Gord Downie will not make things better

Canadians forgot about Chanie Wenjack before. They can forget about him again.

✎  Wayne K. Spear | November 16, 2017 • Current Events

IN 1904 CANADA’S DEPARTMENT of Indian Affairs recruited the Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Immigration to study the health conditions throughout the western territories of the Indian residential school system. P.H. Bryce’s report, submitted on June 19, 1907 to Frank Pedley, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, did not please his superiors. Not only were Bryce’s meticulous observations unpleasant, they were submitted on the false assumption that the federal government was in fact interested in improving the health and welfare of the children in its care. At the time Bryce was witnessing the substandard living conditions of the residential schools (where hunger, fires, overcrowding, and death rates of 20 percent and higher were common) the future head of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, was a treaty commisioner and the author of a 1905 collection of poetry, New World Lyrics and Ballads. Scott would eventually push the troublesome Bryce out of his job, admitting that

It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian Problem.

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You’ve probably heard of P.H. Bryce, and you’ve also likely seen the Scott quotation. The effort of Duncan Campbell Scott to silence Bryce was a failed one, as such efforts often are. In 1922 Bryce’s medical report was turned into a book, under the fulsome title The Story of a National Crime: Being an Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada, the Wards of the Nation, Our Allies in the Revolutionary War, Our Brothers-in-Arms in the Great War.” Bryce’s book gave rise to newspaper headlines and to articles in well-circulated Canadian publications like Saturday Night Magazine and presumably also to momentary outrage and scandal. As early as the 1920s the general Canadian public could and did know that (for example) preventable deaths of children had occured in the residential schools at rates between 30 and 60 percent, and that “ a trail of disease and death has gone on almost unchecked by any serious efforts on the part of the Department of Indian Affairs.” Bryce not only had pointed figures, he had pointed fingers, specifcally assigning blame over the failure to improve matters to “the active opposition of Mr. D.C. Scott.”

Today Bryce is considered a rare example of a principled and outspoken critic of the Indian residential school system. He lost his career advocating on behalf of Indigenous children, and having found himself dismissed from the federal government, he took his crusade to the public. As far as I can tell, Bryce’s efforts changed nothing. The Indian residential schools would remain for another 47 years beyond the publication of The Story of a National Crime, and the conditions of the schools would slowly improve, because in the post-war years everything was improving. But the improvements didn’t prevent further, unnecessary deaths.

Chanie Wenjack was a public school student, boarded at the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School. You have almost certainly heard of him, and of his story, from Gord Downie. You know that he ran away from the residential school in October 1966 (just as many, many children ran way) and that he died of hunger and exposure longing to see the faces and to feel the embrace of his distant family. What you might not know is that Chanie’s story also had a P.H. Bryce figure, in the form of Ian Adams, a journalist whose February 1967 Maclean’s article, “The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack,” also received national attention. The article was turned into a chapter of Adams’ 1970 book, The Poverty Wall is Guilt of Greed, Racism, and the Misery of 6,000,000 Canadians. In the meanwhile, considerations raised by the death of Chanie Wenjack were the subject of additional media attention, including a front-page, June 21, 1969 Toronto Star report by Glen Allen. Over and over again, the “plight” of Indigenous people has been brought to the front pages, and to the attention of Canadians, to little if any effect.

In Thunder Bay there was an inquest recently into the deaths of seven Indigenous youth who had come south to attend high school. These young students, like Chanie Wenjack, were boarded many miles from home. In 1966 the jurors of a coroner’s inquest into the death of Chanie Wenjack questioned the wisdom of the education system. The jurors (none of whom was Indigenous) were able to see that the “Indian education system causes tremendous emotional & adjustment problems for these children.” They were baffled by the residential school system—specfically by the evident lack of the moral and practical wisdom of removing children from familes to have them educated far from home. The inquest recommendations directed that “a study be made of the present Indian Affairs’ education system and philosophy. Is it right?”—but none of the recommendations went anywhere. As Tanya Talaga has shown, in her book Seven Fallen Feathers, a straight line can be drawn from the residential schools to the death of Chanie Wenjack to the Thunder Bay deaths. Is the Indian Affairs education system and philosophy right? Do the deaths of Indigenous children justify a change in the policy of this Department? As the years go on, it seems more and more likely that Duncan Campbell Scott spoke for Canada and Canadians.

It isn’t true that nothing changes. But the deaths of Indigenous children, attending schools hundreds of miles from family and home, because there are no schools nearby, continue.


And the rediscovery of this reality, over and over, through articles and books and songs, continues also. A generation ago the title of Bryce’s 1922 book appeared on John Milloy’s 1999 A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986. A country that had forgotten all about Indian residential schools in the 77 years since Bryce, and in the 32 years since Chanie Wenjack, was once again scandalised to discover its poorly-hidden history. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples released its final report in 1996 (John Milloy, author of A National Crime, wrote the RCAP chapter on Indian residential schools) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its final report in December 2015. In the quarter century between 1990 and 2015, dozens and perhaps even hundreds of memoirs were written by the survivors of abuses in Canada’s Indian Residential School System. Yet somehow a good number of Canadians were shocked and surprised to learn about a piece of their history from a singer in a rock band.