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When the Abused Becomes the Abuser

James Pew

(Part of an essay series exploring the Canadian implications of adopting the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)).

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Not so long ago, the Indian Residential School system was a rarely discussed issue. But then, the slightly positive, mostly neutral image it once had was violently shattered in Canada’s collective consciousness. Former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, in an interview with journalist Barbara Frum, called for an inquiry into Indian Residential Schools. The interview was broadcast nationally on the CBC on October 30th 1990. What Fontaine described concerning abuse that he and other students claimed to have suffered as students at Indian Residential Schools shocked and disturbed the nation.

Fontaine’s interview aired on CBC Radio’s The Journal in 1990

Although unclear, due to Fontaine’s vagueness, it appears as if the abuse he described is likely to have been mostly student-on-student. Indeed, historian J.R. Miller, the most significant historian of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools cited in the Truth and Reconciliation Report, wrote the following in his 1996 volume Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools :

“The evidence is overwhelming that a great deal of the sexual exploitation and violence perpetrated on male, and in rare instances female, students was the work of older students”

J.R. Miller’s 1996 publication Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools

During his interview, Fontaine explained to Frum how those who abuse, become abusers themselves. When pressed by Frum as to whether he had sexually abused others, Fontaine insinuated that he had, saying he acted out what had been done to him. Fontaine clearly felt deep shame during the interview. He avoided offering explicit explanations. This avoidance extended to imprecise language, leaving those not led by the emotional tone of the interview, or the dramatically produced CBC presentation, with more questions than answers.

Here is an excerpt from the Fontaine/Frum interview:

Fontaine: “…the abused becomes the abuser, and that’s been the experience. Unfortunately.”

Frum: “Has that happened to you?”

Fontaine: “Well, of course. Of course.”

Frum: “What do you mean ‘of course’?”

Fontaine: “Well, what I’m saying is you start playing out and doing on to others what you’ve experienced, and this is one of the sad outcomes of this experience.”

Frum: “Are you talking about you becoming an authoritarian person, or are you talking about you becoming a sexual abuser?”

Fontaine: “Well, I’m talking about someone like myself, unfortunately acting out what has been done to you.”

It is hard to know exactly what Fontaine experienced, or who it was that assaulted him. I do not doubt that he was abused. However, if the majority of sexual and physical abuse that occurred in the IRS system was indeed student-on-student, is it plausible to assume this may have been the case at Fontaine’s school?

Further, if the majority of abusers were themselves abused students who, like Fontaine, feel great shame today from the “distortion of (the) sense of morality,” and the sexual and physical abuse suffered and perpetrated, would they not have somewhat of an incentive – if only to avoid the full thrust of that shame – to exaggerate the amount of abuse that took place, giving the impression it was endemic? If this is even partially correct, then something does not square with the bloody tales of murderous and deviant sex-abusing nuns and priests whom Canadians now associate with Indian Residential Schools.

The following is from a piece written in the fall of 2023 by retired judge and opinion writer Brian Giesbrecht, called The numbers just don’t support the narrative of abusive priests:

“The complete list of every person convicted of any crime that occurred at all of the approximately 143 residential schools and hostels that operated between 1883 and 1996 (when the last residential school closed) is found in Appendix 3 of the Truth and Reconciliation Report.

That list is revealing.

“With all the stories about sexually abusing priests, for example, one would expect that list to be very long. One would expect to find hundreds, or even thousands, of priests convicted of sexual crimes. In fact, there is only one priest and one Christian lay brother on that entire list for the 100+ years that the schools operated.”

It is important to make distinctions between the people who were involved in some way in the residential schools. There were secular staff (many of whom were Indigenous adults), there were members of the clergy, and there were students. It is also worth noting that what the media narrative insinuates, and what is taught in modern public schools to our children about Indian Residential Schools, is that the priests and nuns were monstrous genocidal villains. Phyllis Webstad’s children’s book, The Orange Shirt Story, about the evil residential school nuns who snatched away her favorite orange shirt, is a blatant piece of ahistorical anti-Canadian, anti-Catholic propaganda. Webstad’s tale is not true, nor is it true that priests, oblates, or nuns were systematically sexually abusing Indigenous students.

But if not the clergy, who?

Rodney Clifton, a former teacher at two Indian Residential Schools, and the co-editor and contributing author of From Truth Comes Reconciliation, sees it as a question of employee-on-student vs. student-on-student abuse. In an e-mail exchange, I asked Rodney about the Fontaine/Frum interview, and my speculation that Fontaine’s experience of abuse at an Indian Residential School was student-on-student:

“I agree,” he said, “that Phil Fontaine’s interview with Barbara Frum was quite vague. I don’t think we have enough data to say that the great bulk of abuse was student-on-student and not employee-on- student. Certainly the table of reports in the TRC Report is not clear. Why are there such differences between provinces? Why didn’t the Commission report their data by the organizations that managed the schools and hostels? In the 15 months I lived in Old Sun and Stringer Hall, I never heard of any student-on-student abuse. My wife, Elaine, heard about student-on-student abuse when she was a student in Old Sun for 10 years.

“If there was employee-on-student abuse, then some important conclusions would follow. First, some Indigenous employees were no doubt involved or covered the sins up. Second, it is difficult to think that students would not know because the dorms held many children and any employee who came into the dorm to abuse students would have been seen and heard by other students. It would be possible, however, for students to go to a supervisor’s room in the middle of the night. Students were often going to the bathroom and would be away from their beds for some time.

“In the two schools I lived in, about 50% of the employees were Indigenous and many of the children were relatives or children of friends. At that time, all the Indigenous people I knew would have strongly condemned this type of behaviour.”

From Truth Comes Reconciliation, a 2021 critique of the Reports issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission 

Rodney also pointed out that the TRC Report did not include evidence on missing and murdered children (another important piece of the mainstream narrative). Said Rodney, “The only oral report presented was Doris Young who said she observed the murder of a child with blood all over the walls. That was written up in the Report, but the Commissioners did not check her claim out and they never referred it to the authorities to be investigated properly.” And further, Rodney pointed out that “the TRC report contained no knowledge keepers who reported knowing about murdered children buried in schoolyards. All of that came later.”

The author, and First Nations chief, Edmund Metatawabin, wrote in his autobiography, Up Ghost River, that during an OPP investigation in the 1990s, eighty people alleged sexual abuse at St Anne’s Indian Residential School.  However only three lay workers were convicted of indecent assault. Could this mean the bulk of those abuse claims were student-on-student?  Metatawabin said (on page 280 of his book) that he wouldn’t let the Crown prosecute student-on-student abuse, either sexual or physical.

Up Ghost River, a 2015 book authored by Edmund Metatawabin with Alexandra Shimo

In another e-mail exchange with Brian Giesbrecht, concerning the point in the above paragraph, Brian remarked:

“By their logic student-on-student abuse should not be prosecuted. That is because the residential schools were the cause of the original abuse. It was not the abusing students’ fault, it was not their parents or community’s fault – the original sin was the residential school. Anyone who went to the school and later offended gets absolution as well. In fact, even indigenous offenders with no connection to the schools are partially excused. Their children and grandchildren too. This appears to be the way the indigenous leadership wants things. It is a perfect formula to keep indigenous people in their golden ghetto”

The above are not the words of some conservative crank, or someone holding a grudge against Indigenous Canadians. Brian had a long career as a provincial judge in Manitoba. This experience had him deeply embedded in the unfortunate pattern of Indigenous social deprivation. Brian was one of the people — in this case a judge — tasked with dealing with what was and still is an ever-worsening crisis and human catastrophe. He can be forgiven for not mincing words; he has seen first-hand what moral do-gooding politicians and their Social Justice policies really mean for First Nations: an ever-repeating pattern of socio-economic tragedy.

During the Fontaine/Frum interview, Fontaine speaks of the joking around that goes on between former abused/abuser IRS students and explains that this “face-saving” way of dealing with the “embarrassment” and “shame,” is really just “a form of protection.” I wonder if the student perpetrators of abuse (one can imagine older stronger students assaulting younger weaker ones) felt that overstating the prevalence of student abusers might at least partially absolve their acts by situating them in a scenario where sexual abuse was widespread and normalized. But was it though? And if so, how widespread?

At one point, Fontaine tells Frum that if there were twenty boys in his Grade Three class, every single one of them would have experienced what he experienced. When asked about his sisters’ experience at an Indian Residential School, he claims to not know. The indeterminacy of his speech and the sensational nature of his claims make it difficult to assess veracity. However, there is a substantial amount of evidence that demonstrates a sizeable percentage of IRS students had positive and productive experiences at the schools. Not to mention the healthy group of successful Indigenous professionals who received their education from an Indian Residential School. Keeping this in mind, it is unlikely that every boy in Fontaines Grade Three class was abused.

In 1991, a year after the Fontaine/Frum interview, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed a royal commission to report on the state of Indigenous Canadians. Although not solely the result of Fontaine’s call for an inquiry, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) was launched in part as a response to status and rights issues following events such as the Oka Crisis and the failed Meech Lake Accord. Notably, RCAP’s final report contains a chapter on Indian Residential Schools.

The RCAP final report, published in 1996 under Jean Chrétien’s liberal government, was the first government-commissioned study of Indigenous-non-Indigenous relations of the post-assimilation era. That meant parallelist, or separate nations, ideological assumptions were adopted. Chrétien however chose not to implement the commission’s recommendations. Over time, it appeared as if the animating ideas of RCAP had died along with its report. However, before long they would be resurrected with a vengeance.

Over the decade that followed the infamous Fontaine/Frum interview, a flood of civil lawsuits pertaining to Indian Residential Schools by Indigenous groups and individuals overwhelmed the federal government and the churches (threatening to bankrupt the latter). Between the years 2000-2003, the federal government essentially caved, and decided to settle.  The result was the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSA), overseen by Chief Justice Frank Iacobucci, which provided compensation for Survivors, and included a provision for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Most of the IRSA settlement negotiations took place during Paul Martin’s time as Prime Minister (2003-2006), before the Harper government was elected.  Unfortunately, although the Harper government could have stopped what happened next in 2007, it did not. Jim Prentice, who was Indian Affairs Minister, made a big mistake when Liberal Member of Parliament, Gary Merasty, influenced by defrocked United Church Minister and infamous conspiratorialist Kevin Annett, wrote to Prentice requesting that he look into the claims of Annett’s newly-formed Friends and Relatives of the Disappeared Residential School Children.

There had been no talk of missing children who disappeared from residential schools during the Fontaine/Frum interview, or in the RCAP’s final report. Missing IRS children seem to be mostly a fiction from the deranged mind of Kevin Annett.

Prentice’s response to Merasty was to set up a Missing Children and Unmarked Burials Working Group under Bob Watts (an academic and an expert on Indigenous policy) to look into missing children. A direct link with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established through Prentice’s own comments to Parliament, but also because Bob Watts had been appointed interim Executive Director of the TRC.

Then, on June 11, 2008 Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a much publicized and heartfelt apology to Indigenous Canadians who may have been harmed at an Indian Residential School. He also appointed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), eventually chaired by Murray Sinclair, to investigate, and awarded generous financial compensation packages to former IRS students. One could forgive Harper for not having the foresight to realize he was adding fuel to a parasitic rent-seeking fire in the form of a “reparations payments strategy driven by the judicial process.”

According to political scientist Tom Flanagan, “the (Truth and Reconciliation) Commission turned itself into a new version of the royal commission of the 1990s, producing a report almost as sweeping as its predecessor and based on much the same ideology.” When Justin Trudeau took office in late 2015, “the intellectual substance of the (RCAP) report (was) back, and embraced, at least rhetorically, by the Liberal government.” Without hesitation, Trudeau pledged to implement all of the TRC’s 94 recommendations.

As Flanagan mused, “Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses plunged Europe into two centuries of turmoil and religious warfare; what would these ninety-four recommendations mean for Canada?”

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Written by

James Pew is an independent writer, father and entrepreneur. James’ work can be found on Substack at Woke Watch Canada and The Turn. James is a strong advocate for liberalism and the cherished Western freedoms associated with truth-seeking.

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