Younger Indigenous Canadians Can Reclaim Lost Culture

By Jill Charlebois

Amid the ongoing discoveries of children’s remains at the sites of residential schools across Canada, younger generations of First Nations and Métis people might be conflicted about how to feel.

There were as many as 130 residential schools in Canada, dating from 1831 until the last school closed in 1996. During that 165-year time span, around 150,000 First Nations children were sent to these residential schools.They were given new Christian names, as their Native birth names were deemed unacceptable, and they were not allowed to speak their own languages.

The purpose of these residential schools was to strip away their indigenous identity and assimilate into white culture. This is cultural erasure, at the hands of white colonialists from both the church and the state. The children who attended were subjected to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Some died trying to run away (such as Chanie Wenjack), while others died on site and were buried on school grounds. 

These are the remains being found on the sites of these former residential schools. But how do modern, First Nations and Métis feel about this whole situation?

“It’s sad and scary to know that this happened to Native communities,” said 31-year-old Rebecca Hawn, a personal support worker who grew up near Tyendinaga Mohawk Nation.

“They took away their right to know their own families, their language… They lost their right to know their own spiritual ceremonies. [The children] were taken and had to conform to a society that didn’t see them for how beautiful they were.”

Hawn is a non-status Métis, who went to a neighbouring reservation to experience pow wows and listen to drum circles with her mother and siblings growing up. 

“I saw the traditional attire and I always wished I had the opportunity to learn more and maybe would have had the Native culture of our family nurtured, instead of cast in the background.”

“The idea was to ‘kill the Indian in the child’,” explained Herbie Barnes, an Anishinaabe actor who is currently the artistic director of the Young People’s Theatre in Toronto. 

Barnes’ mother went to a residential school in Sault Ste. Marie, called the Shingwauk Indian Residential School. 

“She was there year-round, so she didn’t even go home in the summertime.”

Home for Barnes’ family is the Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation on Manitoulin Island. “A lot of our people were pushed out of First Nations communities because of that.” 

He grew up in Toronto’s north end, where he and his family were the only Native people around. During his childhood, his family did visit the reserve on occasion, and his mother was able to share the traditional stories of her people. 

As for his mother’s experience, Barnes didn’t find out until he was about 11 years old. 

“My mother hardly talked about it,” he said. 

“When I was 11, she took us up to Shingwauk and met a friend she went to school with up there, and we went to the school... and we had a talk about that,” he explained, “But none of the hard stuff. And as I built my career and being part of Native theatre, these stories started coming up in the plays that I was doing.” 

Barnes directed a play called The Rememberer, which is about a residential school in Seattle, WA., and was then part of another production called Children of God, which is a musical by Corey Payette about the stories from residential schools.

Barnes had also worked in treatment centres for alcohol and drug abuse, where they found that some of the people getting treated were victims of the physical and sexual abuse that happened in residential schools.

He said that eventually, his mother talked about the dehumanization that took place at these schools. She once told her son, “Those schools stole my spirit, and you kids paid for it.” 

He went on sharing the statistic that, “One in 25 soldiers came back from World War I. One in 24 students returned from residential school.” 

Since May 2021, remains of hundreds of children have been found on sites of now-shuttered residential schools. The remains of up to about 6,500 have been said to be located, with the number difficult to finalize. At this point, 1,000 have been confirmed.

Now, Barnes said, is the time to feel the anger and sadness, but as a society, we can also start to move forward. “The non-Native side that goes, ‘well, that wasn’t me, I wouldn’t have done that’ is easy to say. Now we want to figure out how to reconcile.” 

“What that means, is that you’re going to have to give up some of the power that you have as a non-Native person,” Barnes explained that like Black Lives Matter, and with regard to murdered and missing Indigenous women, and the LGBTQ2Spirit community, it’s a matter of being able to have the same rights and opportunities as everybody else.

Equal rights for marginalized groups does not equate to fewer rights for those who already have them. “People tend to cling to the things that give them the most power, which is often stifling somebody else.”

Then comes the question of how Native and Métis people can reclaim their heritage that was almost completely erased. When asking Hawn how she felt about how the past actions of those in power affected her own generation, she said, “Of course we feel cheated. It’s sad to see many of this generation grow up completely blind to their own past. Everything feels lost [to] no fault of our own.”

Barnes said that because so much was lost, it’s hard to achieve, but not impossible. His great-grandmother was a medicine woman who only spoke the Anishinaabe/Ojibwe language, but he said that she wasn’t able to share her knowledge with his mother, because his mother’s parents told her that “If you want to survive in the white man’s world, you have to speak the white man’s language,” and so they almost exclusively spoke to her in English. 

He added that he believed that not only should the younger generations learn about their background before it’s lost, but all cultures should learn about Indigenous culture.

He also said he loves and appreciates the shift in the younger generations. “Younger people who have Native backgrounds are now saying, ‘Hey! We’re here!’ and they’re proud to be that. Where my mother kind of stepped back and hovered in the weeds, thinking ‘well, if they don’t want me then I won’t be here,’ our young people are [making their presence known].”

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