An Immigrant to Canada Grapples With Residential School Legacy

by Esther Leung

For 120 years, over 150,000 Aboriginal children (Metis, First Nations, and Inuit) in Canada were forcibly separated from their families to attend Indian Residential Schools run by churches and funded by the government. They were stripped of their culture and many suffered physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 10.10.26 AM

As an immigrant, I certainly did not know about this when I first moved to Canada in 1990 from Hong Kong.

The effects of residential schools still impact societies, cultures, and families today. These residential schools were designed to “kill the Indian ” and to assimilate them to become English-speaking Christians.

As I settled into my new Canadian life, I learned more about the history of the Aboriginal people from first-hand experience when I served in an inner city church (New Beginnings Baptist Church) for over 10 years through worship ministry.

As a Christian, I was shocked that this kind of injustice was done to the First Peoples of this land by churches. Can you imagine? If you were one of the residential school children, these may have happened to you:

– You were forced to speak a strange language and punished if were caught speaking your mother tongue.

– You could not live with your parents or siblings for most of the year until you were 18 years old, or you did not even get to go home at all for years.

– You were told that everything about your culture is “uncivilized.”

– Your culture’s art, craftsmanship and skills that were passed on from generation to generation were taken away.

– You were told you were dirty and sinful because of the color of your skin.

– You may have been sexually assaulted, raped, and even become pregnant but forced to have an abortion.

– You may be have been forced to be infected by Tuberculosis and used as a test subject for new medicines.

– You knew one or more classmates who died, because mortality was very high.

– You experienced harsh physical punishment.

“Cultural Trauma” is when a whole culture or nation has experienced major oppression from outside forces and were deeply wounded because of it. In this case, not only were these children physically and emotionally abused, but also spiritually abused.

Today we may say, I am not one of “those Christians” who ran the schools or treated them badly, but spiritually we need to recognize that an injustice has been done to this people group. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18).

As Christ’s ambassadors, here and now, we have a chance to participate in Christ’s reconciliation. How may that look like?

It may manifest in different ways as the Holy Spirit leads for different churches, denominations, and individuals. Some evangelical denominations have made public apologies because they were historically and directly involved with the residential schools. Some churches have committed to share God’s love to reserves by ways of gospel messages or VBS camps. Some have invited First Nations to share their journey and story in their churches.

One of my personal responses was to reflect my own attitude and intentionally creating more awareness in my own life and to local Chinese churches since that is my sphere of influence.

As an immigrant, we have received so much blessing from living in this land; enjoying the beautiful environment, clean air, free education, health care, etc. But have we ever thought of honoring and blessing the First Peoples of this land?

So often we only think for our own benefit. We think about which schools our kids can get into, what car would we drive, what kind of house we can build for ourselves.

Also for some of us immigrants, we tend to care more or only about the news of the country we came from rather than the country we are living in right now.

Personally I would build friendships and relationships with the First Nation community locally. Also I am convicted to become more aware, and started to follow news from the aboriginal communities from networks such as APTN and AFN, praying for heartbreaking issues such as the many missing Aboriginal women and housing issues in some of the reserves.

In 2014 alongside a group of diverse Christian leaders we had the vision to provide an opportunity for evangelical churches to learn more about the history of Indian Residential School as we screened the film “We Were Children.” We invited First Nation Christian leaders as hosts and speakers for the event “Journey Together, Heal Together.”

We need God’s guidance in how to respond and participate in this reconciliation process. It can be a personal response, or it can be a corporate symbolic act. We do not claim that we have all the answers or that there is a formula — that if we all follow it in a certain way, the problem can be fixed.

But this we know: We need to be in a posture of humility, coming as learners, listening and journeying alongside our First Nation brothers and sisters, and seek God’s heart together.

Esther Leung was one of the organizers of “Journey Together, Heal Together,” held last year in Vancouver. This event was covered in the Nov/Dec Faith Today. 

One thought on “An Immigrant to Canada Grapples With Residential School Legacy”

  1. Thank you for this post.

    As a non-indigenous Canadian born in 1964, I did not know about the Canadian Residential Schools tragedy until sometime after Y2K. I grew up in a town where a residential school had created a tidy social landscape, uncomplicated by the ‘Inconvenient Indian’ (thanks to Thomas King for the phrase).

    Imagine my shock when I discovered how and by whom the price of my white privilege had been paid.

    I am now a bivocational Free Methodist church planter, working as an educator in a community school in the Saskatoon Public Schools system. I see it as a matter of conviction to responsibly steward the privilege afforded me by this shameful part of the Canadian story, working towards a more hopeful, inclusive and unified Canada.

    If Reconciliation is a handshake in the dark, then I will continue to extend my hand, that we would walk together in hope and healing.

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