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A harsh lesson

When it comes to Indian Residential Schools, there’s just no comparison

By Carolyn Pogue

Every once in a while, I have a general conversation about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission follow-up, the KAIROS Blanket Exercise or Right Relations between peoples. And it’s not unusual for someone to make a comparison between Indian Residential Schools (IRS) and those similar to British boarding schools (BBS). Usually, the person wonders why there’s a strong negative reaction to the former.

So after one such conversation, I decided to create a list from what I have learned over the years. You may be able to add to this, too, and I invite you to do so.

1. IRS were designed to destroy parental and cultural values, spiritual practice and language. BBS were designed to ingrain parental and societal values, religious practice and language.

2. Indigenous children needed to attend IRS by law; noncompliance meant prison for their parents. On the other hand, parents chose to send their children to BBS.

3. IRS were generally located far from students' homes — sometimes in another province or territory — making it difficult or impossible for parents to visit (IRS parents did not choose the school.). BBS parents chose if, where and when to send their children.

4. IRS students were forced to work part-time in kitchens, laundries, barns, gardens and farms, which took time — and energy — from their studies. BBS children were not forced to perform manual labour; they were expected to study.

5. Children in IRS often wore donated, ill-fitting and inappropriate clothing, sometimes resulting in their deformed feet. BBS children wore quality shoes and uniforms that advertised their school.

6. IRS children were punished harshly for speaking their mother tongue. At BBS, children were encouraged to speak their mother tongue.

7. Generally, corporal punishment was not part of IRS students' society or home life — unless, perhaps, parents had attended an IRS. At BBS, corporal punishment was part of the students' society and likely home life. British and Canadian law even allowed men to beat children and women until only a few decades ago.

8. Malnourished children in IRS often became ill; some were purposefully deprived of vitamins. As a result, thousands died, but their bodies weren’t always returned to their families. In fact, cemeteries are still being discovered. At BBS, if children became seriously ill, they went home typically.

9 At IRS, siblings were separated; this was heartbreaking. At BBS, siblings were separated; this was normal.

10. Children returning to their communities from an IRS often could not fit in with their own family nor the larger society and had sometimes lost their language entirely. Children returning from BBS to their communities generally fit in and had strengthened their language skills.

11. Providing family and cultural stories and gathering medicines and other responsibilities fulfilled by grandparents were lost to generations of children attending IRS. In addition to losing their roles, grandparents lost their hearts and self-esteem. At BBS, family and cultural stories were reinforced and celebrated.

12. Children at IRS were taught culturally inappropriate curricula and often made to feel ashamed of their heritage. First Nations, Metis and Inuit histories and accomplishments were left out or misrepresented. At BBS, children were taught culturally appropriate curricula and made to feel proud of their heritage. In fact, cultural accomplishments were celebrated.

13. When students went to IRS, whole communities were left without children. There is no comparison in other systems or communities.

Author's photo
Carolyn Pogue is a Calgary author and longtime Observer contributor. For more information on Carolyn Pogue, visit www.carolynpogue.ca..
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