Two sides to the story


This afternoon, Stephen Harper will rise in the House of Commons to deliver a formal apology on behalf of the government to native Canadians who attended residential schools.

It is part of the $2-billion settlement reached in 2006 with some 80,000 former students, a settlement which included individual compensatory payments, a $125-million aboriginal healing fund, $60-million for a five-year "truth and reconciliation" commission, $20-million for educational projects -- and about $100-million for the lawyers. Yet for many of those who suffered abuse in residential schools, the apology is the most important thing.

The text of the apology is being kept secret until delivered in the House of Commons, in order to avoid turning the apology itself into a subject of wrangling over each successive draft. Nevertheless, Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl assures us that "it's going to be a great apology, because we've done a lot of consulting now for a good long time."

What would constitute a "great apology"? The first requirement is to tell the truth about what happened. The second is to be contrite about it. The third is to make restitution if possible.

The government of Canada, along with the Christian churches which operated most of the schools, have certainly been contrite. Indeed, the residential school policy is never spoken of except with shame and sorrow. And restitution has been generous -- each student who attended a residential school is to be paid $10,000 for the first year at school, and $3,000 for each additional year. Those payments are for the "common experience" of the schools, and are aside from any claims arising from specific abuse suffered.

The first requirement though -- to tell the truth -- is more difficult.

Part of the history is rather straightforward. The state used its coercive power to take children forcibly from their families. That should not have been done, and the government does not defend the policy today. While it is true that many of the students would not otherwise have had access to education or health services, those benefits should have been chosen voluntarily by their parents, not forced upon them at the cost of family separation.

What happened in the schools itself is more complicated. The tales of abuse and neglect are well known; indeed, for many Canadians, it is all that is known about the residential schools. The Prime Minister's apology ought not reinforce that perception.

To confront the shame of the past requires courage, as it is not easy to look into the shadows of history. Yet acknowledging the shadows, as it is right to do, should not be an occasion for ignoring the bright lights that shone in that same history too.

The remote residential schools were an environment in which students who were abused had no redress. Isolated and afraid, it is not difficult to imagine how predators pressed their advantage. That some of those abusers were Christian missionaries only compounds the crime committed and the damage done. No doubt, government agents often covered up what they saw. The acknowledgment of all that will certainly be at the heart of the Prime Minister's apology.

Yet being honest with history also means acknowledging that the residential schools did provide the education and training that opened new horizons to their graduates. Many students were saved from serious childhood illnesses, or even death, because of their access to health care. And, as delicate a subject as it is to raise, not a few children were saved from the abuse and neglect that they were facing at home. In short, the residential schools were not simply cauldrons of abuse and pain. To recognize what was wrong does not require ignoring what was right.

In particular, the staff of the residential schools should not be universally stained with the crimes of the worst offenders. To the contrary, generations of Christian missionaries made real sacrifices and endured real hardships in order to provide education, both religious and secular, for little material reward. It should not be forgotten that the majority of aboriginal Canadians are Christians today. They do not remain Christians, nor did they all become Christians, because of coercion and cruelty. Most of them came to Christian faith precisely because of the heroic and charitable witness of the missionaries they encountered, including in the residential schools. Even if the churches that sponsored them have recently neglected to speak on the missionaries' behalf, their contribution should not be edited out of history.

To confront the shame of the past requires courage, as it is not easy to look into the shadows of history. Yet acknowledging the shadows, as it is right to do, should not be an occasion for ignoring the bright lights that shone in that same history too.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Two sides to the story." National Post, (Canada) June 11, 2008.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2008 National Post

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