I once postulated that Western society was stuck in a cycle of post traumatic stress disorder-induced abuse dating back to at least World War One. Nearly a whole generation of European men were either killed or injured in that four year period. My father's father was a medic in the British army and in 1917 was caught in a mustard gas attack. As a medic, he would have had to retrieve the dead and dying from the battle field and seen horrors enough to freeze a soul. After the war he drifted around the world for ten years before settling in Brazil where he met my grandmother and my father was born. They immigrated to Canada in 1931, and my grandfather never worked another day from then until his death in 1978.
He physically and emotionally abused my father, and in turn my father physically and sexually abused me. I was a drug addict and alcoholic by the time I was thirteen and didn't stop until I was thirty-three. It was then that I started to recover the memories of being abused as a young child and began the long process of recovery. I'm still in therapy, digging out the deep planted seeds abuse planted that governed my behaviour for most of my life. One way or another though, the cycle of abuse in my family has stopped with me.
On June 11th 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada, Steven Harper, is going to stand up in the House of Commons to officially apologize to Native Canadians for the residential school system. For close to a hundred years, the government of Canada sponsored church run schools that stole Native children away from their parents. Aside from the shock of being stolen from their parents, they were also forbidden to speak their own languages, and taught that all they believed in was evil. If that wasn't bad enough, at a minimum, 50% of all children who attended these schools were either sexually or physically abused, if not both, by the staff.
What I'm most interested in knowing is who exactly the Prime Minister is going to be apologizing to and what he is going to be apologizing for? With the first residential school opening in the 1870s and the last one closing in the 1970s we can be sure that not everybody who went to one is still alive. Is he going to stand up in the House of Commons and say on behalf of the Canadian government we're sorry that previous governments oversaw attempted cultural genocide, allowed hundreds of thousands of children to be sexually and physically abused, and successfully tore the heart out of Native communities across Canada for subsequent generations?
There is also the question of the apology he owes to today's generation of Native Canadians. You see, for those of you who might have missed this bit of information, suicide and substance abuse among young Native Canadians is at an astronomical rate – the suicide rate alone is four times higher than for non-Natives. What this has to do with residential schools is that in a recent study done of slightly over 500 Native injection drug users in British Columbia between the ages of sixteen and thirty, nearly 50% were found to have been sexually abused by a family member, and half of that number reported having at least one parent who was a survivor of the residential school system.
For those of you who can't do the math, that's twenty-five per-cent of this one study group are still suffering the effects of the residential school system. The study didn't ask (or if it did, the figures weren't reported) what percentage of the participants had grandparents who were part of the residential school system. I'd be willing to bet that the further back you go in each person's family tree the more survivors of the system you'll find. For most of these young people, like myself, the cycle of abuse probably started in their grandparents' generation, if not their great-grandparents'.
In an earlier article about Canada's residential schools, I mentioned the government was establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Committee that would travel across the country hearing people's stories, and digging into the schools' records. Headed by Native Canadian Judge, Justice Harry LaForme, it is patterned after a similar committee that the South African government established under the first Black majority rule government to try and find a way to peacefully bring the White and Black populations together after the horrors of apartheid.
For this committee to have any serious impact on the lives of Native Canadians, and to take a true measure of the impact the residential school system had on the population, it must examine statistics like those recorded above from across Canada. A study group focusing only on intravenous drug users leaves out large numbers of at-risk populations. We already know the suicide rate is four times as high, but how many of those children who committed suicide had a parent or grandparent survive the residential school system and pass their damage on down to their child and grandchild?
For the first three hundred years of Canadian history, governments, first the French and then the British, tried to deal with the "Indian problem" militarily. But when it became obvious they weren't going to be able to kill them all, the government decided to switch from genocide to cultural genocide via the residential school system. For Native Canadians the cycle of abuse started when the first child was stolen from his or her parents and placed within the four walls of a residential school. Every young person who commits suicide or chooses to escape the world through substance abuse today is an indication that the cycle continues.
If Steven Harper stands up in the House of Commons on June 11th and doesn't recognize the damage that is still being done to people today because of the residential schools, if he doesn't acknowledge that his government is continuing to fail our country's native population just as all previous governments have, by allowing this cycle to continue, his apology won't be anything more than a meaningless gesture. The sins of our great-grandparents are still being visited upon Canada's native population today and there aren't enough words to apologize for that.