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The Scar Worn by Generations

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

By Rebecca Bocchinfuso – Director of AMICUS

When I meet new people in England, my accent typically triggers the question: “Where are you from?” Which is often followed up with: “what is your background / ethnicity?” When I respond saying that I’m from Canada and my ethnicity is Canadian, the usual reaction I receive is a puzzled look and presumably them thinking I’m just being a smart-ass. The majority of Canada’s population today is derived from different countries, so describing myself as ethnically Canadian tends to spark confusion. This confusion is understandable considering many are unaware of Canada’s indigenous population and what we have endured for generations, which is why I decided to make this post.

Trigger Warning: Before reading on, the below contents will involve topics of trauma, suicide and sexual abuse.

Canada’s indigenous population was first impacted by the British through the Royal Proclamation 1763 which guaranteed Canada’s Indigenous population’s rights and protections and was the legal basis for how colonial actors were to interact with Indigenous people. The British North America Act 1867 was later instituted which gave Indigenous lands established by the Royal Proclamation to the federal government. Indigenous populations were then bribed to give up their status as Indigenous in exchange for land and the right to vote through the Gradual Civilization Act 1857.

The Indian Act 1876 was later implemented with an aim of eliminating Indigenous culture in order to assimilate us into a more ‘Europeanised’ people. This legislation gave the government considerable authority to inflict generational trauma that is still seen today. The 1876 Act banned Indigenous communities and people from practising our culture and expressing our identities, making it illegal to have religious ceremonies, cultural gatherings, and even traditional dance was forbidden. This Act was later amended to require Indigenous children to attend residential schools.

Often coined as one of Canada’s greatest shames, residential schools operated in Canada for well over 100 years from 1831 to 1996.[1] These schools were created by the government in conjunction with various churches with a goal of ridding Indigenous children of their heritage. The trauma endured by children attending residential schools began from the moment they first stepped foot in the facilities. Their names were swapped out with assigned numbers, their traditional clothes were taken from them and their long hair was cut.[2] Punishment followed where children spoke their native language.[3] The punishment endured at residential schools involved humiliation and beatings which sometimes incorporated the use of blades.[4] One residential school survivor has vividly recounted a time where they had wet the bed, and a staff member subsequently shoved their face in it as punishment.[5] Bed wetting was not uncommon at the schools, as it tended to occur after some of the most gruesome of abuses took place, sexual abuse. [6]

Sexual abuse was unfortunately not uncommon at residential schools with both male and female victims.[7] Instances of sexual abuse sometimes took place in church confessionals, or involved a bag being placed over their heads while the staff commit unspeakable sexual atrocities to them.[8] Students recall being constantly hungry as they were never given enough food, many recall having to risk getting caught sneaking into the kitchen in order to soothe their starving stomachs, and much of the food given to children was infested with maggots.[9] The conditions at these schools were torturous, and lead many students to resort to suicide.[10] These suicides were subsequently made into a spectacle by the school staff, who have been reported to usher students to scene of the child’s suicide to observe the heart wrenching sight.[11] The despicable stories are seemingly endless, causing lifelong and intergenerational trauma. Further, might I remind you that the last residential school was closed in 1996, this being just 3 years before I was born.

Mass unmarked graves have been discovered at the sites of former residential schools across Canada for years now, and as such, over 1,700 unmarked graves have been found.[12] More recently, in May of 2021, 215 children were found in a mass unmarked grave in Kamloops B.C.[13]

Residential schools are far from the only trauma Canada’s Indigenous communities have endured, but its effects were far reaching. Other traumas have occurred in the form of forced sterilisation, the sixties scoop, and the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, inter alia. Each of these topics are extremely important, and I welcome anyone with an interest in learning more about Indigenous history and contemporary issues faced by the community to explore these areas in greater detail.

I am forever grateful for the strength and perseverance of my ancestors, and am proud to be an anishinaabekwe and member of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.

[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Canada’s Residential Schools: Reconciliation, The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015) at 29 [TRCC Residential Schools]. [2] “14 First-Hand Stories Underlining how Residential Schools Tried to ‘Get Rid’ of Indigenous Cultures” (16 December 2015) [3] ibid. [4] ibid. [5] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. The Survivors Speak, A Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015) at 59. [6] ibid. [7] ibid at 153. [8] ibid at 154. [9] ibid at 71-72. [10] supra n 2. [11] ibid. [12] Carina Xue Luo, Missing Children of Indian Residential Schools (6 September, 2022) <> accessed 11 December, 2022. [13] ibid.

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