By Rodney E. Clifton and Hymie Rubenstein
As expected from the pre-release sound bites, the Final Report of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission reinforces the many half-truths, exaggerations, and selective reporting about the schools and their mission.
The most incendiary and least credible of these is the assertion by the Commission’s chair, Judge Murray Sinclair, that the 150,000 children who attended these mainly Church-run schools between 1849 and 1996 were considered “sub-human,” a claim belied by their very raison-d’être: to give aboriginal children the chance to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to fully benefit from membership in the new country of Canada.
Was this an ethnocentric goal? Absolutely. So was the goal of educating the children of the millions of disadvantaged immigrants who came from all over the world during the same period, resulting in the same acculturation spuriously called “cultural genocide” — that has occurred around the world since the origin of human beings.
Regardless of what some besotted prime minister may have said 150 years ago about “taking the Indian out of the child,” the primary function of formal education, especially in complex multi-ethnic societies like Canada, has always been to teach mainstream norms and practices. State education has been compulsory for decades and the children of non-British residents, native and non-native alike, have always undergone considerable cultural loss, “taking the Swede/Ukrainian/Jew out of the child,” by attending government-mandated schools while still managing to retain many old country beliefs, customs, and languages.
The Commission was well aware that the provision of native education was a right requested by aboriginals and entrenched in the treaties they signed giving up their sovereignty. There is also historical documentation that generations of aboriginal parents were keen to send their children to church-run schools so that they could obtain a Western education. Without residential schools, the nomadic hunting-and-gathering lifestyle, remote location, and tiny size of many aboriginal collectivities would have resulted in no formal education, a fact that was clearly understood at the time.
Conversely, there is evidence that the 70 per cent of aboriginal people and their descendants who never attended residential schools exhibit the same or worse socio-economic outcomes and pathologies as the “survivors” and their descendants.
If the goal were genocide — as the report and statements from Judge Sinclair suggest — the results do not show it: aboriginal peoples in Canada now number over 1.5 million, or 4.5 per cent of the national population, spread over 600 recognized First Nations bands with unique cultures, languages, art and religion.
That severe corporal punishment was often routinely doled out at these schools cannot be denied, based on the reports of former students and the fact that as alien as its practice may seem by today’s anti-discipline standards, strapping and caning were the order of the day in most non-native parochial schools up to the 1960s. All too often, so was the vile act of child sex abuse, a crime that must be pursued and severely punished.
Were residential students disciplined for speaking their native languages or prohibited contact with family members or adults from their tribal group at these schools for years on end, as the unexamined testimonies of an unrepresentative sample of “survivors” suggests?
One of us [Rodney Clifton] worked as the Senior Boys’ Supervisor in Stringer Hall, the Anglican residence in Inuvik, N.W.T., for the 1966-1967 school year, and also lived in Old Sun, the Anglican Residential School on the Blackfoot Reserve (Siksika First Nation) in Southern Alberta, in the summer of 1966.
In each of the two sex-segregated junior dormitories at Stringer Hall, there were four female supervisors, two young Inuk women and two older non-aboriginal women. Many of the young Inuit students did not speak English and the Inuk supervisors spoke to them in Inuktitut. None were punished for doing so.
Virtually all of the Dene students spoke English as their second language which was the only way they could communicate with English-speaking Inuit. Most of the supervisors, and especially the residential administrator and the matron, used Inuktituk words and facial expressions when communicating with the children, including the Dene and white children.
Approximately 12 per cent of the 280 students at Stringer Hall were non-aboriginal. At that time, almost all school-aged children from small communities and hunting camps, aboriginal as well as non-aboriginal, stayed in one of the residences, Grollier Hall (Roman Catholic) or Stringer Hall (Anglican), while attending Sir Alexander Mackenzie School. The same held true for such schools all across the country.
At Siksika, native children were in residence from Sunday to Friday. They went home for the weekends returning in time for church on Sunday. They also spent summers and holidays with their families. In Inuvik, on the other hand, most students were in residence full time for nine or 10 months of the year because travel to their tiny far-flung home communities was difficult.
The federal government also supported day and hospital schools for aboriginal children. Most aboriginal students attended day schools almost identical to the public schools that other Canadian children attended.
It is also important to qualify and contextualize the aboriginal residential schools in other ways. Up to the late 1960s, it was quite common for children and adolescents of various ethnicities to be sent to languish in large institutions — general hospitals, sanatoria, orphanages, reform schools, homes for unwed mothers, mental institutions, and boarding schools for long periods of time and to be treated in ways that seem inhumane by today’s standards. For youngsters in these institutions, the experience of living with many other children, conforming to the supervision of adult strangers, and being away from their families for long periods was very traumatic.
Similar traumas, indignities, and deprivations faced by aboriginal students — loneliness, sexual and physical exploitation, and harsh living conditions — have been reported by the children of wealthy parents forced to attend elite boarding schools throughout the former British Empire.
The report has estimated that perhaps 6,000 students died while attending residential schools. This figure has little meaning unless compared to the rates and causes of mortality during the same period among aboriginal and other children who attended public schools, most of whom rarely died on school property because they were sent home or to a nearby hospital when they became ill. Because residential schools were often very far from any urban hospital, many would have died in the school’s infirmary before they could be transferred elsewhere for better treatment.
When we call all aboriginal children educated in residential schools “survivors,” this erroneously implies that they are equivalent to Holocaust survivors. This libel also denigrates the sacrifices made by the many caring Christian teachers, religious leaders, and other school personnel who devoted years of service trying to enhance the life chances of their young charges, thousands of whom have benefited from their residential school experience to become productive and influential figures in Canadian society and role models for their people.
That few of these successful “survivors” chose to give testimony before Judge Sinclair should come as no surprise.
Rodney E. Clifton is professor emeritus of Education at the University of Manitoba. Hymie Rubenstein is professor of anthropology (retired) at the University of Manitoba.
This article was originally published in the National Post. It has been republished with the author’s permission.
The REAL Indigenous Report sponsors IRSRG.ca. This article was published in that newsletter and has been republished with the author’s permission.