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Truth and Reconciliation Report Tells a ‘skewed and partial story’ of Residential Schools

Hymie Rubenstein and Rod Clifton

First published in the National Post on Jun 22, 2015.  Edited for clarity.

The week following the release of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada on the Indian Residential School (IRS) system saw the appearance of no fewer than six newspaper reports, editorials and letters by academics and educators in Winnipeg, plus a strident petition on the University of Manitoba’s website, rebuking in the strongest terms those who dared question any of the Commission’s findings.

Skeptics of the Report like ourselves have been vilified for: promoting “colonial nostalgia”; using “racial platitudes”; being “offensively ill-informed,” “morally inattentive” and “retrograde”; marginalizing the history of aboriginals, peddling “bad history” or trying “to rewrite history”; being “insensitive and insulting,” “indifferent” and “hostile” to indigenous peoples; and acting as a willing “catalyst for racist (Internet) commentary.”

Though our first take on the Report appeared on this page rather than in a Winnipeg newspaper, the reaction of our critics was not unexpected: Manitoba has the largest number and proportion of Indigenous Canadians of any province and probably the largest number of living IRS attendees. Manitoba also has a big share of the profitable “Indian industry,” a loose coalition of like-minded and self-serving people and groups, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, whose positions, status and livelihoods would be adversely affected if Indigenous people ever achieved the same life-chance outcomes as other Canadians.

In one commentary, University of Manitoba historian Adele Perry claimed that her academic discipline is the study and interpretation of the past, which “is a tricky business and often a harrowing one.” But not unexpectedly, she and her acolytes want all Canadians to uncritically accept the 388-page Truth and Reconciliation Report as a kind of sacred text, each holy word the revealed, immutable and unchallengeable Truth about the residential schools.

Our secular critique of the Report in no way denies the obvious harm these schools did to many Indigenous people, especially during the early decades of the program. Nor does it deny that Indigenous ways of judging truth, interpreting evidence and seeking justice often differ widely from Western ways. What it does say is that true cross-cultural and national reconciliation and reparation must be based on a truth that is equally known, recognized, understood and shared by all parties concerned.

The mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission 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.”

By Indigenous cultural standards of evidence gathering and truth telling, perhaps it did. By contemporary Western juridical and objective social science standards, however, the report is badly flawed, notably in its indifference to robust evidence gathering, comparative or contextual data, and cause-effect relationships. The result is that it tells a skewed and partial story of what actually occurred at the residential schools and how this affected their students.

Among the Report’s many shortcomings are: implying without evidence that most of the children who attended the schools were grievously damaged by the experience; asserting as self-evident that the legacy of the residential schools consists of a host of negative post-traumatic consequences transmitted like some genetic disorder from one generation to the next; conflating so-called “Survivors” (now always capitalized and always applied to every former student) with the 70 per cent of Indigenous children and youth who never attended a residential school, thereby exaggerating the cumulative harm the schools caused; ignoring the residential school studies done by generations of competent and compassionate anthropologists; arguing that “cultural genocide” was fostered by these schools while claiming that Indigenous cultures were at the time alive and well; refusing to cast a wide net to capture the school experience of a random sample of attendees (despite a $60 million budget, which would have allowed the Commission to do so); and accepting at face value the stories of a self-selected group of about 6,000 former students who appeared before the Commission without cross-examination, corroboration or substantiation as representing the overall school experience.

The Report also disingenuously implies that unlike all other people on Earth, Indigenous Canadians never prevaricate, exaggerate or act out of self-interest when testifying at formal hearings, as occurred under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which has already awarded $4.6 billion to tens of thousands of self-proclaimed “Survivors.” The Report’s reconciliation recommendations ask for billions more.

In its eagerness to portray the Indian Residential Schools in the worst possible light and present Indigenous Canadians as weak and helpless victims of oppressive colonialists, perhaps the most egregious failing of the Report is the way it defames the tens of thousands of strong, independent and resilient Indigenous Canadians who would look at its findings and never see themselves.

From an Indigenous story-telling perspective, the Commission’s Summary Report is truly heartbreaking; from a traditional dispassionate social science perspective, it represents bad research. This discordance is called a clash of paradigms, which, if not bridged, will never lead to reconciliation.

We have lately witnessed a microcosm of something resembling this clash in the exchange on these pages between Conrad Black and Stephen Maher, the latter using unrepresentative data and irrelevant examples from as far away as Peru to manufacture a one-sided picture of Canada’s Indigenous societies in the early contact period.

Professor Perry ended her commentary with the observation that “This history isn’t over.” But neither is the truthful and accurate representation and interpretation of that history.

Hymie Rubenstein is professor of anthropology (retired) and Rodney A. Clifton is professor emeritus of education, both at the University of Manitoba. Prof. Clifton was a supervisor at a residential school in the 1960s.

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