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Residential schools were not instruments of genocide

This article originally appeared in The Western Standard. It has been posted with permission. 

With very little attention from Canada’s media, the House of Commons on Thursday October 27 unanimously adopted a resolution proclaiming “the government must recognize what happened in Canada’s Indian residential schools as genocide.” There was no dissenting voice.

Yet a month earlier in Edmonton at the National Gathering on unmarked burials, the band chiefs were dismayed to hear from the former president of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Dr Chile Oboe-Osuji, that, “There is no pathway to the International Criminal Court for the situation of the historical Indian residential school system in Canada.” His declaration has received no public attention at all.

If the former president of the ICC has implicitly denied that Canada is guilty of genocide, how is it that our own elected representatives have unanimously embraced responsibility for this same crime?

Ever since the spring of 2021 when the chief of the Kamloops band announced Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) had discovered the remains of 215 children buried in an apple orchard near the Kamloops Indian Residential School it has been widely assumed that the staff of the school perpetrated this horrific crime. According to other bands, similar crimes were committed across Canada during the years that the schools were in operation. In misguided retaliation, many Catholic churches were torched or vandalized that summer, and the prime minister ordered flags lowered on all federal institutions for almost six months as an act of penance.

Despite the many apologies, including that of the Pope, a different reality is emerging. While the government has allocated substantial grants for the purpose, not a single child’s body has been exhumed. Without explanation, the Kamloops Band has refused all requests to release the report of its GPR exploration. As a consequence, all the many thousands of staff —mincluding a significant number of First-Nations men and women — remain under a cloud for having allegedly committed the most monstrous crimes against the children under their care.

In stark contrast, recent research is revealing a dedicated staff who made great sacrifices to provide their students with the best education possible. This is reflected in the glowing comments by First Nation leaders such as Tomson Highway, Senator Len Marchand, and Richard Wagamese. Celebrated author Highway has written, “nine of the happiest years of my life I spent at that school… There are many very successful people today that went to those schools.” Senator Marchand wrote about his teachers at the Kamloops School, “… they meant well by us, they genuinely cared about us, and they all did their duty by us as they saw fit.” Indigenous writer, Richard Wagamese recounted his mother’s experience at the Cecelia Jeffrey Residential School near Kenora, Ontario. “My mother has never spoken to me of abuse or any catastrophic experience at the school. She only speaks of learning valuable things that she went on to use in her everyday life.” [The Good Side of the Residential School Story Is Valid Too”. Calgary Herald, May 4, 2008.] Other lesser-known former students have also left a record of their positive experiences buried in the earlier volumes of the Report of the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (Vol. 1, The Survivors Speak, pp. 185-9.)

These positive experiences were not unusual. First Nations people often demanded that residential schools be built on or near their reserves. When a school was destroyed by fire they were quick to demand that it be rebuilt. Waiting lists to get into the schools were common right up until the 1960s, when the government began to phase them out, sometimes in the face of protests from First Nations parents. While it has been alleged that students were forced to attend these schools against their parents’ will, there is little if any hard evidence to support the charge.

The first residential schools were poorly constructed, unhygienic, ramshackle structures, that were a menace to human health. However, beginning in the twentieth century they were rebuilt to a much higher standard, and soon were in the forefront of the battle to reduce childhood mortality. With their brick construction, central heating, hot and cold running water, regular meals and warm beds, the schools were often healthier places than houses on the reserves.

Indian Children primarily brought tuberculosis from the reserves into the schools. Yet mortality from this disease in the schools plummeted in the schools during the 1940s and 1950s, faster than among the indigenous population at large.  It did not reach negligible levels until 1974 according to a study by V. Gallant, ‘Tuberculosis in Canada: 1924-2012.’ In fact, as they also show, indigenous incidence of TB has significantly increased in recent years, long after the last Indian Residential School closed its doors. In Nunavut, whose population is mainly indigenous in 2012 it reached 234 per 100,000, compared to 4.8 per 100,000 among the Canadian population as a whole. This is a far greater discrepancy than existed during the era of the residential schools.

During the Spanish Influenza epidemic (1918-19), the residential school students fared better than the First Nations population as a whole. Overall mortality in the schools at the time was less than a third of First Nation mortality just from the Spanish Flu. (1,000 per 100,000 vs. 3,770 per 100,000.)

The schools also pioneered in the treatment of trachoma, a common childhood disease that often ended in blindness. By the 1950s the disease had been virtually wiped out. Officials in the Department of Indian Affairs repeated at various times that “all our regulations are designed to obtain healthy pupils.” These included medical checkups before admission to the school, and vaccinations as they became available. Most impressive is a study recently published in the Canadian Journal of Economics which concluded that for students born after 1930 “residential schooling increased the physical health of those that attended.”

Finally, we have countless personal accounts of the pleasure derived from all the extracurricular activities sponsored by the Schools. These included soccer, baseball, basketball, lacrosse and swimming. The Kamloops School was one of several that boasted a large swimming pool. In the winter there were gymnastics, skating, and — the number one favourite — hockey. First Nations teams won many competitive tournaments. Besides athletics there was a whole panoply of cultural and club activities: choirs, ballet troupes, theatrical performances. Some of these activities won prizes, and some of the groups travelled across Canada, the U.S., Mexico and even Europe. Student-produced magazines survive from a number of schools such as the Moccasin Telegram and St Anthony’s News. They all breathe an air of cheerful, humorous optimism.

Of course some students suffered abuse. For the most part the perpetrators have been charged, convicted and punished. There is also no doubt that the aim of the schools was assimilation. But in the face of massive evidence that they positively cared for their students, are we to believe that the thousands of individuals, many themselves indigenous, who administered and taught in Canada’s Indian Residential Schools sought in any way to commit genocide against the First Nations people of Canada?

Such an allegation is very wide of the truth.

The original of this article can be found here:

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