Douglas Hunter on Amazon.
Douglas Hunter on Amazon.
By the time I have finished this little essay of mine, the Twitter storm which is its occasion will have passed, and a new and equally useless storm will be underway. Only a fraction of people take notice of Twitter, and only a fraction of the fraction treat it as more than a frivolity. The chief utility of Twitter, as any self-aware user knows, is to pass some time as tiny bursts of whatnot stimulate your vision, like roman candles.
A recent vote of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario has put forward the motion to remove the name Sir John A. Macdonald from all public schools in Ontario. Needless to say the idea was met with horror and outrage on Twitter, as all such proposals are. There is however a swelling of the call for such undertakings, and from a broader segment of the population than would have been likely even a decade ago.
Here are the more common arguments I have found against the motion:
– The Slippery Slope, Erasure Argument: No one is safe once the principle of removing names of the objectionable takes hold; soon all names from the past will be erased and forgotten, and Canadian history will disappear
– The Presentist Argument: Of course Sir John A. Macdonald was a racist, etc., but only by the standards of the present. By the standards of his day he was unremarkable, everyone at that time being a racist, etc.
– The Balance of Good Argument: Sir John A. Macdonald is a founding father whose positive achievements outweigh whatever ill he may have done
– The Revisionist Argument: It is wrong to re-create history to suit the tastes of the moment.
It is worth noting that, with few exceptions, the arguments against retracting the name of Sir John A. Macdonald concede that he “bears responsibility for the Indian Act and for residential schools” and for associated views “that are repugnant by today’s standards” — these are John Ivison’s words, from the August 24, 2017 edition of the National Post. I say “worth noting” because only twenty years ago it was common to find defences of this very same Indian residential school system in the pages of the National Post and elsewhere. It would be a matter of small trouble to produce a dozen examples, but one will I think suffice:
The common opinion-editorial view of only twenty years ago—that surely these well-intentioned residential schools couldn’t have been all that bad—is not without its present advocates, but there is no doubting that opinion on this issue has shifted. Today even the most reactionary commentator (Conrad Black comes to mind) will as a rule clear his throat with a qualifying phrase such as “of course there were some bad apples” or “although it’s true that terrible crimes were committed” before launching a defence. Few writers are willing to take the position that the Indian residential school system was on balance a good idea, with respect both to intentions as well as to execution. What has brought about this change? Above all else it is the result of a vigorous and sustained campaign led by the people who knew these institutions from the inside and who in many cases left them broken and diminished. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when I was working at the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, the fear was not of the erasure of Canada’s history but rather of its restoration. Against this effort of abuse survivors, to restore the historical record, stood the government and church lawyers and a good deal of the media.
Some unpleasant truths follow from the preceding. The first is that there is no getting around the fact that history is forever being re-written, that (as Auden put it) the words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living, and that “erasure” at one time or another is our universal fate. It is unlikely that a majority of Canadians know more about Sir John A. Macdonald than could be written on a Dentyne wrapper, and that even this small amount of knowledge would contain errors. No amount of statuary or school naming is likely going to help. Furthermore it is as easy to purge oneself entirely of inherited values and prejudices, and to apprehend the past in its purity, as it is to stare at the back of your own eyeballs. We celebrate heroic men and women of the past precisely because they did something exceptional: they defied the standards of their time (often suffering for it) and remained mostly unsullied of the gewgaw and falderal all around them.
We are living through a time when the very notion of objective truth is under obvious and stunning attack, but anyone who has studied the past knows that there is always some degree of war going on against truth, particularly against unpleasant and inconvenient truth. Thirty years ago I had bitter arguments with university professors over matters that would be uncontroversial today. Often the argument bogged down in banal human factors like aesthetic tastes. For example, I recall taking the position that Duncan Campbell Scott’s poetry should not be isolated from his work as a senior bureaucrat, a proposition that threatened to sully the enjoyment of his work. It is the case however that very few artists would come out of a thorough scrutiny of their lives with their reputation enhanced, and the same is true of politicians and editorialists and activists and of homo sapiens in general. The effort to suppress truth is often a rational effort, but in the interest of preventing dangerous lies to take root it ought to be resisted and repudiated.
The truth about Sir John A. Macdonald contains a good many unpleasant facts, but it happens that the facts are more unpleasant for some than they are for others. For some the unpleasantness of a history is abstract, and for others it is Uncle Roy, who never came home from the war. Or it is your mother, who got on a train in Łódź never to be seen again. Sir John A. Macdonald is not regarded, even by his defenders, as a man of the heroic mode, but he is regarded as an abstraction, and a powerful abstraction at that: he is “the father of Confederation,” the man who made Canada, and likely this is why the call to remove his name invoked the wrath that it did. He is bound up in an Anglo-Canadian nationalism which walks softly but carries a big hockey stick. I am tempted to say that no Indigenous person can feel in her bones what many Canadians feel about their symbols, but doubtless there are some who can. In any case, for a great many Indigenous people, Sir John A. Macdonald is a man who caused the suffering of our dead and living relatives, a man who described people not unlike us as barbarians and savages. Yes, by the standards of his day he was morally unremarkable, and that is precisely why we find him so hard to take.
In 2016, Residential Schools: With the Words and Images of Survivors won the Golden Oak Award. Now in its 2nd Edition, this comprehensive history of Canada’s Indian Residential School System is also available on iTunes as a deluxe Apple iBook. The electronic version features audio and video enhancements, as well as other additional material. The full colour, hardcover version can be ordered from the publisher here.
Here is what readers are saying:
“A respectful and informative book about the residential school system written by Aboriginal author Larry Loyie. It includes first hand accounts of many different survivors of the school system as well as photos and documents. This is a heartbreaking, but very important read as it includes the long term effects the school system has had on these families.”
“This is an excellent introduction to the history of the Indian Residential School System in Canada. I truely hope it finds it’s way into every school and church library. The authors compile personal stories, many photographs, and history in a well sequenced telling of the tragic history of relations between First Nations peoples and colonial Canada.”
“Researched and written over the span of almost two decades, the authors document the history of residential schools with first-person interviews (including that of author Larry Loyie) and photographs. It is written in a very accessible way for readers from teens to adults, and should serve as an important introduction to this blight on Canada’s history.”
“Absolutely wonderful overview of Canada’s residential schools, with firsthand accounts and pictures from survivors. Especially loved the “myths” section at the back of the book 🙂 Bravo to the survivors and authors brave enough to share their story.”
“Very comprehensive summary of Residential Schools and their legacy. Great visuals and witness accounts.”
THE OTHER DAY I was teaching my son Photoshop, and the result was my master work, above. Indeed, quite possibly one of the greatest works of our generation, when you realize that 92% of culture today is pictures of cats hasing cheezburgers and staring through ceiling holes and LOLing. There is even a website of cats that look like Hitler, although that is not so much culture as it is a reason to use the word kitler and to give Czechoslovakia a heads-up.
TO ME, the 1970s was the decade of memorable music. When I look back, I see a more relaxed and care-free time than now. You could write a song about anything—like driving around in a truck, with a bunch of other people who are also just driving around in a truck. And you didn’t even have to sing; you could pretty much talk the whole song. The result in this instance is the huge hit “Convoy.”
My friends and co-authors, Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden, discuss residential schools and the forthcoming book Residential School: A Children’s History on CBC Radio.
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.”
ONE DECADE AGO, the French distaste for war against Saddam Hussein inspired Freedom Fries, the conventional name for this ubiquitous side-dish having been removed from Congressional cafeteria menus at the direction of Republicans Bob Ney and Walter Jones. On US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Paris, to make the case for a limited strike against Syria, the reception was by contrast positive. Yet the forms of the arguments reveal a tension in the prevailing views of military engagements whose roots reach back to the First World War.
SOME YEARS AGO I had the good fortune and pleasure to befriend the wonderful Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden. Larry is a Cree author and playwright from Slave Lake in Alberta. Constance is a freelance writer, author and editor who I first encountered when she was writing for Macleans in its glory days, under the capable editorship of Peter C. Newman, in the 1980s. Larry and Constance met in a writing class in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side and within a few years had formed the Living Traditions Writers Group.
EVEN AFTER the tide of events had vindicated Nelson Mandela, beginning with his 1990 release from a twenty-seven-year imprisonment and culminating in his attainment of the South African presidency, some of his Cold War detractors maintained the charge against him of Communism. In fact, the influence of the Comintern, either upon himself or on the black struggle in general, was the only charge that Mandela repudiated outright in the April 1964 Rivonia trial speech which to this day provides our most detailed first-person account of his political convictions. To the charges against him, concerning acts of sabotage and of violence, Nelson Mandela provided a thoroughgoing and qualified admission: Yes, he conceded, his actions appeared revolutionary from the perspective of the majority white population — but since the white man both feared and repressed democracy in South Africa, how could the assertion of a black person’s democratic rights be conceived by him otherwise?
IT WAS ONLY eight days after the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and Rose Schneiderman was in no mood for playing nice. Addressing her (mostly) middle-class audience of Women’s Trade Union League supporters, she said:
I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.
THE PHRASE “Indian Residential School System” refers to a historical church-state partnership formalized by the Government of Canada in 1892 with an Order-in- Council. Long before the late nineteenth century, many features of this system could be discerned. In the early days of Christian missionary work on the North American continent, beginning around 1600, religious orders established orphanages and schools for Indian children. These initiatives abroad were supported at home by private charitable donations known as subscriptions, and the work of securing the next year’s missionary funding drew the pious again and again back to the salons of high society.
From roughly 1500 to 1800, Europeans and aboriginal peoples regarded one another as distinct nations — in war as allies or foes, in peacetime as trading partners. Soon economic opportunity drew settler populations, and the resulting alliances provided the economic and military benefits of co-operation. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, European hunger for land had expanded dramatically, and the economic base of the colonies shifted from resource exports to domestic production, in particular agriculture. In the decades following the War of 1812, a period when the balance of military power shifted in favour of the colonists and the prospect of French-English (and British-American) war receded, the utility of strategic alliances was diminished. Co-operation with the Indian population gave way to the emerging business of nation-building and to direct competition for land and resources. Settlers began to view aboriginal people as a problem.
The Indian Problem was a direct outcome of the national project — the effort to forge a contiguous continental nation from sea to sea. Indians were seen as presenting an obstacle both to the physical and moral expansion of Christian civilization and industry. Although less of a mortal danger, the Indian population continued to be a threat to westward expansion, as the 1885 rebellion demonstrated. In the final quarter of the nineteenth century, Canada undertook a series of initiatives designed to pacify the Indian population, thereby to secure possession and control of the land and its resources. These initiatives included the drafting of legislation (foremost among which, in this context, are the 1876 Indian Act and the Dominion Lands Act of 1872), the building of a railroad, the establishment in 1873 of a security force — the Royal Canadian Mounted Police — and the negotiations of the numbered treaties*
Keenly aware of the changes underway, aboriginal people once again turned to the making of treaties as a tool to secure the means of their livelihood. While many settlers had come to regard Indians as an impediment to progress, aboriginal people continued to seek out the mutually beneficial alliances that had long served them in times of war and stress. To this end, the indigenous negotiators of the numbered treaties pressed their interlocutors for good faith commitments to provisioning Indians with the practical skills they would need in the years ahead. As the land base of aboriginal nations contracted and the means of subsistence receded, leaders turned to education as one of the more promising opportunities. [For a more detailed analysis, see J.R. Miller Shingwauk’s Vision, and “A Vision of Trust: The Legal, Moral and Spiritual Foundations of Shingwauk Hall” by Jean L. Manore in Native Studies Review 9, no. 2 (1993-1994) 1-21.]
The Government had little interest in long-term commitments and agreements. As soon as the treaties were concluded, federal officials turned their attention to absolving themselves of their pecuniary and administrative entanglements. Indians wanted education not to displace or overwhelm their own traditional knowledge, but rather to help them sustain their cultures and languages and ceremonies into the new order. The federal government however considered all things Indian to belong to the past and to have no place in the future. The official policy of Canada was to assimilate the Indian — to make him into a law-abiding, industrious subject of the Crown, no different from any other citizen. Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, summed up the Government’s position when he said, in 1920, “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. […] Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian Question and no Indian Department.”
Education of the Indian as a means of assimilation had long been a subject of polemic throughout the Dominion. In 1842, the Bagot Commission produced one of the earliest official documents to recommend education as a means of solving the Indian Problem. In this instance, the proposal concerned farm-based boarding schools placed far from parental influence. The document was followed, in immediate successive decades, by others of similar substance: the Gradual Civilization Act (1857), an Act for the Gradual Enfranchisement of the Indian (1869), and the Nicholas Flood Davin Report of 1879, which noted that “the industrial school is the principal feature of the policy known as that of ‘aggressive civilization.’” This policy dictated that
the Indians should, as far as practicable, be consolidated on few reservations, and provided with “permanent individual homes” ; that the tribal relation should be abolished ; that lands should be allotted in severalty and not in common ; that the Indian should speedily become a citizen […] enjoy the protection of the law, and be made amenable thereto ; that, finally, it was the duty of the Government to afford the Indians all reasonable aid in their preparation for citizenship by educating them in the industry and in the arts of civilization.
A product of the times, Davin disclosed in this report the assumptions of his era – that “Indian culture” was a contradiction in terms, Indians were uncivilized, and the aim of education must be to destroy the Indian. In 1879 he returned from his study of the United States’ handling of the Indian Problem with a recommendation to Canada’s Minister of the Interior – John A. Macdonald – of industrial boarding schools.
The assumptions, and their complementary policies, were convenient. Policy writers such as Davin believed that the Indian must soon vanish, for the Government had Industrial Age plans they could not advantageously resolve with aboriginal cultures. The economic communism of Indians – that is to say, the Indians’ ignorance (from a European perspective) of individual property rights – was met with hostility by settlers eager for ownership of the land. Colonization required the conversion of Indians into individualistic economic agents who would submit themselves to British, and later, Canadian institutions and laws.
In the years leading up to the numbered treaties, the Government of Canada had little incentive to burden itself with the vast and potentially expensive task of educating the Indians scattered throughout its territories. Although in theory such an initiative may have been appealing, in practice it posed a series of administrative and logistic challenges. Nonetheless, and whether they welcomed this fact or did not, the treaties had drawn the officials of the bureaucracy into the business of education.
At the same time the federal government was contemplating its bureaucratic challenges, the denominations – Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian – were eager to obtain a sufficient and predictable source of funding for their educational undertakings among the Indians. For decades, the various orders and sects and societies of the respective churches had been operating their orphanages, hostels, boarding, industrial and residential schools on the lean and precarious revenues of private subscriptions.
The work of fundraising was relentless and typically yielded insufficient resources. Petitions for subscription often involved the work of semi-formal grassroots organizations like the women’s auxiliaries, who sought financial support for missionary work by holding fund-raising meetings in the homes of well-off individuals. A presentation on the accomplishments and challenges of religious missions abroad would be followed by a call for donation. These activities continued into the twentieth century, and indeed to the present day, but by the nineteenth century religious groups became convinced of the necessity for a larger and more predictable funding base. To this end they became eager to draw the Government of Canada into a formal funding partnership.
The provisions of the numbered treaties presented the churches with their opportunity. The now-familiar, triangular relationship — between aboriginal peoples, religious entities, and the federal government — was forged. The churches secured a per-capita grant for the work they were already undertaking, and the government divested itself of the day-to-day burden of managing an Indian educational system. Under the terms of the partnership, Canada provided funding and set the standards and legislative framework of the Indian Residential School System, and the churches hired the staff and supervised school operations. The Government found a willing partner in the work of carrying out its assimilative agenda, and the churches received aid in its effort to Christianize the Indian. Both partners eagerly pursued a shared vision of a nation marching forward on the road of progress.
Lost in this Church-Government relationship were the spirit and intent of the treaties and the interests of aboriginal people. Instead of receiving the skill-oriented education they had negotiated, aboriginal people found themselves the objects of an aggressive Christian-based campaign of State-supported assimilation. The aspirations of government and churches were accommodated, but for indigenous peoples the Indian Residential School System represented a shocking, painful, and ultimately destructive violation of trust. The co-operative and mutually beneficial relationships with which we began this chapter had given way to exploitative relationships of opportunism and conquest. That, reduced to its core, is the story of Canada’s Indian Residential School System.
Over the decades, the Indian Residential School System comprised a diverse set of arrangements including industrial and boarding schools, Inuit tent camps, and hostels adjacent to school buildings. Today the Government of Canada officially recognizes 139 residential schools (located in all provinces and territories except Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, and New Brunswick) as belonging to the system, over half of which were operated by one of the many Roman Catholic orders active in the country. (The Roman Catholic Church, which is to say the Vatican, is not subject to Canadian law — the legal representative of the Catholic Church within Canada is the Corporation of Catholic Entities.) The remaining schools were operated by the Church of England (later the Anglican Church of Canada), the United Church of Canada (formed by the United Church of Canada Act on June 10, 1925, by union of members of the Methodist Church of Canada, the Congregational Union of Canada, and 70 per cent of the Presbyterian Church), the Presbyterian Church of Canada, and the Baptists. In 1931, the number of concurrently operating Indian residential schools peaked at 80, with an enrollment of approximately 7,831.
[The number of schools operating declined from this point, while total enrolment rose. In 1931, 17, 163 Indian students were enrolled if one includes the day schools. See here for example.]
The Indian residential schools were distributed geographically as follows:
British Columbia: 18
Northwest Territories: 14
Nova Scotia: 1
[Source: the official Court website for the settlement of the In re Residential Schools Class Action Litigation retrieved on January 8, 2013.]
The following, from the 1931 Annual Report of Indian Affairs, provides a breakdown of the residential school system by denomination:
Generally speaking, residential schools enjoyed a particularly successful year. At these institutions, emphasis is placed on vocational training, religious instruction and the care of health. The various churches, as shown hereunder, co-operate with the department in the residential school activity, to the advantage of all concerned.
|Roman Catholic||44 residential schools|
|Church of England||21 residential schools|
|United Church||13 residential schools|
|Presbyterian||2 residential schools|
|Total||80 residential schools|
Indian schools follow the provincial curricula, but special emphasis is placed on language, reading, domestic science, manual training and agriculture. Frequent inspections are made by officers of the department. In addition, public and separate school inspectors visit all classrooms, except in the provinces of New Brunswick and British Columbia, where there are special Indian school inspectors.
As early as the first Indian Act, in 1876, the government legislated provisions concerning the education of Indian children. However, not until the 1920 amendments to the Indian Act was attendance at a residential school made compulsory, with the government assuming the right to apprehend children:
The recent amendments give the department control and remove from the Indian parent the responsibility for the care and education of his child, and the best interests of the Indians are promoted and fully protected. The clauses apply to every Indian child over the age of seven and under the age of fifteen.
If a day school is in effective operation, as is the care on many of the reserves in the eastern provinces, there will be no interruption of such parental sway as exists. Where a day school cannot be properly operated, the child may be assigned to the nearest available industrial or boarding school. All such schools are open to inspection and must be conducted according to a standard already in existence. A regular summer vacation is provided for, and the transportation expenses of the children are paid by the department.
In 1930, the compulsory education clause of the Indian Act was again amended, making it possible “to compel the attendance of every physically fit Indian child between the full ages of 7 and 16 years.” Furthermore, according to the Department of Indian Affairs Annual Report, “in very special cases, the Superintendent General may direct that a pupil be kept in school until he has reached the full age of 18 years. The usual practice at Indian residential schools is to encourage pupils to remain until they are 17 or 18.”
More children were enrolled in a residential school than attended regularly, some children for instance accompanying their parents on seasonal hunts and trap lines. According to government records, average attendance in 1891 was 80.03%, rising to 88.33% in 1931. The principal interest of school administrators was in enrolment: the per capita formula meant that income from government would be based upon the number of registered students. As a result, administrative efforts tended to focus more upon the processing of children as against the pursuit of truants. With the federal legislation of compulsory attendance came resources to employ a more aggressive campaign of seizing, invigilating and retaining Indian children. Unco-operative parents were in many cases imprisoned, and run-away children — an ever-present reality leading to many deaths, particularly in Winter — were pursued by police and/or church employees. Compliance was enforced in other, more indirect ways. One example may be derived from the Indian Agent Hayter Reed, whose withholding of food rations from troublesome individuals earned him the nickname “Iron Heart.”
The Indian residential school was an institution enveloping every aspect of a child’s life. Having been taken from home and family and community to be placed on a boat or plane or train for a journey of hundreds and in some cases thousands of kilometres, and in many cases separated from siblings who were sent to other distant residential schools, these first waves of children arrived disoriented and confused to an alien landscape of concrete, nuns, priests, inscrutable words and strange religious iconography. Noticing a bleeding man nailed to a cross, children would infer for themselves a similar fate. [See for instance the interview with Ralph Johnson in Nadia McLaren’s 2008 documentary Muffins for Granny: “the first thing I saw was this huge, ah, sculpture or image of a man they had nailed to the cross. And, ah, I didn’t know what it was. I was thinking, you know, is this what they’re going to do to us?”] Stripped of their clothes, the children would then undergo a routine initiation — scrubbing, head shaving, and assignment of a uniform, bed, and number. It would be by this number that the children would henceforth be known. Alone and far from the comforts and familiarity of home, children would struggle with the fears, loneliness, and deprivations which attend incarceration within a state institution.
Every moment of every day in the Indian residential school was regimented. The routine was divided along gender, the typical day of a boy focusing on farming and stock raising, and the day of a girl on “domestic science.” Accordingly, the boys’ mornings began as early as 5:30 with the feeding of animals, milking of cows, and otherwise tending to the animals. The girls would rise at roughly the same time, or shortly thereafter, to conduct the morning’s household chores. Following this would be the long queues for washing and a breakfast of porridge and bread, after which came morning religious and academic studies. Then a lunch, typically soup, stew or sandwiches. The afternoons were dedicated to work — farming, house cleaning, sewing and general maintenance, again organized according to gender. The labour of children was critical to the economics of the residential school. The produce of the school (including staples such as milk and potatoes, as well as handicrafts) was sold, the profits applied to the costs of administration. The children themselves encountered hunger as a normal condition, so much so that it was common for them to sneak into the fields at night to dig up and eat whatever could be had from the ground. The afternoon’s labour concluded, children would have some time to themselves before a dinner of meat and root vegetables, and perhaps a snack of fruit when in season. The evening would include time for recreation followed by evening prayer and a bed time of 9.
As the years progressed, the schedule evolved to keep up with the broader changes in the culture. More time was accorded to recreation, and many schools added sports teams, brass bands, dances and movie nights to their regular activities. By mid-century a full day of study, focused on core subjects like math and science, was not uncommon.
From the beginning, the schools exhibited systemic problems. Per capita Government grants to Indian residential schools — an arrangement which prevailed from 1892 to 1957 and which represented only a fraction of the expenditures dedicated to non-Aboriginal education — were inadequate to the needs of the children. (As noted earlier, child labour supplemented the government’s contributions.) Broad occurrences of disease, hunger, and overcrowding were noted by Government officials as early as 1897. In 1907 Indian Affairs’ chief medical officer, P.H. Bryce, reported a death toll among the schools’ children ranging from 15-24% – and rising to 42% in Aboriginal homes, where sick children were sometimes sent to die. In some individual institutions, for example Old Sun’s school on the Blackfoot reserve, Bryce found death rates which were even higher.
F.H. Paget, an Indian Affairs accountant, reported that the school buildings themselves were often in disrepair, having been constructed and maintained (as Nicholas Flood Davin himself had recommended) in the cheapest fashion possible. Indian Affairs Superintendent Duncan Campbell Scott told Arthur Meighen in 1918 that the buildings were “undoubtedly chargeable with a very high death rate among the pupils.” But nothing was done, for reasons Scott himself had made clear eight years earlier, in a letter to British Columbia Indian Agent General-Major D. MacKay:
“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.”
As a consequence of under-funding, residential schools were typically places of physical, emotional and intellectual deprivation. The quality of education was quite low, when compared to non-Aboriginal schools. In 1930, for instance, only 3 of 100 Aboriginal students managed to advance past grade 6, and few found themselves prepared for life after school – either on the reserve or off. The effect of the schools for many students was to prevent the transmission of Aboriginal skills and cultures without putting in their place, as educators had proposed to do, a socially useful, Canadian alternative. This predicament is vividly described by John Tootoosis in a biography which recounts his days at Delmas (or Thunderchild) Residential School, in Delmas, Saskatchewan:
… when an Indian comes out of these places [i.e. Indian schools] it is like being put between two walls in a room and left hanging in the middle. On one side are all the things he learned from his people and their way of life that was being wiped out, and on the other side are the whiteman’s ways which he could never fully understand since he never had the right amount of education and could not be part of it. There he is, hanging in the middle of two cultures and he is not a whiteman and he is not an Indian. They washed away practically everything from our minds, all the things an Indian needed to help himself, to think the way a human person should in order to survive.
No matter how one regarded it – as a place for child-rearing or as an educational institution – the Indian Residential School system fell well short even of contemporary standards, a fact recorded by successive inspectors. A letter to the Medical Director of Indian Affairs noted in 1953 that “children … are not being fed properly to the extent that they are garbaging around in the barns for food that should only be fed to the Barn occupants.” S.H. Blake, Q.C., argued in 1907 that the Department’s neglect of the schools’ problems brought it “within unpleasant nearness to the charge of manslaughter.” P.H. Bryce, whose efforts earned him the enmity of the Department (and an eventual dismissal), was so appalled – not only by the abuses themselves but by subsequent Government indifference as well – that he published his 1907 findings in a 1922 pamphlet entitled “A National Crime.” In the pamphlet, Bryce noted that
Recommendations made in this report followed the examinations of hundreds of children; but owing to the active opposition of Mr. D.C. Scott, and his advice to the then Deputy Minister, no action was taken by the Department to give effect to the recommendations made.
Bryce’s 1907 report received the attention of The Montreal Star and Saturday Night Magazine, the latter of which characterized residential schools as “a situation disgraceful to the country.” These publications, and others like them, make it clear that the conditions of the schools were generally knowable and known, not only by officials of the church and government, but by members of the public-at-large.
Because low regard for aboriginal languages and cultures, and for the children themselves, shaped Canada’s policies toward Indians, matters continued as before despite internal reports and published accounts of abuse. In 1883, the Yakima Indian Agent and veteran of the Mexican and American Civil wars, General R. H. Milroy, was quoted in a British Columbia petition for industrial boarding schools as saying that “Indian children can learn and absorb nothing from their ignorant parents but barbarism.” The residential school system, designed to produce in the Aboriginal child “a horror of Savages and their filth” (in the words of Jesuit missionary Fr. Paul LeJeune), was rationalized by this contemptuous belief.
Individual beliefs about Indians, which in any case varied, did not determine the character of the individual schools. Nor were the conditions identical in each institution: students today recall diverse memories of both good and bad experiences, as well as good and bad teachers. Nonetheless, the widespread occurrence of certain residential school features suggests that structural elements were in effect. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) concluded in 1996 that the schools themselves were, for readily identifiable and known reasons, “opportunistic sites of abuse”:
Isolated in distant establishments, divorced from opportunities for social intercourse, and placed in closed communities of co-workers with the potential for strained interpersonal relations heightened by inadequate privacy, the staff not only taught but supervised the children’s work, play and personal care. Their hours were long, the remuneration below that of other educational institutions, and the working conditions irksome.
In short, the schools constituted a closed institutional culture that made scrutiny difficult, if not impossible. For staff the result was, in the words of RCAP, a “struggle against children and their culture […] conducted in an atmosphere of considerable stress, fatigue and anxiety.” In such conditions, abuses were not unlikely – a fact to which the experts of the day attested.
Then there are the testimonies of hundreds of former students, whose list of abuses suffered includes kidnapping, sexual abuse, beatings, needles pushed through tongues as punishment for speaking Aboriginal languages, forced wearing of soiled underwear on the head or wet bedsheets on the body, faces rubbed in human excrement, forced eating of rotten and/or maggot infested food, being stripped naked and ridiculed in front of other students, forced to stand upright for several hours – on two feet and sometimes one – until collapsing, immersion in ice water, hair ripped from heads, use of students in eugenics and medical experiments, bondage and confinement in closets without food or water, application of electric shocks, forced to sleep outside – or to walk barefoot – in winter, forced labour, and on and on. Former students concluded in a 1965 Government consultation that the experiences of the residential school were “really detrimental to the development of the human being.”
This system of forced assimilation has had consequences which are with Aboriginal people today. Many of those who went through the schools were denied an opportunity to develop parenting skills. They struggled with the destruction of their identities as Aboriginal people, and with the destruction of their cultures and languages. Generations of Aboriginal people today recall memories of trauma, neglect, shame, and poverty. Thousands of former students have come forward to reveal that physical, emotional and sexual abuse were rampant in the system and that little was done to stop it, to punish the abusers, or to improve conditions. The residential school system is not alone responsible for the current conditions of Aboriginal lives, but it did play a role. Following the demise of the Indian residential school, the systemic policy known as “aggressive civilization” has continued in other forms.
Many of the abuses of the residential school system were, we should keep in mind, exercised in deliberate promotion of a “final solution of the Indian Problem,” in the words of Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott. If development of the healthy Aboriginal human being meant respect of Aboriginal cultures, then indeed the regimented culture of the schools was designed precisely to be detrimental. As noted in the 1991 Manitoba Justice Inquiry, the residential school “is where the alienation began” – alienation of Aboriginal children from family, community, and from themselves. Or to put the matter another way, the purpose of the schools was, like all forced assimilationist schemes, to kill the Indian and save the man – an effort many survivors today describe as cultural genocide. [The phrase “Kill the Indian, and save the man” is often misattributed to officials within the Canadian government. Its source is Captain R.H. Pratt, an American soldier and founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In June 1892, Pratt delivered a speech entitled “The Advantages of Mingling Indians and Whites” to the National Conference of Charities and Correction in Denver, Colorado. In this speech, he said:
A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”]
By the 1940s, government officials were shifting their focus from the segregationist approach of the residential school to integrationist arrangements such as the placement of Indians within the public school system. In 1934, the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Harold W. McGill, noted that “there is no foundation for the common belief that the Indians of Canada are a vanishing race. The census which is taken at five-year intervals has shown a substantial increase in each of such periods during the past fifteen years at least, and the statistics may now be regarded as reliable. The birth rate continues to be high, and the death rate is definitely diminishing.”
Although on its surface this change of direction — from residential to public schooling — suggests a change of policy, assimilation remained the ultimate objective. Not only was the Indian Problem not being solved, with every passing year there were more Indians under the auspices of the Indian Act and the Indian Department. Assimilation, it appeared, would require another approach.
The Indian Residential School System would continue for three more decades. Although enrolment into this system would increase, after 1932 the total number of schools within it stopped growing. The Trudeau government’s 1969 “Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian policy” [the infamous “White Paper”] reiterated many of the points made in the October 1967 Hawthorn Report, which called for “complete school integration.” The White Paper outlined the way ahead as Canada envisioned it, again with a view to extinguishing the treaties and the relationship articulated therein:
The significance of the treaties in meeting the economic, educational, health and welfare needs of the Indian people has always been limited and will continue to decline. The services that have been provided go far beyond what could have been foreseen by those who signed the treaties.
As the earlier comments of Duncan Campbell Scott, and others, disclose, the Government of Canada assumed from the beginning the view that the treaties were a temporary expedience on the way to absorbing Indian peoples and assuming control of the land. On April 1, 1969 Trudeau terminated the formal church-government partnership, and the federal government assumed administrative control of the Indian residential schools. This marked the official end of the Indian Residential School System. Throughout the 1970s and beyond, the schools were closed and responsibility for on-reserve education was transferred to local Indian band councils while the provinces took over the work of the off-reserve education of Indians. Gordon’s Indian Residential School, in Saskatchewan, was the last federal-run Indian residential school. Managed by the federal government at the band’s request, it closed in 1996.
With few exceptions, the men and women who created and sustained Canada’s Indian Residential School System believed that the policy of “aggressive assimilation” (as Nicholas Flood Davin, following the example and policies of US President Ulysses S. Grant, termed it) was benevolent and forward-looking. The absorption of the Indian into Canadian society, a necessary part of the effort to possess the land and resources and to build a nation-state, was the desired outcome of policies and the final solution of the Indian Problem envisioned by, among others, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott. The policy of assimilation neither began nor ended with the Indian Residential School System. The program of assimilation continues to this day, as does the project of nation-building, from sea to shining sea.
Study of the Indian Residential School System poses special challenges to the student of history. Those who seek representations of “what really happened” should do so under advisement. For example, what do the archival photographs of residential schools and students capture? Often not the authentic experiences of the children, but rather the policy of assimilation in action. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the taking of one’s photograph was a rare and special occasion. The administrators of the schools put considerable effort into crafting the best possible image of their institutions on film. In many archival photographs, the students pose in laboured formations, well-manicured and dressed in formal clothing they would have worn only on such occasions. The photos were informed by multiple desires and purposes, chief among them the desire to impress the distant Ottawa bureaucrats and the missionary societies whose continued financial contributions the administrators greatly desired.
Another way of putting the matter is to observe that the historical record preserves the viewpoints often of the Government and the churches. We see reflected in the historical record the self-image of these institutions. Most of the individuals who worked in the hostels, schools, orphanges and boarding houses were kind and well-meaning. Many sacrificed to undertake this work. They were proud of their accomplishments, and it is the accomplishments which the archive captures.
The Indian Residential School System provokes the question, Is forcible assimilation a good policy? Was it morally right in the past, and is it morally right now? It is one thing for a member of a culture to choose assimilation into another culture. It is quite another matter when a dominant culture systematically forces assimilation upon another group. This process has endured under many names, for examples colonization, progress, advancement, imperialism, charity and cultural genocide. In Canada, residential schools were one instrument of advancing assimilation of indigenous peoples. Others have been the Pass and Permit System, the mass adoption of indigenous children into non-indigenous homes (a policy known today as the “Sixties Scoop”), and the displacement of traditional leaders in favour of a Chief and Council system of colonial governance. These and other policies have been features of the Indian Act, which remains to this day the legislative instrument governing the lives of Aboriginal people in Canada. The Indian Act not only determines the rights of Indians but defines who and who is not an Indian in Canada. In short, the very Act from which the Indian Residential School System derived its force and legitimacy remains in place. Specific policies have come and gone, but the underlying goal of assimilation, and the overriding Indian Act, continue.
The nature of the relationship between aboriginal peoples and the government of Canada may be characterized in many ways, but it was above all the desire for justice and reparation which fueled the healing movement in the decades following the demise of the Indian Residential School System. The trust of aboriginal people was violated throughout the roughly eighty years the residential school system endured, as generations of children were subjected to many forms of systemic institutional abuse, creating the historic trauma which remains with us today. Not only the children suffered. The parents and grandparents and communities left behind were also devastated.
It is important to realize that residential schools were only one symptom of the imbalanced relationship between aboriginal people and the Government of Canada. To address only residential schools, even in a comprehensive manner, is to treat a symptom. Land, languages, cultures, mental and physical health, have all suffered, and continue to suffer, as a result of this broken relationship.
Furthermore, considering Indian residential schools as an instance of failure to honour the spirit and intent of a negotiated relationship exposes the relevance of the issue to the contemporary individual. Policies come and go, but the historically-grounded relationship between aboriginal peoples and the crown remains. The policy of forced assimilation has not only devastated aboriginal people, it has violated trust. As a result, the residential school legacy of chronic addictions, community violence, suicide, mental illness, broken families, mistrust of leadership and authority, poverty, and shame persist, as does the political impasse.
The theme of relationship shows the way out of this legacy. It binds past, present, and future. It is the underlying reality. That is one reason why, for instance, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples chose as the title of the Final Report Summary, “People to People, Nation to Nation.”
In the introduction to that publication, the Commissioners wrote,
The story of Canada is the story of … peoples trying and failing and trying again to live together in peace and harmony. But there cannot be peace or harmony unless there is justice. It was to help restore justice to the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada, and to propose practical solutions to stubborn problems, that the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was established.
Ten years later, and more, this remains the case.
* “Numbered treaties” refers to 11 negotiated agreements signed between aboriginal people and the federal crown, between 1871 and 1921.
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.
MOST OF WHAT is today recorded of Richard of Gloucester was first compiled under the dominance of the House of Tudor, from Thomas More’s 1520 History of King Richard III, in the time of Henry VIII, to Raphael Holinshed’s ambitious but abandoned Elizabethan-era Chronicles, published in two editions of 1577 and 1587. From the later of these two publications, originally conceived as a history from the Flood onwards, Shakespeare derived a good amount of material for his historical and tragic plays. His Tragedy of King Richard the Third is generally placed in the former category, but sometimes also the second, an ambiguity which fittingly mirrors Richard III’s legend-rich niche in English history.
Given that the ascendance of Henry VII arrived on the battlefield and with Richard III’s demise (the succession of Tudor to the House of York, on August 22, 1485, was the last such transition effected by means of physical combat), a degree of outright propaganda must be expected in the Renaissance account. In their 1954 introduction to the Elizabethan chroniclers, contained in the anthology The Renaissance in England, Hyder E. Rollins and Herschel Baker write that “with a few exceptions” these histories “are partisan, plagiaristic, uncritical, and virtually innocent of form or style.” As one would expect, Shakespeare’s Richard III as in the case of earlier accounts is crude, cunning, malformed and above all wicked.
As early as More, however, a critical eye had fallen upon the human failings to which the living Tudor king would prove himself prone. There is a chasm for instance between the inquisitional Henry VIII and More’s King Utopus, who decrees “that it should be lawful for every man to favor and follow what religion he would.” Read as a work contemporary with Utopia, published in 1516 but begun around the same time, the History of Richard III could be seen along with its fictional companion as More’s critique of human arrogance and cruelty, of which the contemporary sovereign was an egregious practitioner. A devout Catholic but also a humanist, More was eventually at the receiving end of Henry VIII’s vindictiveness, paying with his life for the “treasonous” act of refusing absolute submission to the dictator’s ever-broadening claims.
The recent Leicester excavation and even more astonishing reconstruction of Richard III’s remains now provides fresh cause to reconsider the legends. Doubtless less wicked than commonly portrayed — but necessarily capable of ruthlessness, as were his predecessors and in some cases successors — he may indeed have been as well-formed and even attractive as Nicolas von Poppelau and the superannuated Katherine FitzGerald had once recalled.
What is certain is that Richard lived at a time in which a degree of ruthlessness was a royal aspirant’s prerequisite, and the elimination of one’s rivals, both real and potential as well as past and present, a matter to be taken as granted. As late as 1541, a much crueler and much more rapacious Henry VIII was purging the already severely attenuated Plantagenet line — in this instance by ordering the execution of sixty-seven year-old Margaret Pole. (The niece of Richard III and daughter of George Plantagenet, whose legendary death in “a butt of Malmsey wine” was dramatized by Shakespeare, Pole’s gruesome beheading required eleven strokes of the executioner.) Richard III is arguably a retrospective victim of this Tudor purge.
Debate about the character and deeds of the man is certain to continue, just as the present spat between Leicester and York recalls the bloody contests between Plantagenet’s rival houses. Only with the rise of Henry Tudor were the warring roses combined. The shedding of English blood over this business of religious and clan and territorial rivalry, however, was far from over.
IN RECENT MONTHS, there has been debate over the federal government’s decision to spend a yet-undisclosed sum commemorating the War of 1812. The Americans will doubtless overlook this bit of their history, but I’m unable to imagine any Canadian government ignoring the two-hundred-year anniversary of a conflict that could have converted Upper and Lower Canada into two of the coldest states of the Union.
According to the official government website announcing the initiative, “Canadians gave [the Harper Government] a strong mandate to celebrate important historical events”: in this instance a war which — again, from the Government’s website —
… helped establish Canada’s path toward becoming an independent and free country, united under the Crown, with respect for linguistic and ethnic diversity. Simply put, the War of 1812 helped define who we are today, what side of the border we live on, and which flag we honour. Against great odds, it took the combined efforts of Canadians of all ancestries to repel the American invasion and defend Canada in a time of crisis.
A grand feel-good take on the conflict, and who could disagree? Jeffrey Simpson, for one, who on October 7, 2011 characterized the war as horrible and stupid, and “among the dumbest ever fought.” Whether agreeing with this assessment or agreeing not, one should probably award points for the spot-on retort of Dorchester Review editor, C.P. Champion:
Jeffrey Simpson, a columnist at The Globe & Mail, thinks Canada should not celebrate the upcoming 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 because the conflict was “stupid” and “dumb,” with “bad leadership” and “messy battles.” If that is the standard, we had better forget celebrating much of our history. Get out your calendar and scratch off Remembrance Day, November 11. That date commemorates the allied victory in 1918 that marked the end of the First World War — a conflict that presumably fits Simpson’s definition of a stupid and messy war.
A good point. All wars are indeed irrational and vicious and stupid, even when necessary, their accomplishments invariably measured in the numbers of children turned into corpses and summoning to one’s mind these lines of Hamlet:
… to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain.
So the question remains, Why commemorate war in general, and the War of 1812 in particular?
Journalist Steven Chase has reported a Department of Canadian Heritage study showing in detail what we should already know, that most Canadians are unfamiliar with the details of the War of 1812 — the countries involved, the causes, the individuals who played prominent roles, the locations of battles, and so on. The figures are as a general rule appalling and culminate in the pronouncement that “only one of the 1,835 respondents correctly identified all six of the historical figures from a list.” Here one should put due emphasis on the cadence from a list, which tells us that the respondents probably didn’t know anything about other historical events either, and therefore were unable to arrive at an answer by means of elimination. This state of collective amnesia is probably as good a reason as any to do some commemorative work, commemorate being a verb meaning “to bring to remembrance.”
An honest and candid assessment of the period 1812-1814 will show that the war was started on false grounds, by American jingoists and super-patriots, as Simpson asserts. However, once started, the people of Upper and Lower Canada had good reason to fight. Also, while the war was lost by the inept and over-confident Americans as much as it was won by the British and the Canadians —and the Canadiens — the character and accomplishments of — for example — Major General Isaac Brock were what they were. The 1814 Treaty of Ghent confirmed the pre-war, and indeed post-Revolution, territories and borders of British North America and the United States, and while the Harper government will tell you that peace followed as a result and ever since, the fact may well be that the Americans would have accomplished at a later date what they could not accomplish in 1812-1814, had they not had vast western and southern frontiers to divert their apparent boundless attention and energy.
In other words, the legacy of the war was neither territorial nor geopolitical, but rather psychological. After 1814 the occupants of territories north of the 49th parallel were possessed of what is today termed “Canadian identity,” which may be summarized in the phrase “not American”. Although there has been peace between Canada and the United States ever since 1814, suspicion and a vague condescension toward the Americans was henceforth a permanent feature of the Canadian psyche. An early example of the Canadian apprehension of Uncle Sam — and of the Canadian habit of arriving at self-understanding by looking south — can be found in Thomas Haliburton’s acerbic 1836 novel The Clockmaker. In this work the satire cuts both ways, reflecting a deeper and uncomfortable awareness that Canada must either side with Britain or else be absorbed by America.
In the preceding paragraph I have stated that “after 1814 the occupants of territories north of the 49th parallel were possessed of what is today termed Canadian identity.” There is of course a large and important exception, the indigenous peoples of this land. One of the principal immediate causes of the war was the growing conflict between a brutal and expansionist settler population and its indigenous resistance, among whose most famous leaders in 1812 was Tecumseh. In the three decades leading up to 1812, the Haudenosaunee (like Tecumseh’s people, and indeed all indigenous groups) had been dispossessed of their land base at an alarming rate. The 1812 war offered an opportunity to extract concessions from Britain and Canada through military alliance, a strategy which had served the League in the past and might do so again. It was a military alliance with Britain, during the American Revolution, which yielded to the Six Nations the Haldimand Tract, in Ontario. Ninety-five percent of this land would eventually revert to Canada through a series of transfers, some of which are held by the Six Nations to have involved deception and outright theft. (The current-day Caledonia dispute is a direct legacy of this period.) Not a promising record, but in 1812 military alliances still counted for something, and then as now there were things for which it was worth fighting.
As it happened, the War of 1812 marked the end of the historical era of British-Indian and French-Indian military alliances. European rivalries having been settled on the continent, the provinces within a couple decades of the war’s conclusion were formulating a new, inward-looking Indian policy at the centre of which was assimilation and absorption of indigenous peoples into the sea-sea-sea body politic. Before the War of 1812, indigenous peoples were viewed by Canadian and American alike either as dangerous enemies or as military allies; after the war, they were increasingly viewed as a problem to be resolved through absorption and legislation. The war probably hastened what would have occurred anyway. Nonetheless, whatever victory Canada may justly claim, it is the case that to the indigenous people who fought alongside the British loyalists, as to the later generations who would do the same on European soil, there fell few of the spoils. An emergent outward-facing nation became after 1814 preponderantly inward-looking, the Indian problem thereafter, and to this day, displacing colonial rivalries of the previous centuries.