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A Mother's Perspective on Residential Schools

Here is my experience of first day of kindergarten with my son Antonio. We are very close to each other. I wondered how the first day of school would be for him and how I would be. Well, this is how it went. Antonio was excited and cooperative the very first day of school. I was cautiously optimistic. The second day of school however was a complete 180. He had some verbal protests in the morning as he was getting ready but I didn’t want to inflame it all by opposing him directly and escalating his protests. I proceeded to take him to school and into the classroom to help him off with his outdoor shoes and help him put on his indoor shoes. Antonio started to put his outdoor shoes back on, protest about staying at school, and plead to go home. Prior to school starting, I had talked to the teacher about such a situation and we had a plan of attack. If this happened, she would take Antonio from me and I would leave quickly.

No one describes how hard it is to peel a child from you. They just don’t want to let go. Antonio hugged my legs and grabbed a fistful of my pants in his hands. The teacher had to firmly pull him away from me and I had to do my part and walk away. I am used to being firm with my son but this was difficult, walking away from him when he was calling for me. My friend who also had a child in kindergarten saw the whole thing and was waiting for me. Her eyes were red and were filled with tears. She felt sad for me and Antonio. 

A short two and a half hours later, I walked back to the school to pick up Antonio. He was fine and ready to be picked up. The teacher told me that they called his sister to come to the classroom to calm him down. It worked. This was our experience. 

Now do a comparison. I was anxious about leaving Antonio. Would the teacher know what to do with my son to calm him down? I had almost five years to learn his ways and the teacher has none. I had concerns about the teacher understanding Antonio (he only started talking 10 months earlier). I also had concerns about Antonio making friends or being so angry that he would lash out on the teacher or other students and forever be labelled a difficult child. Luckily for Antonio (and me), the teacher had the insight to call his sister to the classroom to comfort Antonio. But at the end of the day, he would only be gone for a few hours and if need be, I could come pick him up immediately. I have the privilege of having my son at home to raise him with his siblings and teach him our culture.

Now consider what it would have been like for parents and children immersed in the Indian Residential School system. A small child would have been left or taken away to go to school. Parents were not involved in any capacity in the child’s upbringing. Schools were purposely far away from home to break all ties between parents and the child. The child was not permitted to speak his or her language. Siblings of different genders were separated, again to break any familial and cultural ties.

Imagine your small child going to school miles away for months or years to be raised and schooled far away in a different language. Not a comforting thought, yet many Aboriginal people and subsequent generations experienced such a life. 

Editor's note: The Christian Reformed Church is celebrating May 31st as Reconciliation Sunday, to coincide with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Walk for Reconciliation. Interested in joining with thousands of Canadians in spirit as they walk in Ottawa to commit to renewed relationships? You can find worship resources on the Canadian Aboriginal Ministry Committee's toolkit

[Image: Flickr user Nick Kenrick]

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