In this 1940 photo, a group of female students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Manitoba. Blair Stonechild, a professor of indigenous studies at First Nations University of Canada, says the residential school periods in Canada was “spiritual abuse” and has deep roots. CNS photo/Library and Archives Canada, Reuters

‘Spiritual abuse’ from residential schools had deep roots for First Nations

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  • March 31, 2017

Blair Stonechild knows first-hand the devastating effects residential schools had on First Nations spirituality.

He spent nine years at Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School in Lebret, Sask., beginning in 1956.

“As a child I remember the shock of being removed from my family,” said Stonechild. “One thing that really stands out in my mind was the endless torrent of prayers, Masses and confessions.”

Today, as a professor of indigenous studies at First Nations University of Canada, Stonechild looks back on that dark period of Canadian history as “spiritual abuse,” and its roots go deep.

“As I began to examine the cultural holocaust of residential schools I began to realize that this discounting of indigenous ideology was a phenomenon that started much further back in history and has extremely deep roots,” Stonechild said as he delivered the 2017 Royackers Lecture at Regis College in Toronto on March 22.

“While indigenous people were largely decimated by diseases, the bias against a spiritual and cultural system that was not understood by Europeans led to constant efforts to undermine indigenous societies.

“Europeans did not understand indigenous spirituality anymore than modern archaeology understands the spirituality of ancient people.”

Stonechild was only six years old when his parents arrived at Qu’Appelle.

At the school, mostly run by religious orders, First Nations students were made to regularly repeat the Christian sacraments as teachers sought assimilation rather than spiritual awakening, said Stonechild.

“The real intent of the schools was to eradicate any vestiges of traditional indigenous beliefs and replace it with an alien belief system,” he said to about 200 people who attended the lecture.

Not only did First Nations students have Christianity imposed on them at residential schools, they were also restricted from practising indigenous spirituality or culture.

Recalling the school’s uniform, in which a personal identification number was on the front, Stonechild compares schools like Qu’Appelle to correctional institutions.

“The bottom line was that the schools were run much like reformatories where inmates are badly in need of discipline and moral training,” he said. “But the only thing that we had done wrong was that we were born indigenous.”

Had First Nations been allowed to practice and preserve their culture, Stonechild believes life on Canadian reserves — which are plagued with issues of poverty, abuses of all forms and suicides — would be much different.

“If they had been allowed to continue practising their spirituality, their societies would have been maintained and remained largely intact,” said Stonechild, a member of the Muscowpetung First Nation. “(But) indigenous spirituality … is an ancient system that is greatly misunderstood and came to be sidelined and suppressed.”

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