This story originally appeared on the London Free Press.
Nancy Deleary remembers growing up in silence. Residential schools stripped away her family’s cultural identity.
She grew up on the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, near London, wondering why her family never talked about the past. Her grandmother Eva Shilling was one of the 150,000 aboriginal children who passed through residential schools, made to “take the Indian out of the child.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has spent the last five years examining the bleak history of Indian residential schools, hearing the stories of 7,000 survivors across the country. The final six-volume report will be released Tuesday.
The government-funded schools, dating back to the 1840s, were set up to assimilate First Nations, Metis and Inuit children. Many were forbidden to speak their language, practise their own culture, and were sexually and physically abused.
The schools were often poorly ventilated and unsanitary. Many children died from influenza, measles and tuberculosis. Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the commission, estimates 6,000 children died at the schools.
Deleary’s grandmother worked as a seamstress during her time at Mount Elgin Industrial School on the Chippewas of the Thames native reserve, southwest of London. To honour her, Deleary has made a residential school dress hemmed with soft deer hide, a traditional material of First Nations people.
“I understand now why our people were in trauma. I began this mission to create art works throughout my community to try to awaken the spirit of our people,” said Deleary, who is pursuing her masters of fine art at Vermont College.
The forced assimilation left deep scars for Deleary’s family. “The trauma that impacted our family was chaotic and horrific.” Learning about the past, Deleary started her reconciliation process by pursuing her love for art.
“I understand now that it wasn’t their fault. I understand that the dysfunction, the addiction and the suicides were the result of what was done to our people.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was part of a compensation deal between the government and survivors to find out the truth about what happened at residential schools.
In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an official apology to former students who attended Canada’s 130 Indian residential schools, calling it a “sad chapter in our history.”
But the reconciliation process won’t be easy, Deleary said. “We have to communicate and understand one another. We need to understand how we were colonized.”
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MOUNT ELGIN INDUSTRIAL SCHOOL
The school, open from 1851 to 1947, was operated by the Wesleyan Methodist, then the United Church and Department of Indian Affairs. From a few dozen students in the 1850s, grew to about 100 by 1900, drawing from 18 First Nations communities in Ontario and Quebec.
- Canada had more than 130, including 17 in Ontario.
- First ones opened in the 1840s, last one closed in 1996
- Run by churches, funded by Ottawa until the 1970s
- More than 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Metis children attended; often against their parents’ wishes
- Justice Murray Sinclair estimates that 6,000 aboriginal children may have died at the schools
- In 2007, $1.9 billion set aside for survivors. So far, $1.6 billion claimed by about 97% of survivors.
- Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized in 2008.