A Challenge and a Measure of Our Resilience
As NCN Citizens have increasingly engaged in the outside world over the past century, several significant events have profoundly affected our Citizens or encroached on Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation’s ancestral homeland.
Tragedy surrounded the school system; on-reserve day school students, taught by the churches, reported physical and sexual abuse; administrators had more control than the leaders in the communities and a new religion was brought to the Nehetho people.
NCN was caught in Canada’s residential school system tragedy. Beginning in 1920 the Indian Act made attending government-sponsored, church-run residential schools mandatory.
Indian residential schools in one form or another date back to the 1880s but were finally closed down in the 1980s. More than 150,000 children attended residential schools across Canada over that period.
During this era of colonialism, almost all NCN children were forced to assimilate into a foreign way of life. They had to leave their homes, families and communities between 1920 and 1974 with many sent away to schools in Winnipeg, Brandon and elsewhere. The goal was to acculturate Aboriginal children into the European-dominated Canadian society by removing them from the cultural influences of their home communities. They were often forbidden to speak their native languages or observe their traditional beliefs. Families were split up and children from the same family were sent to different schools or were not allowed to share rooms with their siblings.
NCN knowledge keepers’ recall when the first group of six children were sent to residential schools in Red Deer, Alberta only three returned. The others, who attempted to flee the schools, were said to be buried in unmarked graves.
The schools were underfunded, often poorly managed and badly built. Because of underfunding, students were rarely fed well and lived in overcrowded housing. Disease and death were common early in the past century and horrible health conditions were ignored. Children were called dirty or savages and their self-esteem suffered.
Mandatory attendance ended in 1969 but physical, emotional and sexual abuse was common and endured until the schools closed in 1986. By then, authorities admitted failure and some First Nations including NCN sought local control of their children’s education. Unfortunately, decades of residential schools left its negative mark on our community as it did on others.
In 1981, NCN established the Nelson House Education Authority that took over responsibility for education from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and we now provide all on-reserve elementary and high-school education and administer post-secondary education funding. However, the curriculum is established by the provincial government and we are required to follow it. It does not yet include traditional cultural teachings or fluent Cree language courses which we are trying to rectify on our own.
For many NCN Citizens, the trauma of residential school life endured into adulthood, creating social problems, out-of-balance lives and substance abuse to escape the memories.
Children deprived of living with their own parents did not learn important parenting skills, kinship and other social connections themselves, which led to intergenerational problems in raising their own families.
In 2000, the Nelson House Medicine Lodge opened the Pisimweyapiy Counselling Centre (PCC) to work with NCN Citizens to help heal the devastating inter-generational impacts of the Indian Residential School system. Almost 440 NCN Citizens, many the children of residential school survivors, participated between 2000 and 2010 when the program ended.
After court action, the federal government enacted the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in May 2006, which provided financial restitution to residential school survivors for abuse and trauma. NCN Citizens who were residential school survivors were eligible for compensation. The agreement also established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada with a mandate to provide a forum for survivors to tell their stories of abuse. Many NCN Citizens have participated.
In 2015 the TRC concluded, after six years of research that the treatment of Aboriginal peoples in residential schools amounted to “cultural genocide.” The Commission recommended that “culturally appropriate” child welfare systems be put in place to keep families together where possible. NCN developed a unique proposal to improve child/parent care by removing the parent from the home, and providing new caregivers – rather than displace the children. The Canadian Government also began to officially recognize the tragedies of this era although progress to mitigate the negative impacts has remained slow.
The locally run NCN Family and Community Wellness Centre has been leading the way in innovative approaches to healing the generational impact and tragedies of the residential schools with its Intervention and Removal of Parent Program. The program has been running since 2001 to reduce the disruption and trauma to children and improve Mithwayawin (wellness).