The residential school years were, without doubt, a terrible experience for some native students. One can only imagine the torment of being unable to escape one’s abusers. Today many still suffer the effects of being molested by those who preached right and wrong. But not all students suffered; some gained much by being able to attend these institutions.
The government of the day believed that warehousing people in educational institutions was best for the native people. The policy, thought to be in the best interests of all, was very misguided, but then one must remember this was the early nineteen hundreds. Still, there is no excuse for trying to remove a people’s culture so that they might be integrated into the society of the day. Did it work? No, of course not! These students went home on holidays and once they graduated, returned to their reserves where their cultures remained intact. On the positive side, many living on isolated reserves say they would not have received this level of education without the residential schools, and many have judged it a positive experience. As a direct result of their education, some that I know went on to become school teachers, principals, and church leaders while others worked in a multitude of professions.
Tragically, others came away with the scars of sexual abuse at the hands of those entrusted with their well-being. The news stories, however, make it appear that most residential school students suffered sexual abuse. This was definitely not the case. Abusers appear in many similar institutions including military academies and Christian schools. The media has reported these cases over the years, with Mount Cashel probably the most recognized. A movie was made about this orphanage, also known as “Newfoundland’s House of Horrors.”
The aboriginal network has played the residential school card at every opportunity, and the sad thing is that even those who did not actually attend residential schools blame all of their social ills on the aboriginal residential school era. I am an alcoholic, I am a drug user, I can’t work, I am a lousy parent, or I commit crimes — all this because of what the government did by sending me or my parents to residential school.
Growing up in the northern community of Gillam, Manitoba in the 1950s and ‘60s, I recall how sad it was each fall to see many of my friends boarding the train to return to residential school. The summers were fun-filled times and now we would not see them again until Christmas. Those of us who stayed behind because we were not treaty Indians at the time, noticed a huge difference when these friends returned. Most importantly, they could now skate circles around us at hockey games. The secret? They had excellent coaches; we had none. Their grasp of the English language also greatly improved as they used words far beyond our level at the time. I visited a residential school in 1974, and as some students played a game of hockey against the teachers on the outdoor rink, I marveled at their sports storage room filled with brand new skates and other hockey equipment. Many of the teachers and staff were First Nations people from many reserves. We must never forget the excellent staff, both aboriginal and others, who were there for all the right reasons and who have now been tarnished by all the negative stories.
I also recall the opening stages of the lawsuit against the Federal Government for compensation to former residential school students. I was working and living on my reserve and witnessed the chief arrive from Winnipeg with a group of lawyers and their staff; we knew something big was in the air.
These lawyers went house to house seeking former residential school students, encouraging them to sign up for the class action suit. By now everyone was starting to smell the money — and it was promising to be huge. The lawyers stood to earn thousands of dollars for each student signed up. The government announced that the legal fees could top 1 billion dollars. CBC news reported on February 23, 2004, that the government had spent more on lawyers than on former residential school students who suffered physical and sexual abuse. The government reported they had already spent $200-million, mostly to lawyers, while only a fraction of that — $38-million — had gone to former students.
By some accounts we have not yet squeezed the last dollar out of the government, so expect the propaganda machine to keep on rolling — but be very careful about recognizing who may be guiding this propaganda machine to their own ends.