Growing up on reservations, I and other Indigenous children were told horror stories of residential schools — so much so that the very idea of being put into a residential school terrified me as a child. If I had been born two years earlier, I could have been taken away from my family to endure what Indigenous elders have gone through for years.
The idea that residential schools were created to educate Indigenous children is false. It is part of what happened in these schools, but education was not the reason, nor the purpose. The real reason residential schools were created was to assimilate nations. A colonial ruse. A fabrication to take the "quote-unquote" Indian out of the child.
I don’t even know my own language. I know how to say hello; I know how to say thank you; I know how to count to three. But that is it. I am not all that connected to my own culture, and it’s little realizations like these that make me believe the Canadian government and the church were successful in taking the "Indian out of the child."
I have lost a part of me — a part of me that I am so desperately fighting to take back, and I am not the only one. Many Indigenous people are fighting to take back their identity — identities that were taken from us because of the actions of the Canadian government and the church. We are faced with the consequences of our past every day of our lives. So why can’t the government and the church face theirs?
The effects of residential schools are still being felt today. The trauma, the heartache and the pain are still very present in the lives of many Indigenous people. The proof can be seen on the streets of Winnipeg, where the homeless population is made up mostly of Indigenous people.
The reason most homeless people in Winnipeg are Indigenous is because of addictions caused by the trauma of attending residential schools. The trauma caused by these residential schools is the type of trauma that lives through generations, and my family is an example of that. My grandpa lived it. My dad felt it. And I deal with it.
My grandfather does not talk much about his time in residential school, and rightfully so. Residential schools were extremely traumatizing for every Indigenous child who attended them. In Canada’s residential schools, Indigenous children were not allowed to speak their native language or practise their religion or spirituality. If Indigenous children tried to practise their culture, they would be punished physically, mentally and/or sexually.
Canada’s residential schools taught Indigenous children that it was OK to physically, mentally and/or sexually abuse the people around them for disobeying. This was the reality for my grandfather.
As a kid, I was told the stories of how abusive my grandfather was to his family as a young man — horrific stories that I could not believe at the time, because of the man he is today. However, my dad felt and experienced all the abuse my grandfather had passed onto him from residential schools.
Throughout my dad’s childhood, he learned by watching my grandfather that it was OK to abuse the people around you, even if they were your loved ones. That led to me growing up in my own house of abuse.
When I was a child, my father was an alcoholic and extremely abusive to my mother. I saw my mother endure a lot of physical and mental abuse. I remember one night when my mother and I were watching movies in the living room; we fell asleep in the living room, and at around 3 a.m., we both woke up to a loud bang at the front door.
My dad burst through the front door, visibly angry and drunk. After shouting obscenities and accusations at my mom, he jumped on top of her and proceeded to beat her in front of me. While crying and screaming, my mom told me to go next door to my grandparents’ place.
When I got there, we called the police. However, because we lived on the reserve, the police would not get to our house for another 20 minutes. The next time I was my mom, she was badly bruised and bloody.
This happened long ago, but I still cannot get it out of my head. As a kid, I could never make sense of why abuse could have infected our family for so long. It was not until I studied Indigenous history at the University of Manitoba this past year that I could finally make sense of it all.
If I had never learned more about residential schools through my time in university, I would have never known about this trauma, this heartache, and this pain that is caused directly by the residential schools created by the Canadian government and the church. It’s because of my education I can finally understand my grandpa and my dad’s pain and trauma.
It does not excuse what they did to their families. Both of them face the consequences of their actions every day. So, I ask again: why can’t the Canadian government and the church face the consequences of their actions committed against the Indigenous people of Canada?
Tyrell Bird is a musician, mental-health advocate, public speaker and part of the Indigenous collective known as Red Rising. He is from Black River First Nation and is currently studying to become a teacher.