Child Separation and History: the Canadian Residental Schools

The scenes of children being separated from their families are sadly familiar to Canadians. American readers should know about the history of child separation in Canada and its costs to both families and the Canadian nation.

First, the US policy. Dara Lind at Vox reports that

As a matter of policy, the US government is separating families who seek asylum in the US by crossing the border illegally. Dozens of parents are being split from their children each day — the children labeled “unaccompanied minors” and sent to government custody or foster care, the parents labeled criminals and sent to jail. …at least 2,700 children have been split from their parents. …at present, an average of 45 children are being taken from their parents each day.

This policy is opposed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Public Health Association. This list may not be complete.

The American Bar Association criticized the putative legal justification for this policy.

It is apparent from the public comments of several high-ranking Administration officials that a primary purpose of the “zero tolerance” policy is to serve as a deterrent for migrant parents who enter the United States without authorization accompanied by their children. These statements make clear that family separation is not a collateral consequence of regular law enforcement under this policy; it is an explicitly intentional goal. Although the Supreme Court has never addressed a case involving the exact facts presented by the current practice of family separation, existing law suggests the policy violates rights to family integrity and due process.

Some have compared this to Nazi human rights abuses. I disagree. The Nazis intended to murder children and the connection to the death camps rests on a slippery slope argument. It is sufficient to point out that the policy is inhumane and that it violates human rights to harm children to deter misdemeanour offences by their parents.

There is a closer historical parallel than Nazi Germany: the treatment of indigenous children in Canada. Here is what happened (you can find links here).

Beginning in 1831, Canada began setting up boarding schools to educate indigenous children. The practice grew and became official federal policy in 1884. Education is, of course, a good idea. However, many of the schools were located far from First Nations communities. This was by design: the program was intended to ‘civilize’ the children, which was thought to require erasing their cultures: including their languages, art, clothing, customs, and religions. Erasing culture, in turn, required separating children from their families. Residential schools were established far from tribal lands to achieve this separation.

The system lasted well into the 20th century. About 150,000 children were taken from families and sent to the residential schools. Many children suffered physical and sexual abuse. The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated that 6,000 children died, but the count may be much higher. Many families were never notified that their child had died. That the number of dead children is uncertain is itself an indicator of how the system neglected them.

What is the lesson from Canada?

Most importantly, mass separation of children from their families can be grievously harmful to those children. Unless a child is in imminent danger of abuse or neglect, don’t do it!

However, all of Canada was harmed by the residential schools. The policy greatly added to the social inequity and distrust between the colonial and indigenous communities. The practice had the intended consequence of weakening the cultures, religions, and languages of Canadian indigenous peoples, to their and our enormous loss.

Moreover, the cruel mistreatment of children damaged the legitimacy of Canadian institutions. Many of these schools were run by the Roman Catholic, Anglican, or other Christian denominations, others by universities or provincial governments. Some of this institutional harm may be reparable by the recent apologies from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, provincial premiers, church leaders (including the Pope), and a Truth and Reconciliation process. Time will tell.

What should Americans do? The most important thing is to vote.

Unfortunately, the next election is months away, a long time in a child’s life. If we cannot get these children returned to their families, we need to keep our eyes on them and record whether they are harmed. They will be treated better if the authorities know that the world is watching.

But we should not assume that the world will continue to watch. The national attention span is measured in hours, or at most days. There will be another media event soon, and our memory that children are being taken from their parents will fade. Keep watching.


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