The residential schools story is now well known to Canadians.
It is accepted wisdom that residential schools were created to strip aboriginal children of their culture. The children who attended the schools were often physically and sexually abused by their teachers, and returned to their communities as broken people, resulting in the alcohol abuse, domestic violence and general social breakdown that plague so many aboriginal communities today. That story is accepted with few questions from the media, and now taught in our schools.
In the first place, the numbers simply do not support it. Most aboriginal children did not attend residential schools. According to the Report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) a total of 150,000 children attended the schools from 1800 to 1970. Although more children attended in some years than in others, this is an average of less than 1,000 per year. That is a small number in relation to the millions of aboriginal people who lived during that time period.
And of that small number, how many were actually abused at the schools? While it is definitely true that there were some perverted teachers who molested children, it is simply beyond reason to believe that any more than a small percentage of the teachers did those things. I would guess that the great majority of the teachers were decent people who would be astonished to know that they were being lumped in with a small minority of sexual predators.
Is it true that the schools were set up by racists with the intention of committing “cultural genocide”? We have to be careful here, because if we judge yesterday’s people by today’s standards (as the TRC does), all of our ancestors would have to be considered racists. But if you look at the debates leading up to the establishment of these schools, you will see that it was the progressives of the day who argued in favour of residential schools. Their prime motivation was to try and provide aboriginal children with the educations they were not receiving on the reserves. In fact, progressive aboriginal leaders were some of the most passionate advocates for the creation of the schools.
Those people advocated so strongly for the creation of the schools because children were not receiving a meaningful education on the reserves. The government was not involved with such matters in the early years, and left any attempts at education to the churches. The main business of the churches was religious instruction, but even in cases where a priest or mission pastor had some competence in teaching and felt a responsibility to teach, the results were poor. Historical accounts from clergy on reserves talk about schools emptying out when the caribou came, or when the fish were running. The fact is that sitting in a school room was alien to aboriginal culture.
The mission school model was a failure. Aboriginal children were receiving either a very poor education, or no education at all. The people who saw the need to correct this by establishing residential schools were from a different age, with attitudes very different from our own. They spoke of “civilizing the Indians”, and used other pejorative terms that are completely unacceptable today. But those were the beliefs of the time, and it is wrong and highly simplistic to portray these people as cruel racists.
In fact , the true racists didn’t care about aboriginal education. They were happy to see aboriginal people languishing on reserves.
And languishing they were. The hopelessness and dependence that characterizes life on so many reserves had already set in. Not only did the great majority of aboriginal children who did not attend residential schools receive little or no education, an astounding number did not even make it to adulthood. If an aboriginal child survived birth, he or she had a one in four chance of dying from tuberculosis alone. Other diseases hit reserve residents particularly hard, and most of the children who survived childhood lived and died in poverty. It was clear that education was the only way out.
What about the claim that the tiny minority who were abused were responsible for the dysfunction in the larger aboriginal community? While in individual cases there were undoubtedly people who were so traumatized by their abuse that the resulting dysfunction within their families lasted for generations, it is simply not possible that the small numbers abused at the schools were responsible for the dysfunction within the larger aboriginal community. That dysfunction was already there. This statement can be proven by the fact that in the vast areas of Canada that had no residential schools at all -- entire provinces, in fact – the social dysfunction on reserves was and is no different from that which exists in areas where the schools operated.
None of this excuses the harsh treatment or sexual abuse of children who were victimized, or the bigotry of the time. The legitimate surviving victims deserve every bit of compensation awarded to them. Residential schools were a dismal failure. But most of the children who attended were not abused. And the suggestion that the students who were not abused were so traumatized by virtue of attendance alone that a successful life after graduating became impossible is belied by the fact that most of the aboriginal leaders of the last few generations were residential school graduates. The schools did provide an education, while the great majority of the children who were left behind on the reserves never had a chance. Some good came of an experiment gone wrong.
In short, the residential school story is greatly exaggerated.
But if the story is exaggerated does it matter now? After all, the TRC Report just asks for “Reconciliation”. Maybe we should just let it go.
Well, it matters a whole lot. “Reconciliation” turns out to mean accepting the aboriginal leadership’s political agenda – namely, a permanent and much expanded system of “separateness." If you look at the TRC report you will see that the most significant recommendations are basically a repeat of those from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996.
That backward looking document demanded the continuation and expansion of the same racial separateness scheme that served as a model for the creation of apartheid South Africa’s “homelands” system – the same racial separateness scheme that keeps most of Canada’s aboriginal people poor and dependent.