The Legacy of Residential Schools at McGill

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

September 30 was Orange Shirt Day, and in early October, The Indigenous Student Alliance set up a table in the Arts building to raise awareness about the effects of residential schools and to honor survivors. This day signifies the time of year when Indigenous children were stolen from their homes and taken to residential schools. While the last of these schools may have closed in 1996, their oppressive legacy continues to affect Indigenous people today. Observers wear orange to pay tribute to survivors as well as to raise awareness about the oft-forgotten and ignored legacy of these institutions.

Orange Shirt Day originated from Phyllis Webstad’s story of her first day at a residential school, when her orange shirt was taken from her and replaced with a uniform. In her own words, Webstad recalls; “The colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”

While residential schools may be a thing of the past, their effects reverberate to this day and continue to affect the lives of many Indigenous people, including the 385 students enrolled at McGill. These schools sought to “assimilate” Indigenous children into Canadian culture and denied them the ability to celebrate and learn about their own identities.

On the legacy of residential schools, Ella Martindale, Co-Chair of the Indigenous Student Alliance at McGill and member of the Cowichan First Nation, said;  “The number one thing people need to know about the ongoing and continuous effects of residential schools on Indigenous communities, is that [they were] a tactic to assimilate, erase, and destroy Indigenous peoples on their own land.”

This loss of culture, coupled with the lifelong and intergenerational trauma that can result from physical and sexual abuse –which is widely reported to have occurred at many residential schools– have had devastating effects on Indigenous communities. “There are many accounts from survivors documenting horrific physical and mental abuse. It is one of the most evident periods in the history of Canada as a settler colonial state that we can point to that demonstrates the way that colonial power works to kill the colonized,” remarked Martindale.

“The number one thing people need to know about the ongoing and continuous effects of residential schools on Indigenous communities, is that [they were] a tactic to assimilate, erase, and destroy Indigenous peoples on their own land.”

Notably, this trauma is not just limited to Indigenous people that actually attended residential schools themselves. Research has shown that the trauma of residential schools is frequently passed on intergenerationally. A 2010 study on the subject, led by researcher Gwen Reimer, explains that trauma can be historic; “cumulative stress and grief experienced by Aboriginal communities is translated into a collective experience of cultural disruption and a collective memory of powerlessness and loss.”

A simple signifier of these generational effects is the small number of Indigenous students currently attending university. As previously mentioned, McGill has approximately 400 indigenous students enrolled out of a student body of roughly 40,000.

The  Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was published in 2015, laid out guidelines for Universities to help increase enrollment and assist Indigenous students during their time at university. However, most schools, including McGill, still have lots of work to do.

According to Martindale: “The university’s top priority should be making their spaces more inviting to Indigenous peoples before they attempt to welcome more in. We –Indigenous people– will keep coming to university, but there is work, such as decolonizing, renaming, de-erasing and making space that needs to be done outside of recruitment that I think is just as important right now.”

McGill has recently been the subject of controversy when it comes to Indigenous issues, with many calling upon the school to change the name of McGill’s men’s sports teams, which are currently known as the “Redmen.” While McGill has taken action to incorporate administrative changes laid out in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Redmen name controversy serves as a reminder that increased social awareness on Indigenous issues and history are just as important when it comes to long-overdue reconciliation efforts.

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