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Reclaiming the History of Canada’s Indigenous Population

Hymie Rubenstein

Originally published by History Reclaimed on 01/09/2023 and lightly edited by the Indian Residential Schools Research Group editorial team.

Sponsored by the REAL Indigenous Report

Slowly but surely, the shaky foundations of the six-volume 2015 Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) charged with describing the history, operation, and legacy of Canadian Indian Residential Schools, are being undermined by one revelation after another, and also by the absence of proof for the extreme claims made by advocates for Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

The mandate of the TRC was to “reveal to Canadians the complex truth about the history and the ongoing legacy of the church-run residential schools, in a manner that fully documents the individual and collective harms perpetuated against Aboriginal peoples.”

The Final Report’s basic contention was that current aboriginal adversities and pathologies have been directly caused by the forced attendance of children at boarding schools founded in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Those children were so emotionally, physically, and sexually abused in these facilities that they, and everyone around them, whether family members or others, will continue to be severely damaged by Indian Residential School attendance for generations to come.

But this “truth” rests on a very shaky foundation. The two central failings of the TRC were its blind acceptance of the unverified testimonies of self-selected Indigenous witnesses as absolutely true, and its unwillingness to carefully delve into and make use of historical material that would have helped paint a different picture of both the Indian Residential Schools and the root causes of Indigenous adversity and pathology.

Exacerbating these two failings was the short shrift given to contrary testimonies by non-Indigenous individuals intimately associated with life at the schools. History Reclaimed, an independent group of scholars with a wide range of opinions on many subjects, has recently published a very moving testimonial from someone whose family was intimately connected with the education and welfare of Indigenous children over several decades.

Most of the oral content of the TRC’s Final Report consisted of allegations of mental, physical, and sexual abuse, allegations made by a non-random sample of fewer than 7,000 former students, representing some four percent of those who are said to have attended the schools between 1883 and 1996. Those former students told their stories without cross-examination, and their stories played a large part in the Commission’s deliberations.

Most of these witnesses attended an Indian Residential School during a period when students were enrolled mainly for reasons of social welfare, namely after 1960, and hence were likely to have entered them having already suffered physical, emotional and psychological damage. Nevertheless, their stories were accepted without question as truthful.

Many students were likely sent to these boarding schools to escape sexual predation at home, abuse that was reportedly rampant on many Indian Reserves, and included the heinous crime of incest.

This is not to deny that sexual exploitation occurred in these schools. But if we accept the estimate that at least one in every five students suffered sexual abuse during the schools’ 113 years of government control and church administration, this is not out of line with the experience of the Canadian population as a whole. According to a 2018 Statistics Canada study, “Excluding incidents committed by intimate partners, 39 percent of women and 35 percent of men aged 15 years and older in Canada, or more than 11 million Canadians, reported experiencing at least one physical or sexual assault since age 15.” Of course, in the case of the residential schools, most of those assaulted would have been under the age of 15, making such assaults all the more odious, albeit less common.

The severe corporal punishment often routinely doled out in the residential schools also cannot be denied. However, as cruel as its practice may seem by today’s standards, strapping and caning were the order of the day in most non-native parochial schools in Canada and other Commonwealth countries up to the 1960s. Corporal punishment in British state schools wasn’t made illegal until 1986.

Testimonies given to the TRC included descriptions of an enrolled student being murdered, but despite many increasingly hysterical allegations, there is not a single proven case of an Indian Residential School student having been murdered by a staff member. Robert Tombs recently addressed this issue in The Spectator 

Despite comparisons of this type, the dominant narrative that claims Indian Residential Schools were houses of horror marked by cruelty, racism and genocide has taken root in Canadian society. Anyone challenging the supposed truths of child neglect, abuse and murder is now called an Indian Residential School “denialist” by those eager to shut them up or even criminalize such utterances.

The Canadian Senate Standing Committee on Indigenous Peoples recently released a 30-page report entitled “Honouring the Children Who Never Came Home: Truth, Education and Reconciliation.” The study includes a recommendation “that the Government of Canada take every action necessary to combat the rise of residential school denialism.”

In addition, all former Indian Residential School students have been termed “Survivors” — a term habitually capitalized and which includes the thousands who would vehemently reject this term to describe their happy and productive school experience.

None of this should be taken to suggest current Indigenous adversities such as chronic poverty, drug addiction, or criminal behaviour have been invented or distorted. But such hardships and pathologies are no less prevalent among those Indigenous peoples in Canada with little or no boarding school experience. The legacy of the Indian Residential Schools —  “the significant educational, income, health, and social disparities between aboriginal people and other Canadians” — have been found to be no greater among those who attended Indian Residential Schools than among those who did not.

What needs to be identified, then, is the true source of worrying Indigenous rates of poverty, crime and incarceration. Were these destructive phenomena demonstrably created by attendance at Indian Residential Schools, or did students enter such schools having already encountered them on their home Reserve?

The raison d’être for the boarding schools supports the latter suggestion. The schools were largely established to help vulnerable children escape hunger, violence, and other abuse on their home reserves following the colonial pacification of the Indigenous people and the loss of traditional livelihood pursuits after the decimation of bison populations on the prairies of Western Canada and the decline of income from hunting and trapping elsewhere. The schools were dedicated to teaching their students the new skills needed to succeed in a changing country: literacy, numeracy, industrial work habits, and technical skills.

Although the complete story of the boarding schools was unfairly summarized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, its 2012 Interim Report with the inflammatory and misguided title “They Came for the Children” made this admission in a section entitled “It is a complicated story”:

It would be wrong and foolish to say that no Aboriginal people benefited from the schools. Many have come forward to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to express their gratitude to the men and women who worked in the schools. Although the overall educational outcomes of the schools were limited, the system was not without its accomplishments. Human connections were made. Doors were opened, and opportunities created. People applied themselves, overcame tremendous barriers, and developed skills they were able to draw upon for the rest of their lives.

Regrettably, the Commission failed to investigate and report on how very complicated this story really was. That failure followed on from the September 2007 implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, under which a Common Experience Payment (CEP) gave thousands of dollars to former IRS students, simply for their attendance.  $1.6 billion went out to 103,203 applicants, based solely on the number of years of their schooling.

The operation and intent of the TRC is also reflected in the $3.2 billion paid to 31,103 former IRS students — about 30% of the number who had collected the CEP as well — based on how much abuse they said they were subjected to during their enrolment. The terms of reference for the CEP shows that none of the claimants faced the rigorous cross-examination that they would have experienced in ordinary legal proceedings dealing with serious assault.

The reversal of cause and effect in explaining the experiences of Indigenous people in Canada’s Indian Residential School project has yielded large financial and other rewards in recent years. This reversal continues to be promoted by those who stand to benefit most from it.

The contention apparently accepted by Canadian authorities that the causes of current socio-economic problems lie in the past, or outside Indigenous communities, external to the lives of their residents, also underpinned the TRC and has guided all subsequent policies. Canadians have thereby obscured the alternative view that the maladaptive norms and attitudes that prevail today in Indigenous communities regarding such things as family life, self-reliance, personal agency, and community cohesion, are within the current competence of Indigenous communities to set right for themselves. In supporting these narratives of victimhood, the Canadian governments and liberal opinion in general fail to support the real long-term interests of Canada’s Indigenous population.

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