It’s Time To Focus On Healing

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Bill Steele

I refer to your column in the Winnipeg Free Press on July 9th, "It’s time to focus on healing", where you appear to encourage moving on in the Residential Schools issue. While I suspect we would not be in full agreement on the extent and degree of abuse, I am largely in support of the views you expressed.

At an earlier time, I was associated with the Indian Residential School system through my work and later, for a short period, working as an instructor at a School.  I had knowledge of the system and many of those who worked within that system.

Over the years I have spoken to a considerable number of former staff members, teachers and students from the Indian Residential Schools and I can assure you, from my perspective, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will discover very little of the truth they are seeking and there will never be a true and full reconciliation.

There is too much real truth still around within the aboriginal community, within the cities and towns where the schools were well known and appreciated and by staff who have been so egregiously offended by the misguided story telling of recent times for there to be any chance of "Reconciliation".

The "truth" in this matter is something other than that which is propagated and promulgated by aboriginal leadership, governments, churches and the media.  The record of real "truth" will live on.

One may suggest that my lack of belief that there will be little "truth" and no "reconciliation" is a reflection of my belief that the "truth" is something other than that which is currently and widely misrepresented.  Certainly, that is true to an extend.  However, above and beyond that, the main reason  there will be little "truth" and no "reconciliation" is because of the inherently unworkable and illogical vehicle which is being used to make that journey.

Simply put, it is mission impossible.

In my opinion, the mistake occurred at the beginning of the current discussion twenty years ago.  Lawyers instigated law suits based largely on false claims of abuse, governments at all levels, for purposes of appeasement, caved to demands of aboriginal leadership that there be no criminal trials to address the actual cases of abuse and, indeed, that there be no criminal investigations.

In my opinion, if this issue had been left within the Canadian Justice System, it would have been put to bed a long time ago.  However, for obvious reasons this was not acceptable to the lawyers, governments, some churches or aboriginal leadership.

In my opinion, the first Commission crumbled as a result of a divergence of intent and interests among the commissioners on whether to seek to expose any inconvenient truths or merely assemble current popular creations.

In my opinion, this second Commission has wrapped its truth around a celebration of aboriginal cultural and rhetoric rather than a search for real and actual events together with inconvenient truths.

Certainly, by virtue of the number of schools involved and the number of people involved, there had to be abuses.  Unfortunately, a large measure of the Residential School story as it is told today has been created as the result of the reality that, repeated often enough, that story becomes the truth.

A certain law firm in Regina, aided and abetted by lawyers across the country, instigated this mess with the threat of lawsuits in a search for profit.  Governments and Churches curled up and backed away from this unhappy problem by throwing billions at a situation that could have been, and should have been, rectified by our justice system.

If there is a desire to be educated in the "truth", it can be found in the book "Indian Residential Schools: ANOTHER PICTURE"  by Anglican Bishop (Retired) Eric Bays, IBSN 978-1-926596-13-6, published by Baico Publishing Inc., Ottawa.  Bishop Bays is the kindest, most loving, caring soul one could meet and, in the view of many, knows more about the Indian Residential Schools, from coast to coast, than anyone else alive.

The health care, academic and recreational opportunities for the students at most of the Indian Residential Schools at those earlier times was second to none.

It pains when I read the profoundly ignorant views expressed by Chief Settee of Cross Lake First Nation in his letter today in the Winnipeg Free Press.  Settee states that hair cuts were "… a vicious attack on the dignity and identity of an indigenous person…"  He clearly was not in place to welcome new students at the schools and witness their pain as a result of heads being covered with lice and arms and legs covered with festered sores.  I was and that is where the ‘real’ healing took weeks and months. 

It pains when I hear how students were "forced" to attend when I know from personal experience that the strongest supporters of children attending the Schools were elders and parents.

It pains to listen to the idiocy of claims that the language and culture of the Students were destroyed at the Schools when I know from personal experience that the students were served extremely well on both accounts in most schools.

As a result of actions of lawyers involved, failure of governments, misdirected aboriginal leadership, lack of intestinal fortitude by a number of churches and incompetence of the media, a mess has been created which will never go away.

I share the view often repeated by others formerly associated with the Indian Residential Schools that many students at the Indian Residential Schools were some of the best and brightest academically, most talented artistically and most skilled athletically in the total Canadian population.

Canada made a terribly mistake by closing down the best advantages many, if not most, of those students would ever have.

There were, in my school, graphic arts students supported by the school who excelled both as students and again in adult life, there was an exceptional choral group, a gymnastic group, a track team and those who excelled at team sports such as basketball and hockey.  Many of schools in the system were better than mine.

A significant number of the Residential Schools fostered educational growth, good health and manual skills.  While not perfect throughout the entire system, Residential Schools provided the model and infrastructure for ‘what could have been’.  However, governments, churches and aboriginal leadership did not have the will or interest to correct deficiencies, where they existed, and to built a future in schools and education of which aboriginals communities and Canada would have been proud.

In our great wisdom, we had those gems in the palm of our hands and ground them into dust.

There is no turning back but the real "truth" has not been totally lost.  A major portion of the real "truth" is otherwise on the record and a true and full reconciliation will never occur.

Yours truly,

Bill Steele, Winnipeg