WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Gerry Kelly, residential consultant, says the family is where children learn who to trust.
ST. ALBERT — The residential school system was a systemic sin that cannot be understood as separate from a broader colonial reality, says Gerry Kelly, a consultant on the residential school settlement.
Stressing that Canada's residential school system was entrenched in Canada's social policy, Kelly said, "We have to realize that we are dealing with a structural harm."
Kelly, consultant to the Corporation of Catholic Entities Party to the Indian Residential Schools' Settlement, was one of several speakers at the fourth annual Directions in Aboriginal Ministry Conference at Star of the North Retreat Centre.
Some 40 aboriginal people and others involved in aboriginal ministry attended the July 10-15 event sponsored by the Western Catholic Bishops.
Canada's residential school policy has its roots in the War of 1812, in which the American forces invaded the then British lands called Upper Canada.
The vital military alliances Canada had with aboriginal peoples before the war changed drastically after Canada's victory in that war. "It's in that period of time that we began to hear in Canada the term 'Indian Problem.'"
In 1842, the Bagot Commission was created to explore the Indian problem in Upper Canada. This commission, operating under the assumption that aboriginal peoples were disappearing and "Indian communities could not adapt to the new world," concluded that the state should "help (aboriginal) people to migrate from one nation to the other," Kelly said.
Those assumptions became the basis for policy in Upper Canada, he said. Fifteen years later, the Act for the Gradual Civilization of Indian Peoples in Upper Canada was approved.
The term "civilization" didn't mean teaching aboriginal people to eat with a fork and spoon. "It meant making Canadian citizens (of them), but also carried the other understanding of a higher and a lower civilization," Kelly pointed out.
"There is no way to bring somebody from one national place to another in that system without somehow imposing an aggression on the key element of that culture, which is the family."
When the Bagot Commission reported, the government expressed interest in a Methodist residential project in Mississauga.
"They saw at that time that that kind of process would be the lifeboat by which individuals, children in this case, would move from one cultural experience that in their minds was ending to the next cultural experience that was continuing," Kelly noted.
However, any system that does not accept that the family is the place where children learn who they are and what they can trust "will create untold harm."
According to Kelly, many who worked in the residential school system tried to maintain the links between the family and the child as well as they could.
"But I think we need to start at the Bagot Commission because it brings us close to what is almost of the DNA of the residential school experience."
Residential schools have been closed for many years and yet their legacy continues. "For example, there are today 22,000 to 28,000 aboriginal children who are in state care. It's expected that in eight years aboriginal people will represent 25 per cent of the prison population," lamented Kelly.
"We have to see the residential school system linked (to the events of) the 1960s. When the schools were closing down, aboriginal children were taken in great numbers out their homes by social services and children's aid societies. We also have to see it linked to the incarceration (of aboriginal people)."
Kelly said if we don't link these things, we won't see the fundamental issue, which is that the residential school system was part of a broader colonial reality.
"So if we are going to talk about reconciliation, we need to talk about reconciliation in the whole picture rather than in its isolated moments. We need to recognize we are dealing with a structural harm."