The Legacy of the Canadian Residential School System
We all have an identity in this world. When we were born as human beings, we were all given an identity based on our gender, ethnicity, and the society we were born in. This identity is further strengthened by our experience throughout the journey to adulthood, creating a bond and belongingness to one’s own culture.
When a language is eventually learned during childhood, it becomes one of the major factors in determining our identity. Cultural customs are also integrated into our minds as we grow up.
As we approach adulthood, our basic cultural identity is shaped; we maintain our cultural identity as we enter the local society, as it is the label that sticks with us for the rest of our lives. Along the way, we have the freedom to choose which of the religions to believe in, but our choices will most likely be affected by our identities as well. The First Nations people in Canada are suffering from a loss of language, religion, and identity due to the horrible past they had suffered in the past century.
In the 1880s, the residential school system was established by the government of Canada (Miller 2011). From then on, First Nations children were forced to attend these Catholic schools instituted based on European standards and regulations. Injustice went on for almost another century, in which many First Nation cultures were diminished and obliterated. Steven Harper may have apologized to the First Nations for the rest of the Canadians, but the damage is already done (Dorrell 2009). The Residential School System extinguished the hopes of Canadian First Nations in maintaining their own cultures.
In this article we will use St. Mary’s, a residential school located in Mission, BC, as a case study to investigate the severity of the impact the RSS had on First Nations cultures. Language is the mean of communication of a society and a significant factor in cultural and social development. It is also the distinct identifier of a specific culture. By analyzing the complex systems of the languages of different cultures, sociolinguists can relate the languages’ properties to aspects of the culture.
Language is also tightly intertwined with the culture of a civilization: the Chinese and Japanese consider calligraphy—the act of writing in an unique but artistic way with ink brushes—a major art along with music, painting, and the chess game of Go; the Medieval Romans were inefficient and limited in their mathematics due to their numeral system until the Arabic system was introduced. In short, languages can be considered as the backbone of a culture. It is also the backbone that the First Nations began to lose as soon as the Residential School System was initiated.
In residential schools, any languages other than English were forbidden; the violators of this rule were severely punished. In Terry Glavin’s Amongst God’s Own, one of his interviewee Meredith Hourie (2002: 61) commented that the nuns at St. Mary’s referred to the native tongues as “devil’s language”; in their eyes, speaking another language in a Catholic residential school is blasphemous. Benjamin Paul Millar (Glavin 2002: 66) felt that he was beginning to improve in his native language until he was discouraged by slaps in the face and on the backside for breaking the rules; now he could only recall a few words of his native tongue.
Genevieve Douglas (Glavin 2002: 62) admitted that she cannot understand her own native language due to the policies at St. Mary’s; students were not allowed to answer to questions unless they can fully interpret what was asked and know how to respond in English, hence the students had to focus their limit in language acquisition on English. Children who were new to the residential schools (such as St. Mary’s) were not familiar with these rules. They felt alienated and were desperate to fit in.
As a result, these new First Nations students had to resocialize—or “Westernize”—themselves in order to survive. While these cases might seem trivial at first glance, consider this: there were 80 residential schools scattered across Canada at its peak, with over 11000 students being taught (Kirmayer, Simpson, and Cargo 2003). The magnitude is immense, and numerous dialects of the native tongues were lost. It is also worth noting that the majority of students who enrolled in St. Mary’s had Western first names and last names instead of native ones.
Under these circumstances, a child would feel even more out of place when comparing one’s own name to the elders’ more native names. They might believe that they were not welcomed in their society and opt to blend into the Western society instead. For instance, a Scotland-born Chinese child would likely to grow up to be more attached to the Scottish culture if his last name was chosen by his parents to be McGregor instead of Lee. Traditions are also identifiers for the cultures they belong to. Each culture has their unique customs, beliefs, and mythologies.
For example, the Gods with the most power in terms of mythologies are mostly male due to the fact that almost all cultures are male-dominant. In ancient Greek mythology, Zeus was regarded as the ruler of Mount Olympus and said to be the “Father of Gods and Men” by Hesiod, reflecting the differences in the status of genders in ancient Greece. In Chinese mythology the Gods were told and categorized as emperors, royal families, and government officials, ultimately referring to the hereditary monarchy political system that the dynasties of China followed for millennia.
While First Nations traditions may not be as well known as the bigger cultures in other parts of the world, they have their unique and intriguing perspective in the world they live in. Their view on how all things ranging from animals to inanimate objects have spirit and soul is echoed by Plato’s world-soul idea. However, their inspirations cannot be further explored in the future since these First Nations beliefs are facing extinction. These traditional practices such as Shamanisms were discouraged, as they were viewed as witchcraft in the eyes of Catholicism.
Due to the nature of residential schools, children could hardly see their family during their time as a student. Wayne Florence (Glavin 2002: 68) was severely injured by one of the nuns at St. Mary’s, and even then he could not gain the privilege to meet with his family, or even talk to them through the phone for that matter. This separation leads to the inability to learn of and be familiar to their customs. Not only were the children prohibited from learning of their own cultural religion and heritage, they were led and forced to believe that there is only one “correct” religion—Roman Catholicism.
According to Catholic rules, all other religions are false and are blasphemous. First Nations students learned that they were not born with freedom, but with sins to be cleansed of; this idea induced fear in them and contempt in their traditions. Aside from a loss of culture, it was estimated by scholars that as many as half of the children died during their involvement in the residential schools, either from abuse or committing suicide (Robertson 2003). We are living in the generation of globalization. In Canada, it is not uncommon for one to have multiple cultural backgrounds.
We can notice numerous people of Chinese descent who do not know a single word of Mandarin nor Cantonese; Scandinavians who do not feel the urge to assimilate into another culture’s customs, and even Indian-Canadian comedians who became successful amongst the public by showing observational humor with regards to racial dissimilarities. These people of the general public—whose voices can be heard through the media—are of a majority; whether they are currently living in their affiliated society they were born in or have their homes on the other side of the globe, they feel that they are a member of their culture.
No matter which part of the world it is, dates with cultural significance like Christmas, the Lunar New Year, and the Ramadan are celebrated and practiced annually. The same cannot apply to the First Nations in Canada after the residential school system tragedies. Imagine that no one can understand your first language and cultural customs—while communication with others will still be possible through other means like secondary and body language, you can hardly feel the familiarity and ease in comparison to talking freely in your own first language. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
If you know a language but no one else can comprehend it, does it still exist? If no one in the world other than you knew the family gathering tradition on Thanksgiving, would this day still mean anything at all? While these questions may seem hypothetical to us, the First Nations in Canada are facing these issues today. Writings and symbolic arts in dying tribes may never see their original meaning comprehendible ever again. Canada may consider First Nation reserves and universities as national treasures, but the fact is that cultural maintenance in these smaller tribes is not encouraged and our treasure is continuously decreasing in depth.
All cultures in the world are established by the contributions of their people over time; they are the condensation of knowledge, customs, heritage, and language. Each culture is unique in its own way, and should be preserved with the most effort. However, not only did settlers and colonizers took over the First Nations’ lands by force, they also nearly wiped out their culture with a weapon in the form of the Residential School System. These residential schools, such as St.
Mary’s, denied the students of their chance to inherit their respective culture, and even took away some of their lives as a byproduct in resocialization. As a result, First Nations languages and traditions were lost; some First Nation survivor might even be the last remaining member of his or her tribe. These are losses that we simply cannot put ourselves into their perspective. I sincerely hope that the government of Canada will not only compensate, but also try their best to maintain the enduring First Nations cultures someday; an apology is simply not enough.