One of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to the mainstream hearing about First Nations injustices are the words “ Get over it.”
I cringe when I hear the words “get over it.” Those very words are loaded and carry so many connotations to it, and those seem to be the words that prevail on message boards on news sites when another injustice towards First Nations peoples is brought to light.
There have been many injustices towards the First Nations/Metis/Inuit peoples of Canada. First there was the residential school system where millions of First Nations children were removed from their families and communities and sent away to have “the Indian educated out of them.”
The residential school system was fraught with substandard conditions and atrocities. Students endured physical and emotional abuse. There were also many allegations of sexual abuse:
The students at the residential schools rarely had opportunities to see examples of normal family life. They were in school 10 months a year, away from their parents. All correspondence from the children was written in English, which many parents couldn’t read. Brothers and sisters at the same school rarely saw each other, as all activities were segregated by gender.
Reactions and impacts of residential schools came in many forms. Native parents were reluctant to send or make their children available:
For many survivors, the first trauma they endured was the sudden separation from their parents and family. Leaving behind the familiar world in which they had been raised, children suddenly found themselves far from home, confronting a new culture, language and role expectations without any support whatsoever.
Furthermore, when students returned to the reserve after residential schooling was done, they often found that they did not belong. They did not have the skills to help their parents and became ashamed of their native heritage. It is here that “the aims of assimilation meant devastation for those who were subjected to years of mistreatment.”
Secondly, there was the Sixties Scoop. The Sixties Scoop refers to the period of Canadian history from 1960 through the mid 1980’s during which thousands of First Nations children were taken from their homes and communities and adopted by non-Native families.
Statistics from the Department of Indian Affairs indicate that at least 11,132 Status children were adopted in this period. Determining a precise number is all but impossible because adoption records from this period rarely indicated Aboriginal status as they are now required to do.
In the Kenora region in 1981, 85 percent of the children in state care were First Nations children, though First Nations people made up only 25 percent of the population. The number of First Nations children adopted by non-native parents increased five-fold between the early 1960’s and late 1970’s with 78 percent of the adoptions of First Nations children going to non-Native families. (Budgell, Janet. Our Way Home: A Report to the Healing and Wellness Strategy 1999)
The forced removal of First Nations children from their families and communities in this period had many consequences: many children grew up without knowing about their culture, language, or traditions. The Canadian government’s colonialist policies made First Nations children feel that there was something wrong with them. This led to a loss of identity, separation from birth families, difficult reunions with birth family members in later years, and having to learn the ways of their people, often from outside their adoptive families and communities.
Metis historian Olive Patricia Dickason has said that “for Aboriginal peoples the experience of externally enforced assimilation was a national one, as were its consequences: rising rates of substance abuse, with physical and health problems; psychological and sexual abuse; broken families, community dysfunction and soaring suicide rates.” The policy of “killing the Indian in the child” resulted in adults “disconnected from their communities, in turn mistreating their own children in a cycle that has passed from generation to generation.”
The adoptions, like the residential schools before them, created a deep and unhealed pain in First Nations communities. Jeannine Carriere, a Metis adoptee and adoptive parent from the Red River area of southern Manitoba and teacher at the University of Victoria’s School of Social Work, describes the Sixties Scoop as the “most comprehensive assault on Indigenous families following that of sending Indigenous children to residential schools.” (Carriere, Jeannine. ASKI AWASIS CHILDREN OF THE EARTH-First Peoples Speaking on Adoption)
The Canadian government has made two apologies to the First Nations people of Canada. The first was in January 1998 when then Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart singled out Indian Residential schools as the most reprehensible example of Canada’s degrading and paternalistic Indian policies. The second apology was when Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood before Parliament on June 11, 2008 and offered an apology to former students of residential schools.
Though Harper stated that the treatment of children in residential schools was a sad chapter in Canada’s history, I question why colonial policies and practices are still being played out across Canada. You just need to think of the Indian Act, and how the use of a status card has become legislated identity, for people who were clearly here first on what First Nations people call Turtle Island. The use of status cards determines who is Indian and who is not. Do you not think that as First Nations people, we don’t know who we are? Why do we need to carry a card in our own country saying who we are in the eyes of the government?
There is also the implementation of Bill C-41 and the whole Idle No More movement, and the axing of after school programs and daycare that many non-Native peoples can still access, and the poor conditions of schools on reserves.
Most recently there was a news article that showed on my newsfeed on Facebook that read “Kenora aboriginal kids made deaf by experimental treatments.” The article in part reads “Aboriginal students attending Kenora’s residential schools in the 1940s and ‘50s were not just having their nutritional intake meddled with in the name of science. For children at Cecilia Jeffrey from 1953 to 1954, it was their ears that researchers were interested in.”
According to a government report from Indian and Northern Health Services, students were subjected to ear treatments and out of all the students treated, 80 different students were found to have hearing loss caused by wax build up around the ear drums and 40 students were found to have active ear infections.
The project, entitled “Experimentation and Treatment of Ear Disease Among 165 Pupils” detailed how nine of the students suffered significant hearing loss over the course of the treatments, with three “almost deaf with no ear drums, six had (hearing) in one ear gone.”
Canada’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt also says he is looking into claims that 1,300 malnourished aboriginals were used in human experiments during that time. He has not yet issued an apology that was requested by the Assembly of First Nations.
Finally, in July, a University of Guelph food historian put forth research that showed native children and adults being used as test subjects in nutritional experiments that were conducted by the government in the 1940s and 1950s. Meal plans were altered to provide insufficient vitamins and minerals, and subjects were sometimes denied dental care to test the efficacy of vitamin and mineral supplements.
The mainstream public are always telling First Nations people to “get over it” and my opinion is how can they say “get over it” when on many levels our government and people of Canada are not making an effort to understand the injustices done to the First Nations/Metis/Inuit peoples of Canada.
Before you say “get over it,” please inform yourself of the issues being brought to light, and try to put yourself in our shoes. If you can do that, then maybe you won’t be so quick to judge.
Christine Smith (McFarlane)
Budgell, Janet Our Way Home: A Report to the Healing and Wellness Strategy.1999
Carriere, Jeannine ASKI AWASIS CHILDREN OF THE EARTH-First Peoples Speaking on Adoption
Failing the First Nations-Globe and Mail (http://www.wrcfs.org/repat/FailingtheFN.htm)