The World

What I Learned in Canada’s Brutal Residential Schools

The campaign to separate Native children from their heritage began before we were sent away.

A man in a face mask and cap looks down at a flower memorial at a gravesite.
A man pauses at a monument, outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, where flowers and cards have been left as part of a memorial to honor the 215 children whose remains have been discovered buried near the facility, in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, on June 3. Cole Burston/AFP via Getty Images

The Mohawk Nation once exercised its authority over 11 million acres of territory from the St. Lawrence River to the Delaware, a land that included all of the magnificent hunting grounds of the Adirondack Mountains, a region of beauty and natural riches, occupied by a people whose technologies and philosophies forever changed the world. In the 19th and 20th centuries, these people came to be diminished to a condition where they willfully surrendered their children to the horrors of the residential boarding school system.

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The Mohawk were not alone in this fate. Last month, Canada was shocked by the announcement that the remains of 215 Native children had been found on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. It was another grim reminder of what a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission has described as “cultural genocide“—the decades in which hundreds of thousands of children were taken from their families and put into schools, often far from home, in which they were often abused and malnourished. I was one of those children.

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In 1967, when I was 13, I was sent to the Mohawk Institute, one of the worst of the 139 such schools across Canada that housed more than 150,000 Natives from their inception in the 1830s until the final closure in the 1990s. These places of confinement were paid for by Canadian government but managed by various Christian entities; ours was controlled by the Anglican Church. As brutal and raw as the stories coming from the victims of the Catholic Church were, the Anglicans were no better.

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We were subjected to all of the most extreme controls brought to bear upon Canadian convicts and even given numbers in place of our names. Mine was No. 73; it was signed on every garment I was issued.

But the policy of separating us from our heritage began long before we were sent away. We as Mohawks on the Akwesasne territory, which is divided in two by the U.S.-Canada border and lies 100 kilometers southwest of Montreal, knew nothing of our remarkable heritage when we were students at St. Regis Catholic School—the local reservation school I attended before the Mohawk Institute. The Sisters of St. Anne and the parish priest, a Mohawk Jesuit, impressed an oppressive guilt upon us because, they alleged, our ancestors had burned, clubbed, or tortured nine Catholic priests and laypeople to death. Only by the act of submission, they told us, could we be saved from eternal damnation.

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These teachings and attendant literature almost eclipsed the truth. We would learn later that there was another version thanks to the intrepid work of Ray Fadden-Tenahatorens, an interpid Mohawk instructor in a public school on the “American” side of our reservation.

Fadden told of the days when the Mohawks were supreme, unequaled as forest rangers, unique in their powers of reason. He said the colonists were so impressed with the Mohawks that they dressed as our people when they threw the caskets of tea into Boston Harbor, that we were the ones who advocated colonial unity, and that it was our people who created North America’s first union of free nations, the famous Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. He said we almost broke the back of the American Revolution and saved what was to become Canada in the War of 1812. He also pointed out all the things Native people invented: maple syrup, canoes, chocolate, pineapples, corn, tobacco, team sports, hockey, lacrosse, and the first forward pass in football.

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Sadly, the kidnapping and confinement of Native children could not have taken place without some degree of compliance by our local Mohawk band council. That entity was imposed upon Akwesasne in 1899, when a contingent of Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers invaded to install the colonial Indian Act of Canada system against the wishes of the people.

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Our leaders had learned their lesson about opposing any directive coming from officials in Ottawa. So when the policy of removing children to distant schools was imposed, the band council complied and actually assisted in physically disrupting the families. Being Mohawk meant restrictions as to movement, residence, and education. It was a burden made worse by the blatant racism of that region.

As children we were told there was no good reason to retain the Mohawk language, and that we should become wage earners, consumers, good citizens. We should be resilient and bear the most serious of assaults in silence. That is what I did during my time at the Mohawk Institute. I witnessed sexual abuse, I did nothing as the victims were selected and taken to their shame, I took the strap and endured months of hunger. I developed a “strike first” reaction to any threat and came to suspect and despise any and all authorities, Native or not.

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I also listened to the stories of my classmates, of the pressing need for human contact even if it meant giving up their bodies. I heard rumors about midnight burials in a backyard gully, of the supervisors who smothered the newborns resulting from their rapes of the Native girls. Now that the bodies are starting to be found throughout Canada, perhaps actions can be taken to address what happened on those dark nights. Perhaps some justice can be delivered.

Whenever I am asked about what could be done for us, the survivors now in our sixth decade, I say this: The entire residential school scheme was intended to divorce us from our culture, which in turn was intertwined with our ancestral lands. To “heal” us, give us back our lands so we might be restored to the embrace of the Earth.

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