Residential Schools and the Current Struggles of Aboriginal Peoples

January 15, 2018

It was a little under a year ago in the Spring of 2017, when Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak stunned the Canadian political world with her controversial comments regarding the residential schools system. Beyak, who was appointed to the Senate in 2013 by then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, described residential schools as being “well-intentioned” and that its “good deeds” are forgotten. These comments resulted in her removal from all Senate committees by the interim leader of the Conservative party at the time, Rona Ambrose.


On January 4th, 2018, the Conservative Party caucus announced that Beyak had been kicked out of the caucus due to the senator’s refusal to remove 100 letters in support of her stance on Indigenous people on her Senate website. One letter stated that the 6,000 Indigenous children who died in residential schools had died because of disease and malnutrition, without any mention of the physical and mental abuse they had experienced. Another letter suggested Indigenous culture is “opportunistic” and that it “will sit and wait until the government gives them stuff”. Conservative party leader, Andrew Sheer, called the remarks “racist” and was one of many to condemn Beyak’s beliefs.



Beyak will remain a senator but will now be an Independent member of the Senate instead of a Conservative member. New Democratic Party Member of Parliament, Charlie Angus, wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling the situation an “egregious abuse of public office” and recommends that the Prime Minister consult with Independent and Liberal senators to address this issue.       Andrew Sheer and Senator Lynn Beyak                                                                                                               


Residential Schools

For more than 100 years of existence, spanning from the 1870s to the 1990s, residential schools were schools that were sponsored by the Canadian government. Christian churches worked with the government to facilitate the established system all over Canada (except Newfoundland, PEI, and New Brunswick). Indigenous children were placed in these schools to learn academics based on European education and to participate in religious activities. The purpose of residential schools was to “get rid of the Indian problem” as Duncan Campbell Scott, the Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs, said in 1920. The removal of Indigenous culture started with the assimilation of children into a European society. To facilitate this objective, children were unable to speak in their native language and were forced to adopt a European culture by acting, thinking, and even dressing in a European style. Punishments were extremely harsh and happened very often in the form of physical and mental abuse. A total of 139 schools existed, with about 115,000 children who attended, and 6,000 who died overall. The last residential school officially closed in 1996.


                                                    A residential school classroom


Final Thoughts

One important question arises in this case with Senator Beyak and the Conservative Party. If Beyak had removed the letters on her website, would she have been able to stay on the Conservative caucus? This seems to have Conservatives stumped. The official statement that declared Beyak’s removal stated that it was a result of her actions instead of her refusal. However, many Conservative politicians have defended Beyak’s right to hold her views. The problem here is the Conservatives’ insistence on her right to have views that contradict historical facts. It took almost a full year and multiple controversial comments for the Conservative caucus to finally take action on the senator. This should raise a concern regarding the conservative mindset and its genuinity when they claim to support Aboriginal people.


When talking about Indigenous issues and trying to find solutions to these problems, we should keep in mind the history involving the creation of Canada. Canada is settler-colonialist and the original inhabitants of this land perished in large numbers. European colonialists effectively replaced the Indigenous population as the dominant presence on the land and were not afraid to use force. Today, the word “unceded” is used often to refer to the process of colonization, as this land was not freely given to the settlers. This concept is vital to understanding the roots of Canada, how it affected the treatment of Aboriginals in the past, and how it continues to affect Aboriginals in the present day.



Attempted progress has been made through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). The TRC was made as a response to the suffering of Indigenous people in residential schools. It seeks to inform Canadians about the residential school system and to strengthen Aboriginal communities. The AFN has similar goals, including protecting the environment and looking after Aboriginal interests in general. Despite the goals of organizations like the AFN and the TRC, the rate of progress still remains slow and is not efficient in terms of solving issues that Aboriginals face today. Aboriginals continue to face racism and discrimination throughout Canada. Poverty runs rampant in Indigenous communities and traps future generations in a cycle that seems to be inescapable. Homelessness causes Indigenous youth to face alcohol and drug problems. One third of homeless people in Vancouver are Indigenous, while only making up 2.5% of the population in the region.


What we need to seek is a solution. A solution that rids the colonial attitude that Canadian society possesses. A solution that respects the right to self-determination for Aboriginals. A solution that creates economic equality for Aboriginal people. Past and current efforts to help the Indigenous overcome their struggles have been stopped short by groups with their own set of interests. With the help of the Canadian government, whether it be Liberal or Conservative, wealthy companies continue to exploit resources and build structures on Aboriginal territory. I believe that in order to create positive changes and to truly remember the treatment of Indigenous people, society as a whole must undergo a nation-wide transformation.


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