'Convenient ignorance:' Canadians' knowledge of residential schools woefully lacking

The former Kamloops Indian Residential School is seen in Kamloops, B.C., on Friday, June 4, 2021. Widespread shock at the discovery of what's believed to be the buried remains of 215 Indigenous children has highlighted the pervasive ignorance among many Canadians of one of the most sordid, and as yet incomplete, chapters in Canada’s national story, experts and observers say. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The discovery of the remains of more than 200 children buried in unmarked graves at the site of the now-closed residential school for Indigenous children in Kamloops is a tragic milestone on Canada’s shameful treatment of native peoples of all ages. The school operated between 1890 and 1969.

Throughout its history, the United States has lived with the consequences of slavery and the continued widespread racism evident in their culture. The oppressive nature of Jim Crow measures enacted by state legislatures and supported by Supreme Court decisions was finally redressed in civil rights legislation of the 1960s and 70s. But systemic racism in both private and government actions remained strong. It was only with the advent of social media that American Blacks achieved a voice that reached the mainstream of American civic discourse.

Indigenous Peoples in Canada have faced comparable oppression and our treatment of them has been in some ways as harsh as Americans’ treatment of Blacks, from gifting them blankets infected with smallpox to openly ignoring treaties. They form, however, only about 7% of our total population – as compared to 12% for Blacks in the U.S. The majority (about 58%) live in rural areas. Therefore, collectively they are less visible when stating their grievances and their collective voice is weaker than that of Blacks in the U.S.

The residential schools, begun in the 1880s, were created with specific objectives in mind. Indigenous leaders hoped Euro-Canadian schooling would help their young to learn the skills of the newcomer society and make a successful transition to a world dominated by the settlers. The objectives of the federal government were quite different. It saw the schools as a path to making the aboriginal governments self-sufficient and less dependent on the federal purse. They collaborated with Christian missionaries to encourage the students to convert to Christianity. At its height the residential school system totalled 80 institutions. An estimated 150,000 children attended residential schools in Canada.

But facts are facts. Indigenous peoples once held all the land and, in essence, the European settlers took it from them. True, we often signed treaties which gave ‘the Queen’ the land in exchange for a promise of government support without providing particulars. Indigenous peoples thus were transformed from independent, self-governing landholders to a burden that the government strove to eliminate.

But, back to the residential schools. The Canadian Encyclopedia estimates that approximately 6,000 of the students sent to these schools died. Yet, nothing was done about this. Why? Harry Swain the former Deputy Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs wrote me the following:

“First, Indian people and parents were crushed by the disappearances but they, and the survivors, did not want to talk about it. Seems a bit like men coming home from the wars—the memories were so awful, and the ‘survivor guilt’ so deep, that shame and horror kept people quiet. This was before we had invented PTSD.

“Second, the deaths were covered up by the school operators, who at the best of times did not have the resources to provide proper nutrition, clothing or sanitation to the tykes in their care. The federal government paid a pittance and the churches put up with it – they were salvaging souls. The religious orders also had guilty knowledge, not to be spoken of, and visible only in the frequent movement of pedophiles and predators from one institution to another.

“Third, the perps were not closely supervised by Indian Affairs. Standards and inspections were not imposed, in part for fiscal reasons, in part because some Indian agents believed the assimilationist myth.

“Apparently, at Kamloops the search has been going on for about 20 years, only recently augmented by ground-penetrating radar. There is probably much more to come. I’m not at all sure that statistical records are available to estimate the ‘excess deaths’ among residential school kids ... but somebody ought to try; it’s a standard technique for disasters that affect white people, after all. This is a huge stain on our country.”

Harry is right. It is a huge stain and it must be dealt with forthrightly. Find the money to fund a radar search at all of the residential school sites and start dealing with the staggering impact the schools had and continue to have on all of us.

David Bond is a retired bank economist who lives in Kelowna.