Residential Schools Story More Complicated

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary, Rodney Clifton, Uncategorized

I spent the 1966-67 year as a supervisor in an Anglican residential school, Stringer Hall, in Inuvik, N.W.T. Previously, I spent four months living at Old Sun School, an Anglican residential school, on the Siksika (Blackfoot) Reserve in southern Alberta. Much earlier, my wife (a Siksika) spent eight years at Old Sun, and even earlier, her parents attended the same school for eight years. All of us recognize many of the positive things that happened in residential schools. My wife, in fact, insists on calling Old Sun a “private Anglican school,” my father-in-law was ordained as an Anglican priest, and my mother-in-law worked in the local church for more than 60 years. None of us heard a word — not even a murmur — about children being sexually abused.

It is now widely acknowledged that some people working in residential schools abused the children under their care. But, no one has acknowledged that some children abused other children. Of course, people who abused others should be charged, and if convicted, they should pay for their crimes. Moreover, administrators from the churches and from Indian and Northern Affairs who covered up these crimes should be charged, convicted, and punished.

But, before joining the feeding frenzy of lawyers who want to extract billions of dollars from Canadian taxpayers, it may be worthwhile considering some of the positive things that happened in residential schools. Surprisingly, church leaders have rarely mentioned the benefits these schools provided for their students:

  • Most children who went to residential school learned how to read, write and calculate. Many also learned other skills necessary for living in a modern society. Aboriginal citizens, like other people, use these skills every day.
  • Some children had serious illnesses — TB, chronic ear infections and ruptured appendices, for example — which were diagnosed while they were in school. Doctors and dentists made regular visits to residential schools to treat sick children, something that may not have happened if they had been living in their home communities, for those in southern Canada, or if they had been out on the land hunting and fishing with their parents, for those in the North.
  • Throughout the sad history of residential schools, there have been numerous situations — during epidemics and fires, for example — in which non-aboriginal and aboriginal people worked together to save “their children.” Often, these people continued to work even when it was a danger to their own health and safety.
  • Some school administrators and supervisors were aboriginals. At Stringer Hall, for example, two of the six residential supervisors were Inuit women. Did aboriginal supervisors abuse the children under their care? Do both the children and the supervisors deserve compensation?
  • Some children in residential schools were not aboriginals. I myself attended a United Church residential school in the early 1960s, and when I was a supervisor at Stringer Hall, about 12 per cent of the 280 students were non-aboriginal. Children of school administrators, white trappers, missionaries and merchants attended these schools. If aboriginal people are going to receive compensation, do the non-aboriginal students also deserve compensation?

Shockingly, the churches have failed to honour the dedicated service of most residential school employees, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal. They have failed to defend their own integrity and they have failed to defend the integrity of their innocent employees. They have done little to correct the impression, in the minds of some Canadians, that many residential school supervisors were child abusers and pedophiles.

Nevertheless, most people who worked in residential schools wanted to help children receive the type of education necessary to survive in the modern world. In the 1960s, when I lived and worked in residential schools, it was the evangelistic calling for committed Christians similar to rebuilding houses following disasters in South America. Most residential school employees worked for very little pay, less recognition, and many sleepless nights. Most of them will never acknowledge that they worked in residential schools because they fear the denigration from other church members. Not surprisingly, many of them also fear the charges they may face from the wolf-pack of hungry lawyers hunting for compensation.

I do not fear the denigration, and I’m not afraid of the lawyers. But, I am afraid that this feeding frenzy will tear the churches apart while further alienating non-aboriginal Canadians from their aboriginal brethren. I fear the alienation of one side of my family, including our son, from the other. This will happen because people who were never responsible for any crimes, people who never covered up for any criminal activities, are being forced to pay substantial sums to people who were never abused. If the scales of justice are to be rebalanced, it is important that those who actually committed crimes against their charges pay for these crimes. It is important that Canadians, including church members and even lawyers, should honour the vast majority of people, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal, who selflessly dedicated their lives to helping aboriginal children. Moreover, citizens who did not know that abuse was taking place in residential schools should not be forced to pay for the crimes that other people committed.

Rodney A. Clifton is a professor of education at the University of Manitoba and a senior fellow at St. John’s College, an Anglican college that has a long history of educating aboriginal people.