Guest post by Laura Robinson

“I know the abuse that went on in the Residential School system and the
Day School system as it was the same people who ran the school and the
-Martin Heavyhead, survivor of St. Mary’s Residential School, Cardston, AB

Canadians, if they chose to listen, have heard of over a century of immeasurable pain, abandonment and abuse as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools visited the largest cities and the most remote of villages to hear the stories of residential school survivors. The shadow of these institutions looms long and though we have heard from thousands of survivors, most of the terrifying secrets will never be disclosed.

In December 2015, after five years of hearings, the TRC released its final report: which included a number of recommendations; one of which recognized day school survivors. The churches that ran residential schools, paid for by the federal government, also ran day schools. A religious organization would receive funds per student so the more opportunities they had to “capture” students—whether in a residential or day school–the more federal dollars they received. One of the tragedies of this system was that few churches believed the students were worthy of a real education so while there were some good teachers who cared deeply about the students and learning, the schools were also perfect lairs for sexual predators and for those who believed beating and humiliating children made them better human-beings.

Day school survivors had these same predators and abusers, but the residential schools agreement that was agreed upon by the Assembly of First Nations, the federal government and the various churches in 2006 excluded day school survivors, along with Metis people and those who went to residential/day schools in Newfoundland and Labrador as they joined Canada decades after the federal government and churches implemented day and residential schools. Perhaps such a gross oversight could, at that time, be blamed on ignorance. The federal government and modern decision-makers within the churches may not have known how far reaching the ugly culture behind this so-called education system went. Often, when parents tried to speak to the priest or minister in charge of a school about a particularly horrible “teacher”, that abuser would be moved to either another residential school or a day school. These “teachers” were interchangeable within a region or diocese.

Back in 2011, Justice Murray Sinclair, who had just started to chair the TRC, declared, “The issue of day scholar exclusion, and exclusion of certain schools from the settlement agreement or from the class action litigation, still remains to be discussed because I’m not sure it makes any sense for us to be looking at the possibility there may be another class action lawsuit, there may be another settlement agreement and there may be another truth and reconciliation process in the future.”

The process had already started; in July 2009, First Nations lawyer Joan Jack filed a class-action lawsuits on behalf of day students in Manitoba. Ray Mason, one of those students commented then, “The abuses were the same if not worse, [and the] only difference was that in some cases, the children got to go home at end of day. They went home hurt and ashamed of being aboriginal,”

In June 2015, the federal court in B.C. approved another multi-million dollar class-action suit filed by the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation in the interior and the Sechelt Nation on B.C’s south coast. “Our journey is long, but we’re prepared and I know that Canada, if they’re really sincere about reconciliation, then they will meet us in a good way” said representative Joanne Gottfriedson.
There is real hope that these suits will never have to be tried in court; that the federal government and churches know only too well what the survivors went through as children in day schools and will hear what people have to say in circles similarly to those during the TRC hearings; honour their courage and compensate in a mutually agreed upon fashion.

All the schools, by definition, were abusive and part of what the TRC called a “cultural genocide.” Others disagree; in their mind, the schools—day and residential—fit the definition of “genocide” without any softening of the meaning of that word. In an opinion editorial in the Toronto Star on June 10 2015, journalist Jesse Staniforth wrote of residential schools, “The Canadian government was happy to leave these children to die because they were Indigenous. In the early part of the century we stopped keeping track of how many children died: the commission concluded this was because it made us look bad as a country. We did not change any of the conditions — we just changed the habit of keeping track of the children our system killed. And when Indigenous children died, we often did not consider them human enough to inform their families, to record their genders or their ages or the causes of their deaths, or to mark their graves. Which part of this sounds civilized enough that it deserves to be mitigated by the adjective “cultural”? I’m not talking about the sexual violence. That was closely connected but it wasn’t part of our state policy. The rest was, and it constituted a policy of genocide.”

Children who died in the day schools also disappeared with no investigations or explanations to families.

We heard the voice of truth during the five years the Truth and Reconciliation Commission listened to residential school survivors. Day school survivors believe the new federal government is a friend of the truth; that they too will be listened to. It is up to non-Native people to make sure we reconcile what these brave people have said.


Hereditary chief Ronnie West from Lake Babine First Nation and survivor of Immaculata Day School, Burns Lake

(Hereditary chief Ronnie West from Lake Babine First Nation and survivor of Immaculata Day School, Burns Lake)

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