With the aim of raising awareness about the history of the residential schools system in Canada, the Bringing Light to a Dark History event took place at the University of Manitoba on March 30th.
The event was organized by two University of Manitoba students, Kerry Spence and Kyra Wilson, as part of Aboriginal Week for the UMSU Equity Month.
Wilson said that she felt the residential school system is at the root of many contemporary issues Aboriginal people face. She went on to say that it made her sad to think about her family members going through the residential school system.
Margaret Lavallee, a residential school survivor and the first speaker for the event, said that the residential school system is a topic of great importance and both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to have to “continue to have this healing journey.”
Explaining her experience in the residential schools, Lavallee told of suffering severe abuse.
“Most of the residential school victims were mentally, emotionally and physically abused,” she said.
She explained that Aboriginal women, including Lavallee’s mother, suffered the greatest impact.
“My siblings were taken away from my mother,” Lavallee said.
Children are the spirit of a family, she said, and if they are taken away, the “spirit of a family is taken away.”
Lavallee ended her speech with a message to Aboriginal mothers and grandmothers — “Knowledge of Aboriginal history, Aboriginal leaders and all parts of traditional and spiritual parts of life” has to be delivered to the children.
Jarvis Brownlie, an associate professor in the department of history at the U of M and the author of A Fatherly Eye: Indian Agents, Government Power, and Aboriginal Resistance in Ontario, spoke on why the residential school system was allowed to continue for as long as it did.
She said that the system, with its “poor physical conditions, high death rates and the brutal physical discipline” was considered a problem not just by Aboriginal people, but also by the government officials.
She added that allowing Aboriginal children to stay with their parents would allow them to learn their own culture “and that is what the government and church wanted to prevent.”
Jim Miller, a professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan, presented a brief history of residential school system.
He said that the residential schools date back to the 17th century, when French missionaries entered Canada. The modern phase began in 1879.
He explained that until late 1950s, the schools operated in a “half-day system,” which was used as a method for extracting labour from Aboriginal students.
He added that the work done by students was divided by gender, in opposition to Aboriginal customs.
He explained that the gender-division of labour resulted in girls doing “cleaning, maintenance, preparation and serving of food” and boys doing outdoor work, such as manual labour on farms.
Miller said that the school staff had a much different lifestyle than the Aboriginal children they were teaching, a fact many of the children were well aware of.
He said for children, the knowledge that others were not deprived as they were being deprived was very hard.
Health conditions were also an issue. According to Miller, the death rate, particularly before the First World War, was horrific.
“Children were sent home to die afterwards,” he said.
He concluded that Canadians have a deeply rooted legacy to deal with.
Bret Nickels, a student advisor in the Aboriginal Student Centre (Migizii Agamik), encouraged the audience to educate themselves, pointing out that there is a lot of information on residential school system available in the department of Native Studies and the Aboriginal Student Centre (Migizii Agamik).
He added that Elizabeth Dafoe Library has also hired an “Indigenous Service Librarian,” who can help students gain more knowledge.
“There are tons of places on campus for you to educate yourself,” Nickel said.