Face It: Indian Residential Schools Were Bad

Indian Residential Schools
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.

Canada's Residential Schools

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.

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20 thoughts on “Face It: Indian Residential Schools Were Bad”

  1. Enough is enough. Put a period at the end of the sentence and be done with it. Pour on all the counseling and psyciatric care that is needed but stop frothing already! Stop making this just another native/protest cottage industry that ‘way too many people make their living by.


  2. I find it interesting that “agirl” took an entire article written by Richard Wagamese, in which he said that his mother said that she credited the residential schools for teaching her to be neat. She has never spoken of any abuse. and only speaks of the valuable things she learned while there. I Googled his name and these two links came up:




    The Wikipedia article stating that he had been apprehended by CAS, and then later adopted, made me probe and find the second article. It clearly states that this gentleman did, in fact, trace the roots of family dysfunction back to the time his parents spent in the residential schools.

    There is some disconnect between the 2008 Herald article in the comment section, and the Quill and Quire article. It could be that four years had passed, and something had been learned that was previously unknown. I have not looked that deeply.

    Unfortunately,no-one else has checked to see if anything had changed for this gentleman, either.

    The comment section of the National Post gives me pause on a good day, but today, immersed as I am and finding out more than I knew yesterday about the residential school system, this just made me angry. I had read the NP article when it was published and was disgusted. I am now resigned to knowing that there are very few people who care. My heart breaks as I imagine the horrors that went on at these harbingers of evil.


  3. As a non-aboriginal who attended an Indian residential school for six years, I feel an obligation to weigh in on this subject. I agree that the conversation /discussion of the IRS is a healthy thing, since some Canadians would get the impression from the many reports in the media about abuse, deaths and cultural destruction that there was nothing good about the schools, while others (like some of those letter writers referred to) would deny the evils of the IRS and try to defend it. Having experienced (at least to some degree) life in one school, having done a lot of research on the subject, and having thought about the subject for years, I have come to the following conclusions: (a) the IRS was a deeply flawed system, and “evil” in the sense that it allowed many innocent children to suffer greatly, as well as doing great harm to aboriginal families and communities; (b) that within the system there were many teachers and other staff (some of them aboriginal) who cared for the children and did good work, and some schools were much better than others; (c) there is still much ignorance about the schools among the Canadian public, and dogmatic statements about the evil and the good aren’t helping the spread of actual understanding, and (d) the media seem to be cooperating in spreading the more inflammatory information about the schools when providing context and counterbalancing information should be their role. I am also struck by this strange belief that people were somehow different 50 or 100 years ago, as if those who planned, funded, administered and staffed the schools were inhuman monsters quite unlike you or me or most of the people in our lives. While a few were monsters, no question, the great majority of them were probably not very unlike us, compelled by certain ideas or beliefs to do the things they did, and just as prone to make serious errors or cause pain as any of us today. I got to know the staff at the school I attended pretty well, and I’m prepared to swear (when I’m still so uncertain about many other things) that they were good and decent people, doing what they thought was best. To expunge their labours and their affection (yes, affection) for my classmates would be very wrong. The lesson here is this: as we are not so different, we may in our own particular ways be repeating the mistakes of the past and actually doing harm when we think we’re doing good. The IRS should teach us humility, and remind us that just about everything in life is a lot more complicated than a story that runs in a popular newspaper or an angry comment in an online forum. My best wishes to all who care about this subject and wish to see Canadians truly informed.


  4. Geoffrey Chaucer created the English language, not God, in fact that act of creating the English language could be interpreted as an act of heresy against the wishes of God as we can all hopefully now read in English in the bible which is what the modern western world has founded itself upon. God’s views on the language of human beings can be found in Genesis 11:4–9.

    ‘4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
    5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
    6 And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
    7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
    8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
    9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.’

    Christians believe the bible is the word of God, and that God’s wishes must be obeyed which means the creation of the English language should have been seen as an act of heresy. The claim that forcing children to speak English, through torture, was a good, righteous or was in compliance with Gods wishes is purely bullshit. It can easily be interpreted as the act of heretics, the bible was never even a piece of English literature, it was translated into English and in fact the English language is a combination of words taken from other languages.

    Praising or lauding the act of forcing uni-language in human beings through the torture of children as an upside or the good that came from the government’s deliberate incarceration, abuse, torture, starvation, sexual assault and causing the deaths of innocent children, is in my opinion not only an ignorant stance to take but it is also a selfish and dangerous one. It is a statement of ‘I do not like the truth coming out because it makes me feel ashamed because of my race so I would prefer the practice was never exposed because my feelings matter more than the rights of children and the victims rights to support and understanding and I am willing to risk this happening again just to spare myself having to feel bad.

    The very idea that natives are fighting to expose this act, which is just one of the many human rights atrocities and crimes that has been perpetuated against people by the Canadian government is not to get some more of the poor suffering tax payers money, that is a sick suggestion based upon pure ignorance, and only reflects the speakers own avarice nature and racist beliefs. You are saying you support the Canadian Government’s right to remove children from their parents care and subject them to torture, abuse and even kill children and that the government has the right to institutionalize and abuse children and hide the facts if the logic behind it is some children and people must suffer horribly in order to serve the greater good which is in this case a more profitable economy for businesses and that rule cannot and should not be changed. Would you still consider this a righteous act if the government began to kidnap and institutionalize your children and grandchildren based on their race and genetic makeup? If you don’t believe that could occur you are indeed a very foolish person, racism or racial extermination can effect anyone or basically what if the Government decides that Anglo’s are no longer the preferred race when they decide that they are no longer needed or a burden to the economy because they are more expensive and less productive workers than the minorities. Are you then going to pick up your grandchild and hand them willingly over to the RCMP and smile and say sure go ahead exterminate her or him for the greater good? I highly doubt it, so why should we be expected to hand over our children and grandchildren and not be deeply disturbed by what is going to happen to them?

    Indigenous people were not co-dependant on a monetary systems to survive and that independent culture was a threat to the elite church and state control that had been established in Europe before any puritans made their way across the ocean and continued the slaughter of Natives in Gods name. Many racist Canadians state that what Natives here suffering is the same as what their ancestors suffered in the old country so that makes it all okay. No it does not, just because you personally have never been effected does not make it okay, adopting that attitude is disrespectful to your ancestors suffering as well as ours. Wrong is wrong whether historically or in present day and the systems that created that do need some serious examination and criticism. Why would anyone want to promote genocide or these practices as healthy ones that should be supported is so far beyond me. But I guess that is likely because I am just another an uneducated, ignorant, female Indian who because of those factors will always be incapable of comprehension of the intricate workings of the more sophisticated white male. Many Canadians believe I am biased on the topic of racism by my race therefore my opinions on the topic are invalid because of my race but theirs are not because of their race, so those people should perhaps instead read instead what an educated white man has to say on the topic or indigenous racism and genocide in North America. http://www.dickshovel.com/jank.html

    Personally I do not want uni-language culture, or a uni-culture culture which Canada promotes and adheres too. My own personal lineage comes with two Salish languages which have existed side by side and were known and spoken by the people here for well over ten thousand years. Indigenous people in all that time did not go the the extent of attempting to force their languages onto their neighbours, instead they put the effort into learning to communicate with each other, imagine that, how very primitive are we. Many of the uni-language people in Canada are seemingly not willing to do their share in communicating, they are not only insisting that all communication be in their language, but also keep insisting only their view points, culture and opinions are valid due to their limited racist belief systems. It is this ongoing very much alive colonial attitude that in present day is the cause of the oppression and unhappiness that Natives and other minorities have to endure. Many native people I know are multilingual, or working again to be, additional languages and cultures are not a negative thing to have a part of your life, they enrich your life. Tolerance, understanding and respect can only be achieved by exposure and acceptance of the customs, languages are a big part of that, I also appreciate English, German, French, Anglo-Saxon and Norse languages and if that offends anyone well that is their problem however my appreciation of languages and cultures are not harming anyone, speaking languages that are not English does not hurt anyone and the concept that the government should be torturing children in order to teach them English is absolutely twisted and absurd.


  5. All the usual excuses. An apology is only as good as the follow-through. Since that apology, Stephen Harper has been quite hostile towards First Nations which makes his apology quite meaningless, in my opinion.

    I have talked about aboriginal issues online for years and nearly every Aboriginal person in these conversations has a lot more class, understanding, and tolerance than the bigots who oppose them. Rarely are they racist. This is coming from a white person.


  6. You should clarify this comment. This is an article (by me) about a collection of letters assembled into an article by Paul Russell. So do tell, who exactly are you charging of quackery, theft and colonialism. Or for that matter of being “white.” I think I know, but I’d like you to come out and say it.


  7. This article is QUACK! This white author studies and quantifies the residential school experience and using his colonial theories is calculating that First Nations didn’t really have that hard of a time in residential schools, BUT fails to look at the personal side.
    Please don’t buy this guys book as he is a crook by stealing the expenses of residential school students and placing them in his colonial mindset!


  8. Nowadays, most racist comments come from natives. Mainstream culture tries to recognize the native struggle. But if natives aren’t willing to embrace an apology that was given. They’ll continue to struggle do to their own self angst. People have choice, but you can’t change the past… Get over it. (This is coming from a native)


  9. ok mwhite ppls should have there dumm ass kids go thru what we did fyi we didnt ask to be put u greedy mother fuckers put us there if u all stayed in ur damn countries we woulda been way better off u flee;ed ur countires why ,ur ansesteres probally fled due to charges hate ppls who r predjuce…u would think all the centries u wouldnt have white ppls lookin down at indian well known fact my auntie was appointed first native judge in bc .oh we r educated we alwayz have been .so many small minded ppls cutting us down well gues ur the ones who will answer to satan huh . SHAME ON U FOR WRITING BULL SHIT REMARKS ON NATIVES ,U-R ALL PISSED UR NATIONALITY GOT CALLED OUT FOR WHAT UR ANSETERS DID TO US HATEFULL ASS HOLES ROT IN HELL WERE U BELONG




  11. residential school system was pure evil , also in light of the fact that recent documents released say 4 thousand died in the system , mass cover up by the Canadian feds for the last 100 years says a lot , my gran mother her bro and younger sister , were in the schools as were my parents , both my parents were beaten on a daily basis for speaking there language and they were also sexually abused by people who were supposed to be Christians , rcmp escorted most children to the schools who were forcefully taken from there loving homes , my grans younger brother was beat to death , her father wasn’t even allowed to take the body home ,thousands of atrocities , stories of abuse , they never teach any of that in the schools


  12. I think its just as overwhelmingly sad to hear such racist remarks today as it was to experience them back in the 1800s and early 1900s. Maggie may be right ,but I think time has made most non natives forget and/or disregard what the first native people did for the whites Ancestors back then. Even through all the blatent racism, violence,and abuse from them. Pretty soon natives became overrun by settlers and were FORCED to live a life they never wanted,and been making the best of ever since. I think the only thing that makes many whites happy today is that natives speak English and are coming around to being “white” no matter which white culture,and are conforming to the white identity. That is just as ingrained in them as the native Identity is ingrained in the native people ?


  13. Many Germans denied the holocaust as well I guess that didn’t happen either!! And neither did slavery in America. How ignorant.


  14. Do Not tell a Nation that their life stories are lies!!!! I am a survivor and it burns when I read such blatant denials by people who Have Not lived the lives that we have. Taxpayers Money…the way it was used and monitored is a laugh…the people in the schools were taken off the streets, the pedophiles of the churches were given jobs in these schools,,the educational rejects were sent to these institutions..as were the medical field, those who could not make it in the real medical field…These were the people put in charge of young children.


  15. Interview my mom who has attended and is still affected and read the story my father shared before he passed away! Both who are the most strongest loving people I know! The acts of residential school is affecting my children and probably will their children! There is no positive that came from the assimilation attempt!


  16. the truth you’re trying so hard to desperately find is found in the words of the survivors. It isn’t in the politics, or can be explained away by lack of immunity or the myriad of other excuses that goes with what canada and england has done to native people of north america; the most systematic way to kill the indian was to eradicate the very memories and traditions they relied on to know their identity and where they came from. it almost destroyed our ties to mother earth. However…we’re stronger…our survival attests to that. But yes…every person at those schools were evil…they allowed corruption and abuse to occur. they ‘looked the other way’. Let’s start calling that for what it is…in the face of abuse its an evil thing. and each and every adult who participated in the abuse and the indoctrination and destroying of culture is evil and to be held accountable. don’t be stupid buddy…if you’re going to write a book about it, be wise..or your words will mean nothing. in the long run that means you’re view won’t count. so be sure to speak, and write truth.


  17. I think maybe some ppl would like to live that way but not the First Nation ppl. They was all kidnapped from their families and was taken far away from their homes. If you say it wasnt that bad maybe you should go to residential school. Cant see your families. Until you live this life you have nothing to say.
    Residentila school denied the children to speak their own language. The residential was like take the Indian out of the child.


  18. You are far more generous than I am. I was outraged at that article and spent hours arguing with people in the comments section.

    Some of the apologia may be coming from defensiveness but I think the bulk of it is plain old racism. The same bigoted themes crop up in these discussions as in every First Nations debate, regardless of the topic: disparagement, paternalistic lecturing, blaming them (or their leaders) for their own problems, trivializing their problems, telling them to get over it, etc. With the schools, they like to claim it really wasn’t that bad, other historical injustices were worse, they’re just in it for the money, and so on. Not all of that is defensiveness; some of it is malice.

    I don’t know if the TRC on its own can make a dent in public opinion. It would certainly be helpful if the government was onside and encouraging Canadians to accept what happened but they’ve been actively thwarting the TRC’s efforts. And then opinion pieces like Russell’s pop up occasionally. It makes me feel hopeless sometimes.

    Let’s see if Russell follows through and prints letters from the opposite viewpoint next Saturday.


  19. I think this conversation is a good one because it is not a black and white situation across Canada. The conversation about residential schools sits within a policy of outlawing our ceremonies and language within our ceremonies. It sits within policies of not being able to move out of our communities to work else where without a permit. It sits within policies where people had to ask to even leave an abusive situation and to obtain permission to get into a safe situation for women and children. It sits within practices where children were returned to schools even; for example children ran away from lejac school and my dad worked there. The principal told Dad he had to lie to the public inquiry on the situation that caused the children to run away. Dad would not lie and he and my Mom was kicked off our land/my grandfather’s land and my gr pa’s house they lived in within a twenty four hours before the inquiry was to be held. The truth never came out because the community people who worked at the school were too afraid to loose their job. The RCMP and the indian Agent were the powers along with the principal. However, was every person who worked at that school evil? No. The system was evil that made way for abusive powers to happen with the ok from those in power. Well, I like conversations like this because it opens the door for honest, straight forward talk about where we sit as Canadians. I started national day of healing and reconciliation in 2002 because I believe we can only arrive at a place of shared understanding if we hang in there for the conversations. Maggie Hodgson, O.C., Q. J. M and Hon. Doctorate with two universities. .


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