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Ongoing Colonization: The Effects of Residential Schools on the Indigenous Community

Defne Aliefendioglu

News Editor

Classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, February 1940, via CBC.

Here in Quebec, the state of the Indigenous community is regularly shoved under the rug and brushed off. In class, students are taught that Indigenous oppression is a thing of the past and that their colonization is over. However, is that truly the case? To answer this question, I have interviewed Gülsüm, a Turkish social worker here in Quebec who has been stationed in Northern Quebec several times.

In Canada, between 1830 and 1996, Native children were forced into residential schools by the Church. Children from First Nations, Métis, and Inuit groups were frequently taken from their families and villages against their will and placed in schools where they were forced to give up their customs, cultural practices, and languages. More than 150,000 children were put into these schools, and, according to Kisha Supernant, Director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology and author of the article Every Child Matters, “One year after the unmarked graves of 215 Indigenous children were found in Kamloopsas, as of 2022, there are 4,130 confirmed names of children who have died in the hands of residential schools.” The exact number of children who have died and or committed suicide is unknown, as there are hundreds of unmarked and unnamed graves. In these schools, children's hair would be cut, disconnecting them from their Native identities. Among other things, they were not allowed to speak their mother tongues or practice their religions. At times, if they were caught speaking their native tongue, needles would be shoved into their tongues. They were not given proper sanitation, food, or health care. Children would be regularly beaten, shackled to their beds, whipped, sexually harassed and assaulted, and frequently given drugs. The residential schools were around for nearly 166 years. The final school closed in 1996 in Saskatchewan, only 27 years ago. Many Indigenous children and youth are now the children and grandchildren of the survivors of these schools.

Gülsüm is a social worker who specializes in children who have been victims of domestic abuse. She had been interested in working with Indigenous children during her last years as a student at Dawson College. As she wanted to not only read about the effects of their colonization but to see it herself, she chose to be stationed in Northern Quebec, in the region of Nunavik. Nunavik comprises 14 villages, all spread out over the Northern border of Quebec. The villages have no contact with each other as it is nearly impossible to go by land from one village to another. However, during winter, when the water freezes, people can travel by sleds or other winter transportation devices. The village that Gülsüm traveled to is called Salluit, the second furthest village after Ivujivik.

“Travelling there is extremely hard. It takes around 8 hours to get there by plane. We have to switch planes once and then go by jet after with like 36 people. Then, every 30 minutes, the jet lands at each village to drop workers off. So, for me, to go to Salluit, it’s around 4 stops before I get there.” Gülsüm said that it was very isolated, and she questioned how supplies were able to get by there. She later learned that there are boats that bring food and supplies 2 to 3 times a year. Because Nunavik is quite distant, and it takes a while to take supplies there, even for Gülsüm, a round trip from Montreal to Salluit costs around 4,000$. Therefore, inflation is elevated. “The prices there are around 3 times higher than here [Montreal]. An apple that is 2$ here will be sold at 6$ there.” In Salluit, there are around 1,500 people. In others, there are barely 500. However, in total, approximately 10,000 natives are living in the Nunavik region.

When asked to describe the state of the people, she said, “They drink almost every day. And once drunk, get filled with rage and violence. One day, I got a call and the caller told me that a woman was consuming alcohol near her child and that the child was not safe. So, I went to check it out, and the mother was drunk. She then pushed me and attacked me. I was near my car so I ran inside and locked the doors. She started attacking the car, and the only thing I could focus on was her eyes. They were filled with so much rage. I’d never seen anything like it before.”

Marcel Gemme, a Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist, wrote in the article Indigenous Peoples In Canada—Discrimination and Generational Substance Use that around 78% of residential school survivors had abused alcohol after attending the schools. According to Gülsüm, the people tend to consume drinks that have 95% of alcohol or higher, which they drink straight - i.e. without any water, ice, or any other chaser. “Wine and beer is nothing compared to it. You can think of them like water,” she said. Cocaine is also heavily used and marijuana is a norm. Windows are usually closed when smoking and children grow up inhaling secondhand smoke. “I have some clients that are 10 and 11 years old who consume marijuana and alcohol,” she said. On average, at 8 years old, children start consuming these substances. It is also not uncommon either for older men to bribe little girls with the promise of drugs and alcohol for sexual pleasure.

“This other time, I got a call from a child. He said that he was abused at home and that his mother was drunk. The child told me that the mother attacked him and threw her baby at the wall. So, we had to remove the children from the house and put them in a foster home,” reported Gülsüm. Foster homes, on the other hand, are typically transient. Often after a few months, reports of domestic violence from foster families emerge. It is a cycle the child can not escape from. “I know of a 4-year-old child who had to change homes 120 times,” she said.

Gülsüm stated that 95% of children are at risk of suicidal thoughts, addiction, and domestic abuse. In residential schools, the Church would kidnap, rape, sell, and kill Native women and children and then proceed to cover it up. Gülsüm said, “The media always hides the truth, especially when it comes to Natives. We [social workers] hear many things, but we don’t really have the facts. Yes, Indigenous women and children still go missing, but we don’t know how they go missing. They are killed and thrown into rivers, they tell us that it was suicide, but we don’t really know if it was a suicide or not. We don’t know if they were murdered or even who they were murdered by.” Indigenous people are frequently labeled as "alcoholics," "rapists," and "mentally-ill," therefore when they go missing or are murdered, it is often dismissed.

In the North, people are still significantly influenced by the Church, a fact that many are unaware of. One night, Gülsüm asked one of her Indigenous friends in Salluit, a security guard, why they did not practice their spirituality and religion or hold any festivals or events to celebrate their traditions. The guard answered that they were still controlled by the Church, two people could not even gather together to practice their beliefs. If the Church gets word that such activities are taking place, people can be fined or arrested. Catholicism is still forced upon the Natives, who are still heavily monitored by the Church. “The francophone pressure is a lot worse than the Anglo-Saxon one. I heard that the Indigenous population in Nunavut and Yellowknife are a lot freer and that their voices hold more power,” said Gülsüm.

Education in the North is neglected. Schools have pools, gymnasiums, and nice classrooms, yet, education is not prioritized. Teachers are usually absent for the majority of the school year. “There are 13-year-olds who don’t even know how to read and write,” said Gülsüm.

When she first got there, it was the summer. As the summer vacation came to an end and just when schools were about to open up again, construction began on the buildings and the opening had to be delayed. Because of the lack of schooling, the majority of the youth there do not have a chance of accessing higher education. Education is learning about freedom. The more educated you are, the more conscious you are about your rights. You start to think for yourself and get to learn about the world. The more you prevent education, the more control and influence you have, trapping people within your grasp.

The Native communities of the North are mainly anglophone, however, the education system is solely in French.“To continue the relationships between them, they need to know English, but the government insists that they speak in French. There is so much pressure for them to speak French, but if they give up English, their connection with their relatives in Nunavut and Yellowknife will be cut,” Gülsüm stated. Although, thankfully, students are allowed to speak their language and attend at least one or two classes per week in their native tongue, English is needed to communicate with other villages as they all have different dialects.

The Indigenous communities in Quebec remain under colonization as you read this article. Not only that, but they are still living through the trauma from residential schools and all the torture that they went through in the past.

According to Donna Dubie, psychotherapist and executive director of Healing of the Seven Generations, when a person experiences great trauma, that trauma carries on generationally and can take as long as seven generations to heal. Gülsüm stated, “Our ancestors are the source of our beliefs, behaviors, and thoughts. The trauma that the Natives have faced is still fresh. It hasn't even been 40 years since the last residential school closed. Only one or two generations have passed for the majority of them. They still have a long way to go before they can heal from the trauma they have been through.”


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