While sexual, mental and physical abuse against aboriginal children are often brought up as negative effects of residential schools, there is the loss of culture as well.
Residential school students were separated from their parents and were not allowed to speak their language or embrace traditions and as a result, the culture could not be carried on from generation to generation. However, work is being done to teach aboriginal youth about old customs.
During a series of workshops on reconciliation Friday, Tammie Wylie, Tillicum Lelum Aboriginal Friendship Centre building campaign project manager, said restoring culture begins with instilling pride in aboriginal children at an early age and providing access to activities, such as drumming and singing.
“We already know by research that if we influence children at a younger age, they have much better outcomes as adults and so if we’re supporting children that are preschool age and we’re introducing them to culture, because it’s our way of life, it’s not an add-on and we’ll do that later, this is the way we live, then they’re much more likely to just carry on that throughout their life and be proud of who they are,” Wylie said.
Grace Elliott-Nielsen, Tillicum Lelum executive director, said the friendship centre has been helping to restore cultural elements for a number of years. She agreed it begins with the youth.
She sees youths taking an interest in their culture, pointing to attendance of provincial aboriginal youth conferences, with 1,400 youths at a conference in Nanaimo a few years ago and 1,700 youths in attendance at a conference on the Lower Mainland two weeks ago.
She said seeds are being planted and they are bearing fruit.
“I see that a lot of the children are wanting to talk to the elders,” Elliott-Nielsen said. “They’re looking at their further education and how they can contribute when they complete school, whether being teachers and teachers of the culture and tradition, providing that knowledge on and that’s so very important. That’s where I see it happening because when I started 40 years ago, that wasn’t happening at all.”
Gary Manson, a survivor of Alberni Residential School, learns from his father, who was among a group that used to practise the culture in secret because it was forbidden. He said many customs were lost during that time and it has been a struggle to restore it.
But there is hope.
“I think that if I brought a drum out to a group of young people, you’ll see the gravitation to it, the healing of it,” Manson said. “We go on a thing called Tribal Journeys on a yearly basis, and when that started in 1986, it started another resurgence of people learning from each other, from different communities, that shared songs, shared dances, those are the therapeutic things that are happening today.
“Teaching language is starting to happen today, those things are all therapeutic to our people.”
Manson is involved with teaching the younger generation and he said the culture won’t be fully re-established, but will be established to a place of pride.
“We’ll have it there to distinguish ourselves and not forget where we come from,” he said.