Residential Schools removed spirituality from many children
By Evan Boudreau
Blair Stonechild knows first-hand the devastating effects Residential Schools had on First Nations spirituality.
He spent nine years at Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School in Lebret, Sask., beginning in 1956.
“As a child I remember the shock of being removed from my family,” said Stonechild. “One thing that really stands out in my mind was the endless torrent of prayers, Masses, and confessions.”
Today, as a professor of indigenous studies at First Nations University of Canada, Stonechild looks back on that dark period of Canadian history as “spiritual abuse.”
“As I began to examine the cultural holocaust of Residential Schools I began to realize that this discounting of indigenous ideology was a phenomenon that started much further back in history and has extremely deep roots,” Stonechild said as he delivered the 2017 Royackers Lecture at Regis College in Toronto on March 22.
“While Indigenous people were largely decimated by diseases, the bias against a spiritual and cultural system that was not understood by Europeans led to constant efforts to undermine Indigenous societies.
“Europeans did not understand Indigenous spirituality any more than modern archaeology understands the spirituality of ancient people.”
Stonechild was six years old when his parents arrived at Qu’Appelle.
At the school, mostly run by religious orders, First Nations students had the Christian sacraments imposed on them as teachers sought assimilation rather than spiritual awakening, he said.
“The real intent of the schools was to eradicate any vestiges of traditional Indigenous beliefs and replace it with an alien belief system,” he said to about 200 people who attended the lecture.
Not only did First Nations students have Christianity imposed on them at Residential Schools, they were also restricted from practising Indigenous spirituality or culture.
Recalling the school uniform, which had a personal identification number on the front, Stonechild compared schools like Qu’Appelle to correctional institutions.
“The bottom line was the schools were run much like reformatories where inmates are badly in need of discipline and moral training,” he said. “But the only thing that we had done wrong was that we were born Indigenous.”
Had First Nations been allowed to practise and preserve their culture, Stonechild believes life on Canadian reserves – which are plagued with issues of poverty, abuses of all forms and suicide – would be much different.
“If they had been allowed to continue practising their spirituality, their societies would have been maintained and remained largely intact,” said Stonechild, a member of the Muscowpetung First Nation. “(But) Indigenous spirituality … is an ancient system that is greatly misunderstood and came to be sidelined and suppressed.”