Confronting a dark history
By Fred Edwards  ·  2021-08-06  ·   Source: NO.31 AUGUST 5, 2021

Children's shoes and toys are placed on the staircase outside the Vancouver Art Gallery during a memorial event for the 215 children whose remains have been found buried at a former Kamloops residential school, in Vancouver, Canada, on May 30 (XINHUA)

In late May, Canadians learned the remains of 215 indigenous children had been found in unmarked graves on the site of a former residential school in British Columbia. 

About a month later, hundreds of other unmarked graves were found located on another former residential school in Saskatchewan and a further 182 unmarked graves were discovered at a third site in British Columbia.

Public and political reaction in Canada to these discoveries has been one of shock and sadness, and now scarcely a day goes by without some reference in the political arena and the media to these tragic findings. Besides reports and commentary on the schools themselves, there has also been criticism of iconic Canadian historical figures, such as John A. Macdonald, the country's first prime minister, whose government instituted the system, and Egerton Ryerson, the architect of colonial Canada's public education system and an early supporter of the residential school concept.

Statues of Macdonald and Ryerson have been defaced or removed, and many communities and schools are considering expunging their names from public spaces, including one of Canada's leading universities, which is named after Ryerson.

The intensity of the reaction is curious because although the discovery of the unmarked graves is new, the story they tell is old and well-known, at least to those Canadians who wanted to know it.

Residential school system 

The roots of the residential school system for indigenous youth go back to before Canada became a self-governing country in 1867 and emerged from a noxious amalgam of paternalism and racism, namely the benign belief that the native peoples of British North America needed help to integrate into modern society but that their own culture was a barrier to progress and had to be stamped out.

In 1842, a report on Canada's indigenous people described them as living in a "half-civilized state" and recommended the establishment of live-in schools as part of a policy to assimilate them into the broader European-dominated society. This report was supported by Ryerson, who proposed a separate, denominational, English-only system with a focus on industrial training.

"Agriculture being the chief interest, and probably the most suitable employment of the civilized [indigenous people], I think the great object of industrial schools should be to fit the pupils for becoming working farmers and agricultural laborers, fortified of course by Christian principles, feelings and habits," Ryerson said.

Some residential schools, run by churches, already existed in parts of colonial Canada but the extensive residential school system emerged after Confederation in 1867. Education was a provincial

responsibility under the new Canadian constitution but the indigenous people and their treaties came under federal jurisdiction, so the national government sought a school system that would both assimilate indigenous children and equip them with modern skills.

The U.S. already operated "boarding schools" for indigenous children, and in 1879 the Canadian Government commissioned a study of the American system. It recommended a similar approach in Canada. The author concluded that the best way to assimilate the indigenous people was to start with children in a residential setting, away from their families.

"If anything is to be done with the [indigenous people], we must catch them very young," the report said. "The children must be kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions."

Three years later, funding was approved for the first three schools and by 1900 there were 61 in operation. In 1931, the peak of the residential school system, there were about 80 schools in the country, and over the course of the century they existed an estimated 150,000 children were forced to attend.

Given there was no federal education system, and to save money and administration costs, most of the schools were run by Christian churches: The Roman Catholic Church operated about three fifths, the Anglican Church one quarter and the United and Presbyterian Churches the remainder.

Poor conditions 

Besides the inherent cruelty of separating children from their families, banning the speaking of their native languages, and imposing English or French names, the physical conditions in the underfunded schools were poor. Buildings tended to be crowded, unsanitary, and poorly heated; medical care was inadequate or lacking; food was scarce and often of poor quality.

Basil Johnston, a noted Ojibwe author, wrote that, during his time at the Indian Residential School in Ontario, between 1939 and 1950, "the abiding condition was hunger," and students were fed just enough "to blunt the sharp edge of hunger for three or four hours, never enough to dispel hunger completely until the next meal."

As long ago as 1907, Peter Bryce, chief medical officer of the Indian Affairs Department, wrote a scathing report on conditions in residential schools in Manitoba and the North-West Territories: "We have created a situation so dangerous to health that I was often surprised that the results were not even worse than they have been shown statistically to be." In 1909, he reported that, during the previous 14 years, 6 to 12 percent of residential school students died each year.

The true number of school-related deaths remains unknown due to incomplete records, but estimates range from 3,200 to more than 30,000. And besides actual deaths, the school system has also been linked to post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, substance abuse, and suicide in indigenous communities.

Although the stated goal of the system was to train indigenous youth to function effectively in Canadian society, it largely failed. Only half the day was spent on academics, the rest given over to industrial or agricultural skills for boys and homemaking for girls. The skills taught were basic at best and often just involved manual labor. The fundamental cultural insensitivity of the system—which featured the widespread use of physical punishment—made mastering more complex subjects, such as language training, poor at best. The result was that graduates were incapable of thriving in modern Canadian society while also becoming alienated from their own culture.

The father of one pupil who attended a school in Saskatchewan for five years commented, "He cannot read, speak or write English, nearly all his time has been devoted to herding and caring for cattle instead of learning a trade or being otherwise educated. Such employment he can get at home."

None of this information is new. The government began closing the schools in the 1960s and the last one closed its doors in the mid-1990s. Books, articles, and films about the abuses of the residential school system have appeared regularly since the 1960s. Then Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal government apology in 2008. The Anglican, United, Presbyterian and Catholic churches all made formal statements of apology in the 1980s and 1990s.

So, if none of what Canadians are reading and hearing about the residential schools is new, what accounts for the intensity of the reaction to the discovery of the unmarked graves? One explanation–and a vaguely hopeful one–is that there is a newfound intolerance in Canada for the idea that one culture is superior to another. It is no longer accepted that a race or class can arbitrarily use government power to impose its values on all members of society. As painful as it may be, Canadians are willing to re-examine the darker pages in their history. Officially, Canada is a "multicultural" country, and it may, at last be living up to that vision.

The author is a former editor at the Toronto Star and member of the Beijing Review staff

Copyedited by Ryan Perkins

Comments to yanwei@bjreview.com

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