Eugene Arcand is the chair of the governing circle of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
I’m a survivor of Canada’s residential school system. I wasn’t called by my name; the ID number my school gave me was 781. I spent 11 years of my childhood at church-run schools in Saskatchewan. So this back-to-school period is always a particularly rough time; year after year, September was when we were torn away from our families and our homes.
For most of our adult lives, we tried to suppress these painful memories. This is common to many residential school survivors; we didn’t talk about what we went through. Not to anyone. For more than 30 years, I didn’t even talk to my wife about it.
The federal government’s apology, the residential schools settlement agreement and the independent assessment process component made us remember – over a short period of time – what many of us have spent a lifetime trying to forget.
In telling this story, we are not looking for pity. Rather, it’s to underline how hard it has been for residential school survivors to share their stories. All that has been achieved – the settlement agreement, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report and its calls to action – only happened because of thousands of individual courageous acts as survivors relived painful and traumatic memories.
As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so clearly documented, the intended purpose of the residential school system was to systematically destroy our cultures, languages, ceremonies and Nations. In short, it was – is – cultural genocide.
The intergenerational trauma that was inflicted continues to cause harm in all our families and communities across the country, even today. But we as Indigenous peoples continue to live with our traditions and strive each and every day to pass these traditions on to our children and grandchildren. This is because of the strength and resilience of our peoples and our cultures.
We are not sharing these experiences because we want Canadians to feel the same guilt and shame we carried for years – feelings we did not understand. We share these experiences because we want all Canadians to confront the truth of this country’s history. Reconciliation requires acknowledging the truth and ensuring that the truth is never forgotten.
That’s why it was so important that Ottawa – in co-ordination with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, its survivor circle, Parks Canada and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada – has deemed Canada’s residential school system to be a matter of national historic significance. Such designations are how Canada officially recognizes events – both the good and the painful – that define our history and the country we live in. It’s only right that residential schools be included among them.
As part of that designation, two specific schools have been recognized as major sites: the Portage la Prairie Indian Residential School in Manitoba and the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia.
This initiative is vital because much of the Canadian public is still not aware that within these sites there are countless unmarked graves; 2,500 children remain missing. Right now, the vast majority of people drive by former residential school sites without even realizing they are there. Such awareness is essential in the reconciliation process, if it is truly to be achieved. We look forward to other sites being recognized in consultation with rights holders, survivors and families.
For far too long, Canada has avoided this shameful history. Now, we urge you to face this history with us. Understand where we spent our childhoods and what occurred in those places. We each have an important role to play.
As a survivor, these efforts are important, but they are just the first phase of our partnership. It is important for Parks Canada and succeeding governments to recognize that there has to be a second phase and possibly a third. After all, since Confederation – even before we were formally indoctrinated and forced through a system of genocidal practices – our lands have been appropriated and designated national parks instead. Today, National Parks and Parks Canada have a larger land mass than all of the reserves in Canada put together.
One constructive action would be for Parks Canada to acknowledge this history in each park and to allocate space where Indigenous peoples and Parks Canada could maintain land-based classrooms. This would be an opportunity for us to share our customs, our ceremonies, our languages and our gathering rights. It would be a call for Canada to engage in our worldview. I have not yet heard a better way of doing it.
We deliver this message with a good but heavy heart. The national path of healing requires a lot of effort – and there is not much time to do it.
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