What Was Missing In the Truth and Reconciliation Report

Graham Lane

In an op-ed in the Winnipeg Free Press (September 26th), Gerry Chidiac accepted without reservation the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) findings, which uncritically condemned past residential schools.

The TRC Report (on the History of Indian Residential Schools) had three ‘sensitive’ commissioners delve into experiences that clearly traumatized many aboriginal people. While Canadians appreciate that this major historical issue needed to be critically analyzed, it is time to hear the voices of other people who had different experiences in these schools —including school administrators and employees, and non-aboriginal children who also attended. Many tell different stories. As compelling as the testimonies of former aboriginal students are, they represent a partial and skewed picture of the 150 years of the schools’ history.

The most incendiary claim made by TRC was that the 150,000 children who attended these mainly Church-run schools between 1849 and 1996 were considered “sub-human”. This claim is contradicted by the schools’ true purpose, that being of educating aboriginal children: to provide knowledge and skills needed in an evolving Canadian society. Obviously, only human beings can be educated, sub-humans cannot.

Second, TRC was aware that providing education to reserve-based aboriginal children was often requested by aboriginal leaders and parents. Providing schools was entrenched as an obligation in many treaties, a promise that government faithfully kept. Without residential schools, the nomadic hunting-and-gathering lifestyle, remote location, and tiny size of many aboriginal groups would have neither offered nor brought formal education to these children.

Third, TRC glossed over the fact that over the 150 years only about 30% of aboriginal children attended residential schools. About 70% either never attended school at all, went to integrated (public) schools, or attended Indian Day Schools. Importantly, some scholarly studies suggest that aboriginal people who attended integrated and day schools weren’t substantially better off than those who did. If this is true, then the deplorable condition of so many younger aboriginal people today cannot be entirely attributed to their ancestors’ residential school experiences.

Finally, TRC reported that more than 4,100 students died while attending residential schools. But, the commissioners don’t say how many children died of abuse and neglect and how many died of natural causes and accidents. Rather, they let readers assume that all the deaths resulted from abuse and neglect. During the same 150 year period, children attending public schools also died, but rarely in school because they were either sent home or to a hospital when ill. Residential schools had infirmaries, so it is understandable that more aboriginal students died at school because they were sent to the schools’ infirmaries.

And, did residential school students die in numbers grossly disproportionate to public school students? Did residential school students routinely die of abuse and neglect? Are there mass graves of unnamed aboriginal children while non-aboriginal children were buried in separate, marked plots? Conventional wisdom may say “yes”, but there is little evidence of that in the TRC Report to support this conclusion.

Independent non-partisan research is needed.

Canadians appreciate that TRC opened this historical issue to public scrutiny, but claims need to be carefully and critically examined. We need to move on, the future is all we all have.

Originally posted in the Winnipeg Sun, December 16, 2016