This past week, hundreds gathered in Halifax to share harrowing, heart-wrenching stories about life in Canada’s residential school system.
Starting in the 1870s and lasting as late as the 1990s in some cases, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were sent to the government-funded, church-run schools, which numbered more than 130 nationwide. By eliminating parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural and spiritual development of Aboriginal children, the schools left a devastating legacy that still resonates today in Canada’s Aboriginal communities.
In 2008, the Government of Canada formally apologized to the former students, their families and their communities for its role in the residential school system. Following a class-action settlement—the largest in Canadian history—the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to formally document survivors’ experiences and start a process of truth and healing towards reconciliation and building renewed relationships based on understanding and respect.
Though Dalhousie was not an active participant in the residential school system, the university still spoke out at this week’s event. Martha Crago, vice-president research, delivered a Statement of Reconciliation on behalf of the university on Friday evening.
“The residential school system was built in the name of education, and so as an educational institution, we need to speak out and say that this is not how education should be,” explained Dr. Crago, who worked on preparing the statement with President Tom Traves.
The lessons we learn from each other
The opportunity to speak out carried extra weight for Dr. Crago, as her own research explores language and culture in Canada’s Inuit and First Nations communities.
“I’ve really made my career on what Aboriginal people have taught me – about culture, language, tradition. They were such wonderful teachers, and I can’t help but think about how much they’ve given me as compared to how much the residential school systems took away.”
In fact, immediately following her speech, she was approached by Betsy Annahatak, an Inuit woman who was one of those teachers; the two had not seen each other in a decade. It seems a storm had kept many Quebec survivors from making a previous Truth and Reconciliation event in Inuvik, so many of them made their way to Halifax.
"We could hardly believe that we were seeing each other in the Metro Centre," says Dr. Crago.
Ms. Annahatak was taken from her family and placed in a residential school when she was eight. The dislocation of the area's children caused great ruptures in the community until her father, a powerful camp leader, stood up to the RCMP; she was then allowed to stay with her family. She has worked for the Inuit-run school board now for 35 years and writes secondary school social science curriculum taught from an Inuit point of view and in Inuktitut.
"I asked her on Friday if the curriculum covered the residential school period," says Dr. Crago. "She said, 'No but after this trip it will.'"
Expression of Reconciliation on behalf of Dalhousie University
Dalhousie University considers that what occurred to Canada’s Aboriginal people in the name of education was an abhorrent form of cultural genocide. It was nothing short of genocide to have destroyed innocent children’s and young people’s language, their cultural ways, sense of self, innocence, family life and pride. Furthermore, far too many of these children were taken from their families and their homes to be placed in schools in which they were physically and sexually abused. Any educational value those schools provided to Canada’s Aboriginal children came at an enormous price, a price that cost multiple generations of people their well-being. Their experience was far from the just and caring education that Canada’s Aboriginal children deserved and still deserve. All children throughout our country deserve such an education.
As an expression of reconciliation, Dalhousie University commits itself to providing its present and future students with a just and caring educational milieu that encourages them to respect and honour cultural diversity, to treat themselves and others with care and understanding, and to lead healthy lives in which they make a difference to the lives of others and to their planet.
Dalhousie University is pleased to provide a number of scholarships for Aboriginal students. We have signed a memorandum of understanding that commits the university to contribute to meaningful research with Aboriginal communities. We host a Native Education Counselling Unit on our campus and a counsellor appointed by the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq who works with Dalhousie’s Aboriginal students. At this moment in time, on behalf of Dalhousie University, I now would like to honour the Mi’kmaq ancestors of Nova Scotia with a symbolic gift. The livelihood and transportation of the Mi’kmaq were tied to the ocean, the animals of the land and of the air. We, a diverse group of people, now share that land, breathe the air and use the ocean with them. I, therefore, present this gift to the Mi’kmaq people of Nova Scotia in the spirit of reconciliation. This wind chime is a symbol of the University’s commitment to do its part in assuring the sustainability of our oceans, our land and our air.
May we, the people of Nova Scotia and of Canada, with full awareness of past injustices, now move forward together in just and caring ways.
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