An Unforgettable History

I don’t know about you, but I don’t own any orange shirts.

September 30th has been declared Orange Shirt Day in Canada— a day where people wear, or should wear, orange shirts to show support and understanding of the residential schools’ problem Canada had not so long ago.

Residential schools were a way for the Europeans to assimilate young Aboriginal children. Their goal was to “kill the Indian out of the children and severe their ties with family and culture.” To do this, children were taken away from their homes at young ages and sent to schools far from home, separate from their siblings.

Photo Credit: William Topley via Flickr

Once there, they were at the mercy of the European staff and the government. Their hair was cut, their names changed to European ones, and they weren’t allowed to speak their language anymore. They spent most of their day doing chores, with harsh punishments if they broke any rules.

The result of spending several years at these schools? The children didn’t fit in with their families once they returned. Most of them no longer spoke the language of their ancestors and were white-washed.

“When I fought to protect my land and my home, I was called a savage. When I neither understood nor welcomed his way of life, I was called lazy. When I tried to rule my people, I was stripped of my authority.” ~Chief Dan George

You might be saying: this happened long ago so why should I care? First of all, the last residential school closed 21 years ago, which isn’t that long ago. Second of all, it’s an ongoing cycle.

More than 150 000 children went to residential schools. These children eventually started families. However, they spent most of their childhood away from their parents, so how would they know how to raise children?

Personally, whenever I heard about residential schools I would think: “Well why didn’t the Aboriginals fight back?” I had recently found out the answer to that and it shocked me: they didn’t know. The parents were under the impression that their children were receiving a good education. Only the government and the school staff really knew what was going on, and they both remained quiet.

Many First Nations turn to drugs and alcohol to help them deal with the mistreatment and discrimination they face. It’s not really their fault; there aren’t rehabilitation programs or anything else they can turn to instead. There are also many stereotypes regarding them that only ruins their reputations further.

As a student, there might not be much that I can do to help with the residential school problem. It’s not like I can speak to government officials or personally apologize to all the Aboriginals affected. But that’s not an excuse to do nothing. I can still raise awareness by educating people about what happened and taking part in protests or movements. It is important to understand that everyone can help. Yes, we can’t change the past, but we can make sure nothing like it happens in the future.

As a Muslim, residential schools have a different meaning. Culture and religion play a big role in my life. I wear a head scarf everyday and it’s part of my identity. I speak Arabic —  it’s the language I grew up hearing and I use it everyday at home. I’m a proud Syrian- Canadian. I can’t imagine having to let go of these things— they make me who I am.