LAST WEEK, Paul Russell (the letters editor at the National Post) ran a piece entitled Could it be that residential schools weren’t so bad?:
The National Post has carried many stories about [Indian residential schools] before and since that apology. And every time we do, it is interesting to see that most of the letters we receive argue that the schools have been unfairly portrayed in the media. That phenomenon was on display again this week, following the publication of last Saturday’s story, “4,000 Children died in residential schools; Truth commission.”
What then follows is a selection of readers’ letters, available for your consideration here – if you can get past the paywall. Here I provide a selection of the selection:
“Nice work, National Post, as you continue to dump on the charitable work accomplished by generations of selfless missionaries, physicians, nurses and teachers of the Canadian North,” wrote C. Lutz, of Haliburton, Ont. “[This story] heavily spins out a ‘physical and sexual abuse’ [narrative] as if 150,000 Indian and Inuit children had gained nothing good from taxpayer-provided white education. At least some of them learned enough English and French to, fluently, play the system and bite the hand that had fed them.”
And here’s another:
“By today’s standards, 4,000 deaths out of a total of 150,000 students is shocking,” wrote Russel Williams of Georgeville, Que. “But given the period covered, 1870 to 1996, it may compare quite favourably with Canada at large, or Canadian aboriginal communities specifically, for the same period. One must bear in mind that much of this period predates immunization for smallpox, whooping cough, and diphtheria. It also predates penicillin for treatment of TB. Given the above, perhaps the statistic is not as alarming as it first might seem.”
More letters follow, but the two reproduced above do represent a good portion of the constituency which Will Have Nothing Of It. The prevailing ideas among this camp are that it couldn’t really have been all that bad, and in any case life was a matter of nastiness and brutishness for everyone. Another common although somewhat guarded notion is that if it weren’t for the arrival to North America of Europeans, Indians would be living to this day a backward and barbarous existence – and so when all is settled we end at a net benefit.
Somewhere around 2001, I gave a speech in Ottawa in which I said one of the most frustrating aspects of my work on residential school history was that ignorance was everywhere. I said that I could walk out the front door of my downtown office and grab a random stranger, confident that this stranger would know nothing about the Indian Residential School System. Twelve years later I find that this is no longer the case. The public have heard or read the stories of abuses. Deprived of the blessing of ignorance, some find refuge instead in denial and dismissal.
I’ve spoken to and interviewed and gotten to know as friends hundreds of people who were in these schools. I’ve read many reports, studies, and files from the vast RG10 federal archive. I’ve read a good chunk of the annual reports of Indian Affairs from 1864 forward. I’ve been to dozens of community gatherings, meetings, ceremonies and presentations. For well over a decade I’ve been immersed in this topic. I can say with absolute certainty that abuses reported in these institutions were not rare. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples said as much in 1996, after crossing the country and hearing from thousands of former students. The residential schools, they concluded, were “opportunistic sites of abuse.”
But of course none of this can penetrate the confessional exoskeleton of the National Post reader who has once heard such-and-such say on the CBC that it’s a good thing, that English, and learning it has served him well. Nuisance and oppositional pot-stirrer that I am, when I’m among native people – and especially when I’m working with them on a book about residential school (as I am now) – I take the position that there were good staff members and well-intentioned people working in the schools. Most survivors of abuse will grant this: sometimes I find myself in a confrontation.
I care a lot about the truth, or that approximation of it that I’m able to grasp and communicate. I’d rather tell the truth than be absorbed into the warm embrace of whatever ideological conformism would be served by a fudging of the facts. So I don’t hesitate to advocate on behalf of the plain fact that idealism brought some of the nuns and priests from the middle and upper classes of England and France to the northern winter plains of Canada. Their eagerness and commitment would be exploited by penny-pinching bureaucrats who were only happy to indulge notions of asceticism and sacrifice. These isolated and opaque institutions also attracted, for reasons that should be obvious, pedophiles and sadists.
Every experience in the residential school was to a degree unique, but the government got one thing unquestionably right: they called the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement’s cash settlement a “common experience payment.” Not a “some people had a rough time of it payment,” or a “sorry about the few bad apples payment.” The point to be absorbed here is that the Indian Residential School System was a system. The nice, well-intentioned, and even jolly good fellow who worked in the residential school was serving a system that by design forcibly removed children from families, segregated siblings, suppressed languages and cultures, cut the bonds and traditions of community, institutionalized and invigilated and indoctrinated children, and consistently produced the conditions of loneliness, fear, deprivation, hunger and isolation.
When the predators arrived, their dirty and destructive work was abetted, again, by the systemic arrangements. Physical and sexual abuses are not covered by the common experience payment (this is a separate matter with a separate compensation process), but even these were not all that unusual. The chances of your being physically and/or sexually abused in a residential school were considerable – based on my experience I would say half-and-half, if not more. Physical abuse was the more common, and those who point out that British boarding school physical abuse (and for that matter sexual) was a fact of the era are correct. An early twentieth century English public boarding school was a dangerous place to be.
Do remember however that the English public school student was being groomed for the upper classes whereas the native child was being groomed for the life of a colonized subject. The attitude of the Indian residential school staff vis-à-vis their wards was one of cultural superiority. Their students, they believed, had been drawn from a backward and savage race and were best suited in most instances to menial work. The opposite was the case for a British boarding school pupil. Cultural and confessional chauvinism seeped into every aspect of the Indian Residential School System, above all in the unilateral, we-know-what’s-best-for-you way in which the system was imposed. The assumed beneficiaries had no say and no recourse. The Indian adult was treated like an unruly child by everyone from the Minister of Indian Affairs down to the school factotum.
I suspect the chief reason some object so strongly to the critical assessment of these schools is that their attachment to the tribe obtains. Their faith in their group, their culture and their church abides. When I read the first letter, above, I can’t but detect the familiar note of condescension. It could fairly be paraphrased as follows: “look at all we’ve done for these ungrateful children!” Behind this is the evident belief that the project of Indian residential schooling was at its core a good and noble thing, and that there is really nothing to apologise for.
From this it follows that the past and the present are not all that different for the authors of these letters. The superior culture of the whiteman, or whatever one wants to call him, remains superior. Somehow, the ungrateful and unruly Indian must be made to see the necessity of abandoning his retrograde ways for the benefits of a higher civilization. These attitudes as a general rule issue from the God-and-country faction of the political culture, those who strongly identify with a particular race or ethnicity and its cultural and religious traditions. To say anything negative of the confessional and civilizational project of their tribe is to provoke outrage and incredulity. Above all, it is to wake them from the warm slumber of their happy lives – and this, also, simply will not do.
My Fall 2014 book “Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors, A National History,” is available from Goodminds. Order by phone, toll-free 1-877-862-8483.