Canada, much like the United States to its southern border, is built on stolen land. For over a century, the Canadian government worked to dislocate, destroy, and erase the Indigenous presence in order to construct a nation controlled by and for settlers. The state destabilized Indigenous governments, violated treaties that ceded land to Indigenous peoples, and set in motion a wide range of policies aimed at destroying Indigenous peoples as social, cultural, religious, legal, and racial entities. The assimilation of a people through land theft, forced movement, language bans, religious persecution, and family disruption has been named “cultural genocide”—the intentional use of state power to destroy the structures and practices which allow a group to exist as a group.
A central tenant of the Canadian assimilationist project was the creation of boarding schools built with the explicit purpose of alienating Indigenous children from their communities and traditions. Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, cleanly summarized this aim in a speech to the House of Commons at the end of the nineteenth century: “Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.” The schools were usually run in conjunction with a Christian religious institution, and were to be the students’ sole place of residence for at least ten months of the year. At first, the schools were voluntary, but when attendance remained low, the Canadian government began abducting Indigenous children and forcibly enrolling them.
The last school did not close until 1996. During that century of operation, more than 150,000 Indigenous children between the ages of 4 and 16 attended a residential school. In 2008, the Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper finally issued a public apology to the Indigenous peoples of Canada. As part of the state response, a Truth and Reconciliation Committee was established to collect and preserve the narratives of residential school survivors with the aim of creating an honest record of the violence perpetrated against Indigenous children. The abuses detailed by Wagamese in Indian Horse are all documented in this record. Students were forced to abandon their Indigenous language and religious practice in place of Christianity and English or French. Western gender norms were imposed, with boys and girls separated from one another, and the children were made to dress and cut their hair according to settler traditions.
All of these policies were imposed through force. Documented punishments include starvation, locking in closets or cages, public shaming, and physical torture. Sexual abuse was commonplace, both as a punishment and at the whims of the nuns and priests. The children were never provided with more than minimal sustenance—food was scarce and often rotting, medical care was withheld, and there was no proper clothing for the freezing outdoor weather. Although the schools were ostensibly educational institutions, their primary purpose, beyond assimilation, was training Indigenous children for menial jobs through hard labor. The high rates of suicide and alcoholism in Canadian Indigenous communities have been linked to the psychological, physical, and sexual abuse so much of the population survived in the residential school system.
Along with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Harper’s government approved monetary reparations to the survivors of the residential school system. However, survivors and activists from within the Indigenous community have testified that payouts are not enough. In 1998, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation was established to support Indigenous communities and peoples in building sustainable healing practices; Harper’s government did not renew funding for the program. The author’s of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission call for many concrete government responses, including expanding federal funding for Indigenous language revitalization programs and healing centers (the New Dawn Centre in Indian Horse is a fictional example of such a center), extension of the statute of limitations to allow for the prosecution of abuse perpetuated by residential school administrators, and the legal reversal of forced name changes.
Indigenous healing, cultural, and spiritual practices have proved to be not only resilient in their own right, but powerful tools for community trauma response. One example is the Behind Closed Doors project, which, lead by residential school survivors, health care professionals, and community members, created a platform for thirty-two survivors of the Kamloops Indian Residential School to tell their stories. Dedicated to those who lost their lives during or after their time in residential school, and published in the name of the storytellers themselves, the stories provide a record of the schools from the people who attended it, and testify to the strength and courage of Indigenous people. At the same time, the project is a form of healing for the storytellers themselves, and provided a safe, culturally appropriate space in which to tell their stories. Ultimately, it was printed with the hope that by sharing these stories, survivors of the schools both living and dead would have a greater hope for peace. Indian Horse, although fictional, can be thought of as a similar kind of healing project, as well as a great novel.