WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Margaret Swan’s voice becomes strained as she shares her experience at the Indian day school where she spent five years of her life.
“There was so much wrong. So much wrong was done in those schools,” said Swan, a member of the Lake Manitoba First Nation in Manitoba.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, she was one of many children forced to attend Dog Creek Day School, which was run by the Roman Catholic Church in partnership with the Canadian government.
She says her experience at school was filled with sexual, physical and emotional abuse. When it started, Swan was only seven years old.
Swan said the school was supposed to strip Indigenous children of their culture and language, and left her and many other members of her community with “no idea” of how to properly raise their children. She said the community is still trying to get out of the rut the system left them in.
Although schools have been active across the country, experts say Canada has yet to really consider the concept of day schools to the extent that it did with boarding schools.
Day school survivors played no role in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, even though many reported the same abuses suffered by residential school survivors.
Now they may be left out of an important conversation with the Catholic Church that is expected to begin this week.
An “Indian education system”
During his trip to Canada, Pope Francis is expected to expand on the apologies he made to Rome for the conduct of some members of the Roman Catholic Church in boarding schools once run by priests and nuns of his faith.
What is unclear is whether the pope will apologize for the entirety of Catholicism’s role in what the TRC called the “cultural genocide” perpetrated against Indigenous peoples in Canada.
In a statement, the Canadian College of Catholic Bishops said the pope “will listen carefully to Indigenous peoples, which will help inform his remarks. Ultimately, the decision on what he wishes to communicate rests entirely with the pope. -same”.
Experts say acknowledging the evil of residential schools alone would be problematic, as they are only part of the “Indian education system” in Canada.
They are now considered three separate groups due to the way the Canadian government has continually narrowed the definitions in various settlement agreements.
“I think it’s actually pretty important that more people recognize [day schools] in the same breath as residential schools,” said Jackson Pind, Anishinaabe historian at Trent University.
Failing to recognize the full breadth of the education system means Canadians will likely hear calls for further apologies from survivors of programs that are not considered residential schools.
“It’s just not something added after,” Pind said. “It’s something that is exactly the same, because they are two sides of the same coin.”
Students in day schools and day schools were still required to attend day-to-day institutions, they could simply return home at the end of the day, unlike those in boarding schools.
But survivors of all three streams have histories of physical, mental and sexual abuse.
Greater reach and scale
Day schools surpassed boarding schools in scope and in the number of children who passed through their doors.
According to Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canadaover 130 federally funded residential schools were established in Canada, while Federal Indian Day School Regulations 2019 identified 699 day schools located in all provinces and territories except Newfoundland.
Approximately 150,000 Aboriginal children were forced to attend residential schools and 200,000 Aboriginal youth went through the day school system.
“Essentially, with each decade of activity, there are more students attending Indian day school rather than boarding school,” Pind said.
The last boarding school closed in 1996, while the last day school operated until 2000.
Although the public learned about the residential schools through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the discovery of unmarked graves and the Pope’s arrival, Pind says there was no similar public process for day school survivors.
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Pind stressed that it is important for Canadians to recognize the harm caused by residential schools, but said they cannot forget day school students.
“It was a system that was orchestrated and perpetrated against children to really suppress their identity,” he said.
In both cases, the Catholic Church played a leading role, with the Church operating more than half of the day schools (329) identified in the Day School Settlement.
Jarvis Googoo is a member of the We’koqma’q First Nation in Nova Scotia and was a student at Wyacocomagh Federal School between 1985 and 1993.
He declined to describe his own experiences, but said it was understood that students at day schools suffered the same abuse as those at boarding schools.
Googoo said any healing the pope’s apology can bring to residential school survivors is important.
“The question becomes, OK, if it’s done, will there be apologies coming for Indian school students?” he said. “If that means the pope is coming back to Canada to apologize again, I’m of the position, so be it.”
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Googoo thinks another inquiry, or even a royal commission, into day schools is needed to move forward.
Swan agrees that more needs to be done.
The Lake Manitoba First Nation member said any apology from the Catholic Church for its actions in residential schools or day schools is a “good first step”, but added that the wounds of the past cannot be cured in a few words.
She would like to see more done to help Indigenous youth heal from intergenerational trauma and a commitment to decolonize the systems of government in Canada.
“I know that no amount of money – I’ve always said this – will ever compensate for the damage that has been done,” Swan said.
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Swan also thinks more support systems should have been in place for the settlement of the recently closed day school.
While extensions were available on a one-to-one basis, applications were due by mid-June.
The settlement is particularly close to Swan because the man behind the lawsuit, Garry McLean, was another member of the Lake Manitoba First Nation.
He also attended Dog Creek Day School and experimented sexual, emotional, mental and physical abuse. He died in 2019, just a month before the federal government announced the settlement agreement and a year before the settlement claims process began.
Pind said about 2,000 day school survivors die each year, and the ability to understand their experiences and the truth of the system goes with them. Pind pointed out that while the Canadian government settled with day school students, the Catholic Church was not part of the settlement agreement.
The church also failed to provide documents critical to claims made under the settlement agreement, complicating a process that was already difficult for many survivors.
“I think with the imminent arrival of the Pope…I really hope someone will ask him a question about Indian day schools,” Pind said.
The federal government has never issued a formal apology for its role in the day schools.
Support is available to anyone affected by their residential school experience or recent reports.
A National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line has been established to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis hotline: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counseling and crisis support is also available 24/7 through the Hope for Wellness Helpline at 1-855-242-3310 or online at www.hopeforwellness.ca.