Editor’s note: The following article discusses some of the abuse that Indigenous children suffered at former Indian Residential Schools, and some of the ongoing harm experienced by Indigenous people.
The recent discovery of Indigenous children’s bodies at several former Indian Residential Schools (IRS) across Canada and the United States has increased the necessity to look deeper into the abuse and murder that took place at these schools and the current state of agencies that continue to appropriate First Nation’s children and youth.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendation No. 6 deals with the physical punishment of children, specifically Section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada, which states “every schoolteacher, parent or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using force by way of correction toward a pupil or child, as the case may be, who is under his care, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.”
The TRC joined a long list of agencies that have been advocating for the repeal of Section 43, also known as the “spanking law,” including the Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law, which sought a declaration in Ontario, in November 1998, “that Section 43 violates Sections 7 (security of the person), 12 (cruel and unusual punishment), and 15 (equality) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that it conflicts with Canada’s obligations under the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“The federal government defended against the Charter challenge and was supported by the Canadian Teachers Federation and the Coalition for Family Autonomy (Focus on the Family, the Canadian Family Action Coalition, the Home School Legal Defence Association of Canada, and REAL Women of Canada), according to the Canadian Children’s Rights. The Canadian Foundation’s position was supported by the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies.
“Section 43 is a limited defence; it provides that a parent, teacher or person acting in the place of a parent is justified in using force to correct a child that is under his or her care, provided that the force used is reasonable in all the circumstances.”
Indigenous teachings provide a guideline for parents and the community when raising young ones, including age-appropriate guidance.
These teachings represent the seven stages of life. They are part of what the IRS attempted to erase from the young souls who were and continue to be ripped away from their families and communities.
“The Good Life” represents the first seven years of a child›s life and marks a critical stage in a child’s development.
During the “good life” stage, there usually are elders, grandmothers, and grandfathers around who support parents in providing for all the child’s needs. Because this stage is essential, the family is often supported by the extended family. Mothers and fathers are supported by their mothers and fathers.
“The Fast Life” represents children aged seven to 14, and teachings are provided to them to prepare for their four-day vision quest at the time of puberty.
From ages 15-21, the stage is called “The Wondering Years,” when young people begin to ask questions and challenge ideals and concepts put before them.
After the Wandering/Wondering life, elders, teachers, and mentors guide young people to the next phase, “The Truth Life.” Young people from 21-28 are meant to be taught about life as an adult during this stage.
“The Planting or Planning Life,” from the ages of 28-35, sees the seeds planted during the previous stages begin to be nurtured, the teachings meant to be incorporated into an individual’s life begin to bloom.
From 35-42 years old, “The Doing Life,” where they practice all those things that they have learned on this life’s journey. This is the time to do their work, a time to follow through with the Creator’s plans for them and fulfill the purpose they were given before they came to the world.
The elder stage begins at 49. This is the giving back stage where they gain family, clan, and community responsibilities. When they become an elder, they come back and teach the young ones and continue the circle of teaching by passing on the knowledge to younger generations.
When the churches and the government began the IRS system, the goal was to “kill the Indian in the child.” They aimed to assimilate these children into the new “dominant society,” primarily the white race to suppress the Indigenous Peoples and begin appropriating the land and resources of this vast land. At the same time, the people suffered the loss of their most precious resource – their children.
To “kill the Indian in the child,” the life stages mentioned above were stolen from the children, literally cutting them off from everything they knew and should have learned.
Corporal punishment is a polite “label” for the atrocities that were done to these children.
From the website facinghistory.org:
“Traditional Indigenous education, including adult responses to misbehaviour, rarely involved physical punishment. In sharp contrast, many of the methods used by the staff and faculty at the residential schools to discipline students involved severe corporal punishment.
“Forms of physical punishment were acceptable in both Europe and British North America and were common at the elite boarding schools in Britain at the time.
“But the residential schools were no elite boarding schools, and for many students the physical punishment experienced in the residential schools was physical abuse. Rather than preparing students for life after schooling was complete, a mixture of willful neglect and abuse negatively impacted many residential school students for the rest of their lives.”
Cigna is a global health services company dedicated to improving the health, well-being, and peace of mind of those they serve.
They describe corporal punishment “as the use of physical force that causes bodily pain or discomfort as penalty for unacceptable behaviour.”
Some examples of corporal punishment listed:
The Cigna website went on to describe the impacts of corporal punishment on children, saying that it can also have emotional and psychological effects, both short- and long-term, such as:
Impairing a child’s trust and confidence.
Causing embarrassment, humiliation, a sense of worthlessness, anger, resentment, and confusion.
Causing children to have trouble forming close relationships, especially intimate relationships, with others later in life.
An excerpt from “Stolen Lives: The Indigenous Peoples of Canada and the Indian Residential Schools”, an article on facinghistory.org, describes one victim’s recollection of the punishment for wetting the bed at the Mohawk Institute, also known as the “Mush Hole.”
The article states even common childhood accidents like bedwetting were punished harshly. Lorna, who was at the Mohawk Institute from 1940 to 1945, describes the “shock treatments” the girls would receive, regardless of whether they had actually wet their beds.
“They used to give us shock treatments for bedwetting. A lot of us never wet our beds but we still had to do it anyway. They said it worked for the girls but it didn’t work for the boys. They couldn’t really ever find out why, but I think it was because of the sexual abuse that went on there. They used to bring in a battery—a motor of some sort or some kind of gadget, and he’d put the girl’s hand on it and it would jerk us and it would go all the way through us from end to end—it would travel. And we would do that about three times.”
Geraldine Sanderson attended Gordon’s Indian Residence in Saskatchewan from 1959 to 1964.
In Chapter 4 of Stolen Lives, she talks about her classmates’ desires to return to the familiarity of home and attempts made to run away.
She explained few ever made it very far since the schools were often established in isolated areas, and punishments for those who were caught were harsh.
“Punishment for running away varied,” she said. “One boy was hauled up in front of all the assembled students by the principal. He had a reputation for being mean. He forced the boy to pull his pants down and gave the boy 10-15 straps with a great big leather strap. Girls often had their head shaved bald if they tried to run away so that everyone would know. It was awful. I felt very ashamed. We also had to scrub the stairs with a toothbrush.”
Sanderson went on to say that students who ran away were often caught “by the school staff or the Indian agents, they often received strappings or were struck with the “cat-o-nine tails,” a whip with a cotton cord and nine knotted thongs, commonly used for punishment by the British Navy and Army.
“For offences such as running away, students also received hours of isolation in dark closets, boiler rooms, or abandoned areas of the school,” she said.
Other forms of abuse that Indigenous children were subjected to were sexual in nature, claims of children as young as three years old being raped by the sexual predators that often ran or worked at the schools.
Stories of older boys and girls positioning themselves between the youngsters and the predators in order to protect them are all too familiar to Indigenous people.
Loss of language, the cutting of their hair, separation from family, traditions, and community are all forms of abuse that these children were subjected to, and these things often continue to happen. Yet, at the same time, they are being “protected” by Family and Children’s Services.
A report located at focusforhealth.org entitled “Sex abuse and the foster care system” states:
The Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect-2008 (CIS2008) is the third nationwide study to examine the incidence of reported child maltreatment and the characteristics of the children and families investigated by child welfare.
The CIS2008 tracked 15,980 child maltreatment investigations conducted in a representative sample of 112 Child Welfare Service organizations across Canada in the fall of 2008.
A report from focusforhealth.org states that more than half of child sex trafficking victims recovered through FBI raids across the United States in 2013 were from foster care or group homes. This statistic brings to light the failure of the system to address the recurring sexual exploitation of minors while in their protection. Predators immediately recognize that children in foster care are especially accessible to them because the adults charged with protecting them are not doing so.
Indigenous Watchdog reports this call to action as “stalled.”
The organization said there has been no commitment to repealing Section 43 of the Criminal Code. Instead, efforts to date are focused on education and raising awareness on issues with spanking.
Dec. 8, 2015 – Senate Bill S-206, an act to amend the Criminal Code (protection of children against standard child-rearing violence) introduced for First Reading.
Apr. 3, 2018 – This act comes into force one year after the day on which it receives royal assent or on a day to be fixed by order of the Governor in Council, whichever is the earlier.
May 31, 2018 – Bill S-206 moves to second reading in the Senate. Referred to committee.
As of May 31, 2018, Bill S-206 has still not received Royal Assent.
The Government of Canada website states:
All children have the right to be protected from violence. The Criminal Code and provincial and territorial welfare laws protect children from all forms of violence, including abusive and harmful conduct. Section 43 of the Criminal Code provides a limited defence to parents, caregivers, and teachers who use reasonable force toward a child. The issue of whether or not Section 43 of the Criminal Code should be repealed raises differing and strongly held views across Canada.
In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada found that Section 43 was constitutional in a case called Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law v. Canada (Attorney General). However, the court’s decision, which included guidelines, significantly narrowed the application of Section 43 to reasonable, corrective force that is minor or transitory and trifling in nature. The court also made clear that teachers cannot use corporal punishment under any circumstances.
Since 1987, the Government of Canada has been supporting parenting education programs, such as the Nobody’s perfect program, and develops publications that discourage physical discipline and provides caregivers with positive parenting skills. For example, the online brochure called What’s Wrong with Spanking? helps to guide parents in responding to children’s behaviour.
The next article will include calls to action seven to 10, the remainder of the Education portion of the report.
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) emergency crisis line is currently available 24/7 at 1-800-721-0066 or 1-866-925-4419.
Cory Bilyea, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wingham Advance Times