French students in Canada recount ugly history of indigenous schools

·3-min read

"They were forced to cut ties with their families," the student says, as he records an "audio postcard" with classmates on the tragic history of boarding schools set up more than a century ago to forcibly assimilate Canada's indigenous peoples.

Such institutions are under new scrutiny after the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc tribe said last week it had discovered 215 students' remains in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

On Thursday, students at the nearby French-language Collines d'or school were recounting the history of these institutions, where thousands of students perished, through their audio project.

"We Francophone children of Kamloops wish to pay tribute to the missing children of the former boarding school located in our city, on the unceded territory of the Secwepemc First Nation," the recording begins, as 18 students of about 12 years old take turns at the microphone.

The youngsters explain, in simple terms, the abuse suffered by indigenous children who were separated from their families and forced to live in boarding schools run by the Catholic Church and the Canadian government, which aimed to "civilize" them by instilling Western values.

"The parents of these young people were forced to send their children to these schools, otherwise the government would put them in jail," the students say.

"Survivors say they were mistreated and abused by priests and nuns. Their hair was cut, they were forbidden to speak their traditional language and perform their dances. They were also forced to cut ties with families. The aim of these institutions was to 'kill the Indian in the child.'"

An estimated 150,000 children were forced into the system. Many of them, after being separated from their families and given a European name, suffered physical and sexual abuse, and thousands disappeared, according to the results of an inquiry.

- The real stories -

Some of the students are passionate about telling the story of their indigenous peers.

"It really touched me that indigenous children have been taken from their parents to be put in residential schools in order to take away their traditions, to change their personality," said 12-year-old Ilyass Sabiri.

"I'm kind of happy to be able to inform other people in so much detail about what indigenous people lived through," the young man of Moroccan origin told AFP, feeling both proud and sad.

Teacher Bonnie Antoine, a member of the Red River Metis indigenous community, said "it's important to talk about it because it allows you to know the real story. The aboriginal perspective has never been well documented in history books. These discoveries allow us to tell the real stories of what's happened in Canada."

In partnership with the Francophone association of Kamloops, she has been producing "audio postcards" since April, published on the group's website or on Facebook, to share Canadian history with students in France.

She chose to tackle the subject of the boarding schools for indigenous students because it's particularly close to her heart: She is married to an aboriginal chief and her children's grandparents were interned at the Kamloops school.

"Aboriginal people across Canada have experienced injustices and it is important that we talk about it in order to reconcile with it, and that in our communities, we begin to heal from all the things that happened under colonization," she said, hugging her children Sequoia and Maya.

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