The Other Side of the Residential School QuestionJ. FRASER FIELD
In Canada, reports of abuse under the residential school system, run primarily by Christian religious, have been so frequently and energetically reported in the press that abuse and victimization have come to characterize the entire legacy of the residential schools.
Painting all residential schools as dysfunctional places of abuse and making them a collective scapegoat for the social problems which continue to plague the native people of Canada will not solve these problems, nor does it do justice to the many who worked tirelessly for the betterment of native children (Schools aimed to “kill the Indian in the child,” Nov. 22).
It is well known that epidemics of tuberculosis had a devastating effect on native populations, especially in the close quarters of residential settings, where the disease could spread easily. To jump to the conclusion that the high mortality rate of children in residential schools was a consequence of uncaring neglect in slum conditions contradicts the truth about many of these schools.
While shocking individual cases of abuse can be horrific, it would be wrong to suggest that this kind of treatment was the norm. In most cases, discipline in the residential schools was on a par with what was being administered in private schools of the period. In fact, in quite a number of schools, considerable sensitivity was displayed toward both the children and their native cultures, and many missionaries resisted the government's policy of assimilation.
The French Oblates and Jesuits, among others, made it a practice to teach in the native tongues even in the face of pressure from the federal government, and, as the years passed, increasingly from native parents themselves, to teach the children in French or English.
Some schools even stimulated resistance to assimilative efforts and helped preserve and advance native culture. As one reviewer noted in her review of St. Mary's school in Mission and the Qu'Appelle Industrial School at Lebret, Saskatchewan, natives in these schools retained their own cultural institutions in the form of dancing groups and traditional gatherings. When St. Mary's closed in 1984, native dances by native staff were part of the chapel liturgy.
It should be remembered that in many cases the schools were a response, however inadequate and, admittedly, in some cases abusive, to the serious social problems of alcoholism, violence, and a welfare mentality that were already destroying native people. To suggest that blame for native social problems today can be laid at the feet of the residential schools is to scapegoat them and avoid the real complexity of the problem. In areas which never saw a residential school, for example Labrador, the Arctic, and New Brunswick, social problems in native communities are just as severe today as in places where residential schools were active.
Despite the warnings of historians against romanticising pre-contact native cultures, the political and financial stakes are high and the idealizing of the native past continues unabated, ignoring as it does anything which might contradict the “ideal.” The violence and cruelty noted by early ethnographers in their reports of native slavery practices and inter-tribal warfare, and the many inequalities which existed in the caste-like social structures of many native cultures, are now cut out of the history. They simply don't fit.
Tragic problems existed at some of the residential schools and, for the most part, they failed in their purpose of “elevating” the native people. Nevertheless, many natives have fond memories of their residential school experience and have an image of the residential school as a happy, loving place. A number have even told me that their time at the residential school was the happiest of their lives.
Painting all residential schools, and by implication all who ran them, with the same brush as those schools where abuse occurred, neither serves the truth nor does justice to the memory of the many — and there were many — who served the native people in good faith and with much love.
J. Fraser Field, “The Other Side of the Residential School Question,” Vancouver Sun (British Columbia), December 5, 1996.
Reprinted by permission of The Vancouver Sun.
J. Fraser Field is Managing Editor of The Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 1996 Vancouver Sun
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