Tag Archives: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

The Debate About Indian Residential Schools Misses the Point

It’s never been about good and bad experiences. It’s always been about Canada’s Indian Problem.

✎  Wayne K. Spear | January 25, 2018 • Current Events

TRC
A page from the TRC report, “The Survivors Speak.”

S

ENATOR LYNN BEYAK laments that the histories of Indian residential school focus on the negative, and she has a point. A story about the abuse of a child does tend to capture one’s attention. So far as I’m aware, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission never once intervened mid-testimony to change the subject. “Yes, yes, we get it. But tell us about the knitting and the maths—you know, the good stuff.”

The topic of whether or not good things happened in the Indian residential schools, and whether they are sufficiently documented, is a mischaracterization of the debate we are now seeing. But while I’m on the subject, let me state once again that good things happened in the residential schools. Most scholarly sources describe them, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose reports include warm tributes to beloved teachers. (Every time residential school apologists claim that the TRC tells only the negative stories, they reveal their ignorance.) My own book, Residential Schools: With the Words and Images of Survivors, has entire chapters on movie and dance night, laughter, friendship, hijinks, and so on. My co-author, Larry Loyie, fondly recalled the teacher who encouraged him to write, and he had some fond and funny stories about his residential school days. He was however a writer of books, not of payroll ledgers, and never indulged the question of whether the arithmetic of good and bad arrived at a sum which could please critics like Beyak. We presented the whole truth, as best we could.

Indian and Eskimo Schools

Well, you can’t please everyone, but it’s useful to understand the character of a disagreement.The Indian residential school debate is and has always been about the right of one ethnic or cultural group to dominate and absorb another, and by doing so to appropriate and benefit from land and resources. The children, put into residential schools, often hundreds or even thousands of miles from home, could have learned English and grammar and grown up knowing the love of their mothers and fathers and grandparents. They could have got hockey lessons and a normal childhood. But the whole point of the Indian Residential School System as a system was to sever the bonds of family, so Indians could be turned into Christian Canadians free of the influence of their kin. Did Canada have the moral right, and moral obligation even, to do this? Does it have it now? Welcome to the real debate, ladies and gentleman.

The Let’s Focus On The Positive history of Indian residential schools was written, many times over, by women’s church auxiliaries, missionary societies, school administrators, Indian Agents, and government bureaucrats. Indian Affairs wrote it every year, in their annual reports. The folks who ran and oversaw the schools knew much, much more about them than today’s armchair apologists. When they declared the system a wise and benevolent success, math had nothing to do with it. Duncan Campbell Scott was aware that children were dying unnecessarily in the schools, of diseases caused by overcrowding and insufficient nutrition. The math, in this case, was not on his side. “But this alone,” he wrote to an Indian Agent, in 1910, “does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian Problem.” These folks knew what the debate was really about, and they made no effort to hide it. They were after a final solution of the Indian Problem, and no amount of bad news was going to make a difference.

I didn’t write this article to change anyone’s mind, because I’m not delusional. I wrote it to clarify. It was my day job for well over a decade to educate the public about the Indian Residential School System, and when I started, in the 1990s, most Canadians hadn’t even heard of it. Today there’s a consensus that the Indian Residential School System was not good, but a chunk of Canadian society can be depended upon to never take up that view. There are at present some thousands and maybe even millions of Duncan Campbell Scotts, looking forward to a day when there are no Indians in Canada and, as a consequence of this, no Indian Problem. There are also folks pained by the lost prestige of Mother Church, or by blemishes on the noble project of Empire. There are professional contrarians, skeptical of every affront to the status quo, a bag of human sand stubbornly anchoring the Old Order. I can’t explain the motives of every person who insists the residential schools were good, but I can ask them if they think Canada was right to attempt a wholesale assimilation of Indigenous people, and if they think Canada should stay on that course.

An interview with Justice Murray Sinclair

Wayne K. Spear in conversation with Justice Murray Sinclair | August 1, 2015
Murray Sinclair
Photo by Fred Cattroll

The reality is that until we have fundamental change about the way we see things and think about things, there’s not going to be effective change

WKS: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released an Executive Summary this June, and in December you’ll be releasing the full TRC report. What can we expect from that?

JMS: Many people are still looking for the basis for why we said what we said. The full report will reveal all of that. We have to produce that report in French and English, so that takes time.

WKS: At the final TRC event in Ottawa, the media seized on the phrase “cultural genocide.” Do you think this was a good place to start the conversation about the meaning of residential schools and reconciliation? Or would you have preferred the focus to have been elsewhere?

JMS: I was quite fine with it. We knew when we were writing the report that it was going to be the big question. It’s not only important to Survivors, but I think Canada and the political leadership of the country needed to know what we were going to say about it. It’s an important part of the foundation for the conversation going forward. It puts all of this experience into a proper perspective. This was not simply nice people who made a mistake. This was a truly unacceptable intention to wipe out Aboriginal people through the elimination of their cultures.

WKS: During the TRC you had occasion to comment on murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada. Your comments made me think of the death of Helen Betty Osborne and your work with the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba. It seems that little has changed. Looking back over you long career, do you feel there’s been much positive progress?

JMS: I’ve always maintained that the kind of change we need—the change I’ve been talking about since the AJI [Aboriginal Justice Inquiry] days, which is really systemic change—is going to take a long time to achieve. It’s going to take several generations before we can realistically say that we are on our way to a decent end. Changing systems requires changing the way people believe about the law, they way they believe about their political systems, the way they believe about their institutions, and the way they believe about how they’ve been educated themselves. Those challenges are hard for people to come to terms with.

I think we expect that there will be some conscious, and unconscious push-back even, on the part of the people who are going to wonder if there’s not a different way of doing it. The reality is that until we have fundamental change about the way we see things and think about things, there’s not going to be effective change.

WKS: How do we even have a conversation about systemic change when we are on the margins—of the media, of the institutions which will necessarily provide a space for conversations to happen? Aboriginal people have to be invited into these spaces, at someone’s good grace. It sounds to me like we may need to envision and create new institutions, new spaces to host the discussion about the change we need.

JMS: If we start thinking about things that way, we will immediately reject any solutions, because the idea of building from scratch is too overwhelming for most people. But what we’ve said in our report is that you can take what we now have, and you can build on that. This came out of the past. This will soon be our past. We need to figure out how do we take what we now have and change it enough that we can be assured that, in the future, we will have a better relationship, starting with a vision of what the future is going to look like. We have to ask ourselves “Is what we are doing each step of the way going to get us to that vision?” It’s feasible. Highly possible.

WKS: Thank-you, Justice Sinclair.

JMS: Thank-you.

External links: TRC | Murray Sinclair Biography | Settlement Agreement