Chief Wilton Littlechild discusses the truth behind residential schools
On March 13, 2013 Mount Royal University and the Iniskim Centre had the honour of hosting Chief Wilton Littlechild, while he discussed with the campus community the lasting impacts of residential schools on education, families and Canada as a whole.
Littlechild is a prominent figure in the realm of Aboriginal issues in Alberta, Canada and around the world. He was the first Treaty First Nation person to acquire his law degree from the University of Alberta and is a strong advocate for the rights of Indigenous peoples.
Chief Littlechild also served as a Member of Parliament from 1988 to 1993 where he represented the riding of Wetaskiwin-Rimby, in Central Alberta. During this time, Littlechild organized a coalition of Indigenous Nations that sought and gained consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. He was re-appointed by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) President to represent North America and has completed his second and final term as the North American representative to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
Littlechild now serves as Commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, a commission funded by residential school survivors, with a mandate to learn the truth about what happened in residential schools, and in-turn, to inform all Canadians about the realities of our country’s history.
Despite his impressive educational history and professional accomplishments, there is a piece of Littlechild’s education that doesn’t make his CV — the 14 years he spent in Canada’s residential school system.Forced to forget a rich history
Littlechild explains that Residential schools in Canada existed from 1874 to 1996, and until 1990 in Alberta. Run by the various church groups, the residential schools were the result of “misused good intent”, referring to the original inclusion of education as a treaty right, as the Chiefs had identified education as necessary for their people to be engaged in the building and development of Canada.
However, the original intent devolved into the shameful reality of the residential school program, and has since become one of the biggest national disgraces in our history.
From the original intent of educating Aboriginal children, the focus became skewed and distorted, eventually having laws and policies implemented that focused on “killing the Indian in the child”, and was presented as being “in the best interest of the child”, says Littlechild.
Parents had no recourse as their children were removed from their homes each September, which is now known as “the month of crying”, Littlechild explained. In some cases the children were taken thousands of kilometers away, with legal punishments imposed on parents who did not comply.
Littlechild himself spent much of his youth at the residential school in Ermineskin, in Central Alberta — a school, reminiscent of a prison as it was encircled by an electric fence. At the school, Littlechild and his schoolmates were stripped of their names having them replaced by numbers (Littlechild’s being EIRS #65), their traditional long hair was cut and physical punishment was administered if they were caught speaking their native language.
Sharing a personal experience
During his presentation, Littlechild told many stories. Some stories came from his own experience, and many from people that he has encountered throughout his life. He explained the loss of respect for education within his people that he has witnessed as a result of bad experiences in the residential school system — the loss of identity, language, culture, self-respect and the trickle-down effect that these experiences have between generations — and how this has played into many of the social problems encountered within Canada’s Aboriginal community.
With over 37,000 claims of physical and sexual abuse having now been reported by people who were removed from the care of their parents and placed in the residential school system, Littlechild explains that these experiences have stripped many of his people of the ability to love, which is reflected by the high rates of suicide, substance abuse and loss of identity among his people.
Between the unthinkable abuses and over 3000 residential school deaths wherein families were often never even told of where their children were buried, it is no wonder the impacts of these occurrences still have massive inter-generational implications on Canada’s Aboriginal communities, as families continue to cope with these experiences.
Now, as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, it is Littlechild’s mission to hear and pass on the stories of his people in order to ensure that an accurate record is created and taught, a dialogue is established to create a broader understanding of the past while helping create the perceptive that will shape the future.
“It’s not an Aboriginal problem, it’s a Canadian issue,” explained Littlechild as he looked to the audience. “And, to the students in the audience here today…you are the solution.”
— Brendan Greenslade, March 21, 2013