An otherwise thoughtful National Post editorial board critique of the strong push by Kimberly Murray, the federally appointed independent special interlocutor on missing Indian Residential School (IRS) children and unmarked graves, to make “residential school denialism” — particularly denying the IRSs were genocidal institutions — a hate crime by pressing the government to consider “legal mechanisms to address such denialism” is spoiled by many erroneous or distorted assertions.
Murray’s extraordinary charge made in her June 16 Interim Report not only exceeded the mandate she was given by the government but represented an assault on Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms protecting free speech.
But the National Post also fell into the trap of implicitly accepting all the accusations made in the skewed and biased 2015 six-volume final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada detailing the history, operation, and legacy of the country’s IRSs as gospel truth.
This accounts for the title of my reply, a play on the June 24 National Post piece called, Criminalizing speech the wrong way to address residential school legacy.
According to the Post:
“The history of residential schools is too often the history of abuse and neglect. Children were taken away from their families and forcibly assimilated, often losing their language and culture. Many of them died of disease at much higher rates than the general population, and were frequently buried in nearby cemeteries. Sexual and physical abuse was often rampant. And though some students remembered their school days fondly, the residential school system remains a source of trauma for many Indigenous people.”
I take issue with each of these assertions, not because the editorial board failed to document their content, grounds enough to question them, but because they are both decontextualized and contradicted by a mountain of hard empirical evidence in dozens of essays found here.
If the NP editorial board had bothered to do a bit of fact checking and comparative analysis rather than relying on the sloppy and biased material presented in the 2015 Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, it would have discovered a different and more nuanced version of their self-certain assertions.
“The history of residential schools is too often the history of abuse and neglect” but so were the lives of indigenous children on their home reserves and non-indigenous children during the same historical period when various institutions like orphanages and sanatoria were full of disadvantaged children.
Few children were involuntarily taken from their families and mass forcible assimilation was impossible because no more than one-third of “Treaty Indians” and one-sixth of all indigenous children attended residential schools for an average of 4.5 years. Those not orphans or the product of neglectful or abusive homes returned to their reserves for long summer vacations renewing or reinforcing their languages and cultures in the process.
Over the course of 500 years of culture contact with Europeans, language and many cultural elements were surely lost or altered but this occurred mainly outside the schools (which only were established with state funding and ultimate control in the last third of the 19th century) because of the need to adapt to the forces of colonialism, modernization, and the loss of traditional livelihood strategies.
Language and culture have also been lost after a generation or two among millions of immigrants to Canada from outside Britain and France, a normal, natural, and healthy process called acculturation – learning about and internalizing the beliefs and practices of a different culture without necessarily, invariably, or suddenly losing all pre-existing ways of thinking and acting — that continues to this day.
Yes, students died of disease at the schools at much higher rates than the general population but at a lower rate than their peers on their home reserve, a fact shown by available records.
The archival data also clearly show that relatively few IRS students were buried anywhere except in their community cemeteries.
Sexual and physical abuse were often rampant but disproportionately at the hands of older students, as the historical record shows. Such abuse has always occurred in boarding schools worldwide and still happens today. Of the IRS sexual abuse by staff, hardly any was at the hands of clergy.
The residential school system remains a source of trauma for many indigenous people because most of them or their ancestors entered school wounded by orphanhood, abuse, and neglect on their home reserves. In their last decades of operation, the growing rate of children emotionally damaged in their home communities converted the schools into informal social welfare facilities. Today, this same huge social welfare problem, one disproportionately affecting indigenous children, is dealt with by foster and group home care.
The Post piece ends with the assertion that Kimberly Murray’s wrongheaded efforts “won’t help Canadians come to terms with the often miserable legacy of the Indian Residential School system.”
My overall take on the Post’s editorial is that exaggerating the history and legacy of the schools won’t help Canadians — indigenous and non-indigenous alike — achieve any degree of reconciliation.
Hymie Rubenstein is editor of The REAL Indigenous Issues newsletter and a retired professor of anthropology, the University of Manitoba