Residential Schools and You

My father was born in 1936, in Mombasa, in what was then called British East Africa. He was born a colonial subject. A native in the parlance of the day. The imperial government in Britain decided his fate.


As luck would have it, my father managed to go to a good school in Mombasa, with an English Headmaster and an English curriculum. He was a bright student and passed his GCSE’s. He got a scholarship to go to the University of Birmingham as a 19 year old in 1956. He got another scholarship to go to the University of Saskatchewan in 1961. By the end of this adventure, he was back in what was now called Kenya, teaching the first generation of post-independence youth in Africa at the University of Makerere in Uganda.

If my father was born in an Indigenous community in Canada in 1936, he would not have been afforded the same opportunities. An RCMP officer and a Government of Canada bureaucrat would have to take a train, and then a small airplane to reach the community, as it was likely there was no road or rail access. They would make this trip once a year, to formally register each new Indian birth. So that once the new child turned six, they would return to the community to take the child away to a boarding school.

At this boarding school, likely hundreds of miles away, the child would be stripped of their culture, barred from speaking their language and forced to pray to a white, Christian god. And they would have been abused. At minimum physically and emotionally, but also quite likely sexually too. Maybe the child would try to run away. Some did. Most perished when they did. When little Chanie Wenjack died on the train tracks in Northern Ontario in 1966, having run away from school, the Maclean’s article at the time couldn’t even spell his name right, opting to call him Charlie instead.

If my father had been born in an Indigenous community in Canada in 1936 he would have been abused at a residential school. It is highly unlikely that he would have finished his high school education, let alone got a scholarship to a university. The quality of schooling provided by the religious organizations that ran the residential schools was appalling. You see, the Federal Government decided it was far too expensive to run the residential schools themselves, so they outsourced to the churches, primarily Anglican and Catholic.

My father was better served by an Imperial Colonial Government in Britain, than an Indigenous person was by the Government in Canada. I can’t stop thinking about that.

Here’s the rub. We are quick to point at history, to assume this was all in the past. There’s an oft-bandied quote: the last residential school closed in 1996.

I was born in 1990 in Ottawa, to a Kenyan migrant and an American migrant. The first of my family born in Canada. My mum moved twice while I was growing up so that I could go to the right schools in Ottawa, and was able to get a scholarship to the University of Guelph.

If I was born Indigenous in 1990 on a reserve in Canada my outcomes would have likely been quite different. I probably would have gotten used to constant rolling blackouts, having to boil my water every day to drink it. My home would likely be full of mould and poorly insulated. There’s no work around the reserve, just a general sense of despair, worthlessness and helplessness. It’s disturbingly infectious. There’s never enough money from the Feds. Not that they care anyway, we’re so far off the grid. In fact, you can’t even access the community during the dead of winter.

The elementary school in the community would have a different teacher every year. Always some bright-eyed and bushy-tailed idealist from the South. Always leaving broken. But they can leave. Because of this, by the time I was ready for high school, I was actually four years behind my peers in the rest of Canada.  I would have had to leave home by the age of 14 to go to High School. Probably in Thunder Bay. Where the locals would racially, physically and sexually abuse me. They would tell me to go home Indian because, clearly, I’m not from here.

As a country, and a settler culture, we have slowly started to reckon with our past. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a worthy and necessary start. The CBC recently released an interactive graphic that allows you to see if you were born near a residential school, mixed in with first hand testimonials. Clearly targeted at an older generation of Canadians - you know those ones born between the 1940s and 1960s. I think there’s a name for them. And they definitely haven't ruined the world.

The path forward will be fraught. The Federal Government is still appropriating land in the name of “economic development”. The ongoing Wet’suwet’en case in Northern British Columbia is a nice little reminder. The pathologies inherent in settler culture - white supremacy, capitalism, democracy and development - still rule the land. Indigenous people are told to go home. Land is taken for the purpose of capitalist development at the expense of the environment. And a very narrow view of democracy was foisted upon a diversity of peoples that actively allows a wealthy minority to dictate the entire socio-politico-economic structure of the land now called Canada.

But I’d like to believe we’re moving in the right direction. We’re having these conversations now, after 150 years of silence. We’re ripping open old wounds, one’s we’d suppressed out of shame and guilt. How will we heal as a culture and a people? I do not, and cannot profess to have a solution, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s that Western settler culture has spent the better part of two hundred years convincing itself of its’ superiority relative to other cultures. It has actively sought to discredit and subordinate cultures from Asia to Africa to the Americas. It has perverted the relationship between humans and the natural environment. I would hazard a guess that there is an opportunity to learn something, anything, from the cultures we share this land with. They may just have a better way forward.

It’s time we start listening.