Residential Schools

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Residential Schools
and their Historical Effects on the Elders of Today

Long before Europeans came to North America, Native people had a highly developed system of education. There was a great deal for Native children to learn before they could survive on their own. Native elders and parents passed on not only survival skills to their children, but their history, artistic ability, music, language, moral and religious values.

When European missionaries began to live amongst Native people, they concluded that the sooner they could separate children from their parents, the sooner they could prepare aboriginal people to live a civilized (i.e. European) lifestyle. Residential schools were established for two reasons: separation of the children from the family and the belief that Native culture was not worth preserving (LeJeune, Fr. Paul). Most people concluded that the Native culture was useless and dying and all human beings would eventually develop and change to be like the ‘advanced’ European civilization.

The First Nations of our land have endured hundreds of years of suffering. Ever since the first significant European contact the indigenous people have been treated as sub-humans; savages with no religion, intelligence, or right to live (Scott, Duncan). This general idea has carried through-out the history of our supposedly great country; Canada. This essay will examine the residential school system. It will then relate the Canadian Government’s actions in response to residential schools, good and bad. Overall, it will focus on the way in which these effects are represented through a literary text.

The book My Name is Seepeetza by Shirley Sterling, written from a Native perspective, tells the story of one Aboriginal girl’s life at a residential school and is an excellent way to introduce the topic to today’s students. The book covers a variety of universal themes such as racism and family relationships, as well as cultural differences and perspectives between the main character, Martha Stone, and the priests and nuns at the residential school that Martha attends. The story is written in a diary form that records Martha’s thoughts, feelings, reflections, observations and reactions to her experiences in the residential school in the interior of British Columbia.

Sterling is an Nlakapamux storyteller and writer from the interior Salish territory, British Columbia (LeJeune, Fr. Paul). She attended boarding school as a child, and wrote about her own and other students’ experiences. My Name Is Seepeetza is collectively constituted, primarily through her culture but also interaction with other people and cultures in school.

Simply, I believe that not one story can portray the diversity of Native people’s experiences in Canada, historically, economically and socially. Not one story can accurately portray the violent acts of abuse that Native children endured in residential schools. Moreover, not one story can tackle the immense social conditions and economic marginalization that have infested Native communities across Canada as a result of the emotional and mental abuse Native children experience in these schools.

I would like to discuss Martha’s experience and compare them to the darker side of residential schools. Martha was one of the luckier ones; many students died in their first year of school or lost siblings due to diseases. Some were abused either physically or sexually. Others returned home to their families and communities as strangers, unable to speak their own language and unprepared to love life on the reservation. Historians have argued that the quality of education in the residential schools served to marginalize Native people economically and politically and to maintain the status quo in Canadian society (Scott, Duncan). Native communities such as the Nuu-chah-nulth are conducting their own studies about the effects of residential schools that...
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