Canada’s Cultural Shame

I am a Canadian. It is easy to be a proud Canadian, we certainly have a lot to be proud of. But lately, I have been learning of a shameful part of Canada’s history.

For many years I had heard about “Residential Schools”. I did not know a lot about them, only the same recycled general bits I would hear on the news that the schools were something bad that happened to First Nations people here in Canada. I didn’t really have a good feel for the scope of the issue until a final report came out from an ad hoc government committee titled The Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

This was obviously a very important and deeply scarring event for our First Nations people. The pain I saw on the faces of our First Nations people as they told their stories, and the catharsis I saw on other faces as the report’s 94 recommendations were read out told me immediately that I did not know nearly enough about it.

I had this sense before I started looking into it that these residential schools were something that happened back in the 1800s, when Canada was expanding into the West. You only ever saw old black and white photos of First nations children sitting in a classroom. Boy, was I wrong. This happened in living memory. Yes, it did start in the early 1800s, but in 1979 there were still 15 schools and the last federally-run Residential School closed in November of 1996.

It is commonly referred to as “the Residential School Scandal”. Scandal, I feel, is far too light a term for it. A Senator messing around with his or her intern is a “scandal”. The first thing that got my attention was the report’s author referring to the schools as “cultural genocide”. It was a term that the Canadian government, just a few years ago, refused to use in reference to the schools, considering it to be reactionary and hyperbolic and preferring the softer phrase of “cultural oppression” instead. Now, the report’s author, Justice Murray Sinclair, has clearly stated that “what took place in residential schools amounts to nothing short of cultural genocide”, continuing that “Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group”, as his report outlined the deliberate and systematic destruction of the culture of Canada’s First Nations people.

The Residential School history is not homogenous. The scale, directive, organization and practices changed over time. In the early 1800s, the schools were run by individual missionaries and churches. In 1867, the government organized and controlled the residential schools, and the funding was provided both by the churches and the government. At the turn of the century, the churches struggled to fund the schools, and there was a push to secularize and mainstream the schools into the public school system, but the churches resisted, calling such an idea “a national disaster”. After World War II emphasis shifted from segregation and isolation to a policy of “integration”, a nice word for assimilation. The objective throughout it all, however, was the “extinction of Indians as Indians – by means of schooling”, a concept known as Education for Extinction.

The Residential School experience is not monolithic. Over 150,000 First Nations students were removed – sometimes forcefully – from their homes to attend these schools, often deliberately far away from their families and communities. While in the schools, mostly all suffered mental abuses as the schools were hell bent on eradicating their identity, forcing their conformity through discipline. Some experienced physical abuse, both sanctioned as part of the disciplinary approach, and extra-curricular “over-discipline” from some of the more zealous instructors. There are even reports of an “electric chair” in one of the schools, sometimes used for discipline, sometimes claimed to be used as “entertainment” of workers. Some others still experienced sexual abuse, some at the hands of simple predators, some as a particularly perverse extension of the discipline. Because records were poorly kept or are incomplete, and the churches refuse demands to disclose, we do not know exact numbers.

For those First Nations children who refused to give in to the assimilation, it only meant more and increasing abuse, then finally ejection from the system as a “failure”, returning to their communities, broken. For those who took to the assimilation, it meant returning to their communities, unrecognizable to their families and unable to readjust to their own society or fit into ours. In every sense the Residential School experience was a disaster for our First Nations people. For both groups it meant no longer being able to fit in, unable to relate to their communities, their emotional development stunted, unable to be nurturing parents. Some committed suicide in the school and afterward, unable to cope. Others turned to drugs and alcohol to cope. These issues of course cause innumerable ripple effects.

George Guerin, former chief of the Musqueam Nation, who attended the Kuper Island School, recalls, “Sister Marie Baptiste had a supply of sticks as long and thick as pool cues. When she heard me speak my language, she’d lift up her hands and bring the stick down on me. I’ve still got bumps and scars on my hands. I have to wear special gloves because the cold weather really hurts my hands. I tried very hard not to cry when I was being beaten and I can still just turn off my feelings… And I’m lucky. Many of the men my age, they either didn’t make it, committed suicide or died violent deaths, or alcohol got them. And it wasn’t just my generation. My grandmother, who’s in her late nineties, to this day it’s too painful for her to talk about what happened to her at the school.”

The Catholic Church led the majority of it, and three Protestant groups participated – the United Church, the Anglican Church, and the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Until just last week, I had no idea the Presbyterian Church was involved. I was always told it was a Catholic thing. I have been searching for information on the extent of the Presbyterian Church’s role in it, and I have yet to find any meaningful information on details. At one point the involvement seems to be two schools, at another it seems to be a network from Ontario to British Columbia.

Why my interest in the Presbyterian involvement? For the first 20 years of my life I was a Presbyterian. Technically, I still am. I can walk into any Presbyterian church and take part in communion as a full communicant member. I am an atheist now, but I bear no ill will toward the church like some atheists do. That is probably because my minister played a large and positive role in my becoming an atheist. My feelings toward my church changed drastically when I discovered that it was complicit in the schools. In my general ignorance I was labouring under the impression that the schools were “a Catholic thing”. I mean, you would hear the odd horror stories of what the Catholic nuns would do to the children, and I was never sure how much of it was fact, and how much of it was legend.

When I was active in the Church, The Presbyterian Church in Canada regularly promoted its missionary work, its community outreach, its youth initiatives… I never heard a single word about the Residential Schools. Even the church’s official apology in 1994 was low-key, and the laiety knew very little about it. The apology was requested in 1986 and delivered 8 years later. When I read the apology, I am infuriated. In fact, it is not even called an apology, it is titled as a “Confession”. The preamble and discussion begins on page 253 of the 1994 General Assembly records and the discussion is full of excuses and spin. For example, it is written into the record that aboriginal parents did not understand that the requirement for labour in the schools was because of the lack of government funding for the schools. There are some assertions in that statement that are not backed up in the record, such as the level of deficiency of government funding, and that the only resolution for this problem was to force the children into labour. They also use weasel words to minimize the culpability and deflect blame, to try to rewrite or reframe the ugly fact of what it was. The popular frame is that “our efforts failed them”. No. We didn’t “fail” them, we tried to destroy them. We wanted to destroy them. It was a concerted and deliberate effort to elminate their way of life.

The schools were set up as manual-labour schools, as described in the PCIC 1994 General Assembly records: “The ‘manual-labour school’ emerged as the preferred model for education, developed in 1804 by Gideon Blackburn, an American Presbyterian missionary among the Cherokees. Its schedule allotted equal time to study and to work in the fields, shops, or kitchen of the institution. This was “a new era in Indian missions, marked by the centrality of residential schools to which young people would be removed from parental influence in the hope that they would become effective emissaries of Christian civilization among their people.”

The United Church was the first to respond with an apology in 1986, some Roman Catholic missionaries apologized in 1991 – but the Church itself would not apologize until 2009. The Anglican Church apologized in 1993, the Presbyterians in 1994, and finally, the Government of Canada in 2008.

What has prevented this process from descending into anarchy? The Law Reform Commission of Canada sums it up as “The Aboriginal vision of justice gives pre-eminence to the interests of the collectivity, its overall orientation being holistic and integrative. Thus, it is community-based, stressing mediation and conciliation while seeking an acknowledgement of responsibility from those who transgress the norms of their society.” In other words, the First Nations concept of justice puts greater value on what will heal the community than the individual, especially when the injury has been inflicted on the community as a whole. Individuals are certainly sharing their own experiences and stories, but the justice they seek is not individual. I dare say the rest of us in North America could learn a lot from this approach. It is a healing process, not a retributive one, and an approach central to the Restorative Justice concept found in the First Nations community.

I cannot possibly apologize for this, not in any meaningful or adequate way. As you can probably tell from this article, I am still working through understanding the breadth and width of what happened in Canada’s residential schools. It has been difficult to do my research for this article, to hear the stories of our First Nations people. It is a shocking thing to look at a country one loves so much and see such a horror. I am ashamed I did not know this. I am proud – very proud – of our record of multiculturalism. Our approach as a nation, as near as was my experience, has been to recognize and celebrate the diversity of cultures that make up the mosaic of Canada. It was always trumpeted as a better alternative to the American concept of the “melting pot” of assimilation. I was not prepared to see something that runs so contrary to multiculturalism’s ideals – such systemic and brutalized assimilation. It seems, historically, that we have taken that approach only with other immigrants to this land. We should have done better, and we can do better.

So much damage has been done that it is not the kind of thing that can be turned around or “fixed” in our generation, but we can now take that first step – together – to build a more harmonious, respectful and welcoming relationship with the first people on this land. A good friend has taught me that the First Nations way of approaching these things is to make decisions that are good for seven generations from now. I think that long kind of vision is what is needed here.

Further reading:

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