What is the "truth" of residential schools? Will we hear it from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?
In hope, I contacted the commission to share my perspective on the service of my parents, Harry Meadows and Elsie McLaren Meadows, on reserves and in residential schools but also the deep hurt my family feels at their work being routinely described as "abusive," or "cultural genocide."
My mother was a student at Brandon Indian Residential School, west of Winnipeg. When I tell people that, and pause, I routinely get expressions of regret and commiseration. "Everybody knows" how wrong, bad, evil all those schools were and everyone who worked there.
I then go on to say that she told me her time at Brandon included some of the happiest days of her life. Indeed, because of the education she received there, because of the support she was given by her teachers there, she was identified as a girl who could succeed at university. She did succeed.
Because of the inspiration of her teachers she chose to become a teacher, like them. And because of those same teachers she chose to work on reserves in northern Manitoba. My mother believed that she had been given a great opportunity by her teachers. She was going to provide the same opportunity for other aboriginal girls and boys.
Now, because the wisdom of the day is that all residential schools were evil and that all who served there were abusive, her service is seen as despicable.
My father was also a teacher and a United Church minister at those same schools. He too felt called to serve. And for my parents, this was not just work; those reserves were home. They lived in community with their students, the parents, and ultimately their friends.
Between them, my parents spoke three aboriginal languages: Saulteaux, Cree and Ojibwe. They were literate in Cree syllabics. My eldest brother and sister were born at Norway House, a reserve in northern Manitoba. My oldest brother called an aboriginal man, who worked closely with dad, "Mishoom," which means grandfather in Cree.
My parents said while they may have been working as teachers, they were also taught so much in turn by the people with whom they lived. They cherished relationships made then until the end of their days.
I do not deny there were people in those schools who greatly harmed students. We all must speak out against such abuse. But to label the schools themselves and all who worked there as evil, and to describe everyone who attended a school as a "survivor" is facile — and it dishonours those who were truly abused and did have something horrific to survive.
There are fundamental questions which have never been answered by those who condemn the residential school system. I have spoken with former and current United Church officials who by virtue of blanket apologies are tarring all residential schools and school workers with the same brush. So, I asked them, "What was the alternative? What were we supposed to have done in that day and age?" Were we to leave people by virtue of no common language, illiterate, innumerate and unable to deal with the larger society?
If rather education was indeed a good thing, then how was it to be provided to an isolated, sparsely distributed, and sometimes nomadic population?
Every time I have asked these questions they have been avoided and evaded.
At the end of the day, I will not apologize for my parents’ service with and for aboriginal people. Indeed, I will defend it.
Lea Meadows has worked in human rights and conflict management for over 20 years.