“Killing the Indian in the Child”: The Canadian Residential School System and Cultural Genocide
Beginning in the 1870’s, over one hundred fifty thousand First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were forcibly taken from their families and placed in Indian Residential schools. Funded by the Canadian government and Christian led, the system sought to “kill the Indian in the child,” the last institution not closing until 1996. The forcible assimilation of aboriginal children through the residential school system greatly contributed to the cultural genocide of Canadian aboriginals by breaking the links to their culture and identity, consequently threatening their existence as a group. The schools also forcibly assimilated the children into the “white-Canadian culture.” Further to this, the residential school employees inflicted physical harm on the students which left physical and emotional scars that prevented them from functioning in their communities in the long run. This essay employs the term ‘cultural genocide’ based on the definition provided by The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada which states that, “Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 1).
The government-appointed missionaries who were in charge of Canadian Indian Residential Schools perhaps had the most prominent role in the Christian-led campaigns to ban Aboriginal spiritual practices and therefore strip the students of their cultural identity. In 1947, a Roman Catholic official explained that because Canada was widely considered a Christian nation, he saw no reason as to why the residential schools “should foster aboriginal beliefs” such as the Potlatch and the Sun Dance (the “Thirst Dance”) which he considered “devil worship” (Fontaine 96). These dances were foreign to traditional Christian practices and in some cases, were perceived to outwardly opposed Christian beliefs. By banning these communal dances, the residential schools prevented students from participating in the activities that held a central position in their cultural identity. Furthermore, by condemning these activities and labeling them as “devil worship,” the residential schools villainized the students’ beliefs and thus forced them to dissociate from their culture in order to avoid being shunned by society.
In addition to banning rituals, items of significance were also confiscated from the children which further contributed to the eradication of aboriginal cultural identity. An example of this was in the Kamloops school where objects of aboriginal importance were destroyed by the institute officials (Fontaine 63). By confiscating such items, residential schools deemed objects that have symbolic value to aboriginal cultural identity as unacceptable and worthless. Therefore by physically destroying these symbols the schools effectively destroyed the cultural identity they represented. These actions clearly point to the existence of a cultural genocide as quoting the TRC definition, “...objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed.” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 1)
The residential schools also enforced a policy of language suppression in the early 1970s. This policy banned aboriginal languages and in turn forced students to speak solely English or French depending on the location of the school. In the eyes of the First Nation’ people, knowing their native languages is a prerequisite to truly understanding and identifying with their ways of life (Regan 73). Language serves as a way to articulate cultural identity and can shape the way we think. Therefore, the banning of aboriginal languages restricted the students ability to think in certain ways that were valuable to the understanding and expressing their cultural identity. Thus, the impact of residential schools silencing aboriginal languages can be seen as equivalent to silencing the identity through which they perceive themselves and their world. This policy of banning languages explicitly falls within the crimes that the TRC considers to constitute cultural genocide as earlier defined. By instead forcing students to speak English or French, residential schools perhaps had the power to encourage the values of white-canadian culture and thus assimilate students into a culture that they originally did not identify with. The role residential schools played in robbing children of their cultural identity can thus only be understood when coupled with the efforts to assimilate them into a very different understanding of ‘Canadian society’.
 Potlatch ceremonies could be held to celebrate the passing of names, titles and responsibilities of one chief to the eldest heir, distribute wealth, establish rank, to mark the passing of a chief or the head of a house, and to celebrate weddings and births. The Sundance is an annual ceremony in honour of the sun and participants prove bravery by overcoming painful rituals (Gadacz).
 Many studies have shown this, one of them is the study performed by Lera Boroditsky at Stanford University (https://www.edge.org/conversation/lera_boroditsky-how-does-our-language-shape-the-way-we-think)
- Quote paper
- Samiha Jiwan (Author), 2017, The Canadian Residential School System and Cultural Genocide, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/388434