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Imagine: The Legacy of Residential Schools

By Christian Wells, Assistant Head of School
Today is Orange Shirt Day. More formally, September 30, in Canada, has been designated a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. This observance has been in effect in this country since 2013. However, this year, for the first time, it has been designated a holiday for government workers. A holy day. Meant for us to focus on truth and reconciliation. Meant to make us aware of the terrible legacy of Indian Residential Schools in this country.
Indian residential schools were boarding schools, just like Stanstead College, but set up for children of First Nations peoples. Set up for Indigenous Peoples. Those who used to be called Indians. However, unlike Stanstead College, their purpose was not to educate but to assimilate. Many would say annihilate. Schools set up to destroy indigenous culture…and to do so in most ruthless and barbaric ways.

Children of First Nations families were forced to attend residential schools. Placement was compulsory for every child aged 6 to 15. Children were taken by force.

Imagine.

There was no opting out. If parents attempted to resist they were sent to prison.

Imagine.

Removed by force from their families. Placed in institutions in which they were subjected to horrific physical, sexual, psychological and spiritual abuse.

Imagine.

The last Canadian Indian residential school was closed in 1997; however, the legacy of the treatment that Indigenous Peoples received continues to haunt First nations communities across this country.
It’s called intergenerational trauma and it means that generations of indigenous people have been affected, even if they themselves never attended a residential school.

These effects play out on First Nations reserves across Canada as:
  • loss of language and culture
  • depression 
  • suicide and other types of premature death
  • substance abuse
  • child abuse
  • physical and sexual abuse
  • self-destructive behaviours like drug abuse
  • and all manner of violence
    • family violence
    • elder violence
    • violence against women
    • violence against children
 Full circle. Violence against children. Among the worst of crimes.
 
This is what white people did to indigenous people. In many respects this is what governments continue to do to indigenous people. Through legal policies, policing policies, disregard for treaty agreements and other forms of governance by oppression. Systemic racism.  
 
But mostly what white people do is have a kind of general cultural disdain or at best, disinterest in the plight of peoples ravaged by 400 years of colonial subjugation. At our worst white people even blame indigenous people for the circumstances they now confront.
 
As Aaron Huey a photojournalist who has documented life on First Nations reserves says, “The last chapter in any successful genocide is the one in which the oppressor can remove their hands and say: my god, what are these people doing to themselves. They’re killing each other. They’re killing themselves.”
 
Truth and Reconciliation starts with truth. With this in mind I need to make you aware of the connection that Stanstead College has with the Indian Residential school system. That connection is a man named Duncan Campbell Scott. An alumnus of this school. A former student who went here once as you do now.
 
Duncan Campbell Scott, after Stanstead College, went on to a celebrated career in the Canadian Government. He eventually rose to be head of Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs, a post he held from 1913 to 1932. As such he played a principal role in developing the system of Indian Residential Schools. He is therefore responsible in part for the legacy of their effect.
 
Scott is on record as having said, “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question and no Indian Department.”
 
For Scott, residential schools were, “The final solution of our Indian problem.”

Imagine.
 
It is hard to make sense of such absolute disregard for other human beings. Nevertheless, it’s what happened. 
 
So in recognition of our connection with this tragic story and as an expression of sorrow and regret the school has planted a birch tree, representing cleansing, and laid a plaque expressing remorse. These are now in place outside your Student Centre.
 
Please have a look – read the words for yourself – and think – imagine – what you can do to make a better world. To make yourself a better person.
 
This is a version of a presentation given to the full school by Mr. Wells on September 30, 2021.