BRUCE BUMSTEAD/BRANDON SUN
Accounts of residential school survivors were on display during Wednesday’s Creating a New Legacy aboriginal mental health and wellness conference held at the Victoria Inn.
The forced assimilation of First Nations children in residential schools began in Canada in 1874 and lasted more than 120 years.
Justice Murray Sinclair delivers the keynote address during Wednesday’s aboriginal mental health and wellness conference held at the Victoria Inn. Justice Sinclair leads the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (BRUCE BUMSTEAD/BRANDON SUN)
The impact of being taken from their families, stripped of their culture — and in many cases abused — have left profound and lasting effects on survivors and the generations that have followed.
"From the survivors themselves there are some common themes that we hear from their experiences," said Justice Murray Sinclair, the keynote speaker at the Creating a New Legacy conference. "First of all, they talk about how young they were when they went to the schools. The laws … required all children between the age of five and 17 years of age attend a residential school, designated by the government."
More than 300 people attended the aboriginal mental health and wellness conference at the Victoria Inn Wednesday, which continues today.
Sinclair is the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and was Manitoba’s first aboriginal judge. Sinclair asked those in attendance to think about their five-year-old child, nephew or grandchild, and the notion of them being taken away at such a precious age.
"Placing them in an institution not because of anything that you had done or anything they had done, simply because the government … wants to indoctrinate them into a different culture, a different religion and a different language," Sinclair said.
If anyone were to try to do what was done in the residential school era now, Sinclair said "they could be stopped and prosecuted under the United Nations Convention on Genocide."
"The forced removal of children from one group in society to be placed within another group in society to change their race, to change their connection to their race for the purpose of eliminating that race of people, falls in to the definition of genocide," Sinclair said.
"To say that the Government of Canada participated in genocide against aboriginal people, through the use of residential schools is not an unfair statement."
Impacts of residential schools included loss of faith in family, loss of trust in family and many lost their capacity to believe in their parents, Sinclair said.
"Schools taught them to believe that their families were inferior, so they lost respect for their own family," Sinclair said.
The loss of language and culture, led to a loss of identity, which in many cases was passed down to their children.
"Even with our efforts as young people to find out what it meant to be an indigenous person … often it was our families who discouraged us from trying to find out that very important sense of direction," Sinclair said.
Survivors and intergenerational survivors often deal with mental health issues, such as depression, impulse control problems and other addictive behaviour.
It’s important for people to seek help for mental health issues, and to explore their own history. Both Western medicine and holistic, traditional methods should be considered, Sinclair said.
"The importance of identity to healing, particularly among those with mental health issues, cannot be overstated," Sinclair said. "Identity gives a person a sense of hope, a sense of direction, a sense of self-respect, a sense of belonging as well as a sense of balance ... If you know where you come from, you know where you’re going, you know why you’re here, then you know who you are."
The truth will lead to respect and understanding, Sinclair said. "And if we have respect and understanding, then we’re on the road to reconciliation and that’s important, because we have a damaged society right now."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 25, 2012