


By Alissa Schacter, June 21, 2010

Imagine having your five year old child forcibly taken from you and sent to live in a boarding school far from home.  Your child isn’t allowed to speak English and is punished severely if he does.  He cannot observe any Jewish holidays or traditions.  If he tries or even mentions them, he is beaten.  There is no one to read him bed time stories or tuck him in at night.  No one to comfort him if he gets hurt.  No one will tell him he’s special, smart, funny and good at drawing, and no one will hug him or tell him they love them.  Instead, the adults entrusted with his care beat him if he makes the smallest mistake, and repeatedly tells him he is poor, no good and will never amount to anything.  Some of these adults sexually abuse your child starting at a very young age.  After years of neglect and abuse your child is returned to your care.  By then, he’s forgotten how to speak your language, is emotionally scarred and full of anger and self hatred.  What if you had gone through the same things when you were young, but had never spoken of your experiences to anyone because your shame was so great? 

 This is a glimpse into what many of the 150,000 children who attended Indian residential schools (IRS) throughout Canada starting in the 1840’s went through.  The last school was only closed in 1996.  The purpose of these schools was to “take the Indian out of the child”.  They robbed thousands of aboriginal children of normal childhoods with loving families, of their language, their culture and their innocence.  They left them with deep scars from the neglect, emotional, and often physical and sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of the men and women of the cloth who ran these schools on behalf of the Government of Canada.   When these survivors went on to have their own families, the damage they suffered was transmitted to their children.

Last week I spent the better part of a day attending the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) event held at the Forks, which took place from June 16 – 19.  This was the first of seven national events to be held over five years.  The purpose is to engage and educate the Canadian public about the IRS system, honour the people who were affected by it and document the stories of survivors, communities or anyone touched by the IRS experience.  

 While I was certainly aware of this dark chapter of Canadian history, witnessing the survivors’ first- hand testimonials was profoundly moving and gave me a much deeper understanding of the far-reaching impact of the IRS  experience.  The pain, anger and despair were palpable.  Outside the tents set up for the occasion, the heavens opened releasing  a torrent  of rain, while inside tears flowed  as one survivor after another took the microphone to share their personal stories of pain and loss.  Almost universally, survivors spoke of their subsequent inability to properly parent their own children as a result of their IRS experiences.  One man said his biggest regret is that he didn’t know how to love his children; he was distant, unnurturing and couldn’t be part of his kids’ lives.  He couldn’t even hug them.   Many described spending years following their departure from IRS trying to cope with their anguish by drinking or abusing drugs.   A number spoke of their eventual path to recovery from addiction and trying to compensate for their failure as parents by developing strong relationships with their grandchildren. 
One cannot begin to understand the plight of aboriginal people in Canada today if one does not comprehend the nefarious injustices that multiple generations suffered in residential schools.  David Milward, a Professor at the University of Manitoba Faculty of Law spoke in one session about the well established correlation between poverty, exposure to violence, broken family bonds and criminality. He described residential schools as being the “kick start for aboriginal people’s large scale involvement in criminal lifestyles”.  Many of the problems plaguing aboriginal people today are a direct legacy of the IRS system.  
As Jews, we have our own long history of persecution and have endured many attempts at forcible assimilation.  For that reason it is especially critical that we take the time to understand what happened to aboriginal Canadians in residential schools, and view the current challenges faced by the aboriginal community in this historical context.  

In many families these stories have remained untold until now.  The TRC provides a venue for airing and sharing the truth of people’s experiences, and just as importantly, a chance for broader society to learn and gain understanding.  While nothing can undo the harm perpetrated by a system intent on cultural genocide, hopefully the TRC will serve as one more a step along the long road to healing for Canada’s aboriginal people. 

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