“Leyland Cecco is a freelance journalist based in Toronto, Canada. His work has primarily been in the Middle East, South Asia and Canada, with a focus on water security.” – The Guardian website
September 6 2021
Dear Mr. Cecco,
Your article in today’s edition of The Guardian, entitled “‘Cultural genocide’: the shameful history of Canada’s residential schools”, prompts me to write to you — and I apologize if this message simply adds more clutter to your Inbox.
Like far too many published news and opinion pieces that deal with Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous people, and in particular its Indian Residential Schools, your article presents a highly simplified and even distorted picture of a very complicated and very human story. Its totally negative description of the Indian Residential School (IRS) system and the harm it did to vulnerable Indigenous children contains so many distorted and just plain false statements that I’m not sure where to begin.
I append below some verifiable facts about the IRS system and the people who established and operated the schools. I have in the past contacted The Guardian about this issue, advising the editors to take care when publishing pieces that deal with the residential schools, but I see no change. I find it ironic that in today’s edition there is an interesting piece on the way the media rushed to support the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and now I see the media doing the same thing to support the social justice campaign that demonizes the IRS system — and by implication all of the people who worked within it. I also note in that same Guardian piece a mention of the way any critics of the Afghanistan invasion were sidelined, criticized and even threatened.
I am the son of an Anglican minister who served as the Principal of two IRS institutions in the 1950s and 60s, and I lived at one of those schools (St. Paul’s Anglican IRS) for almost 10 years, attending classes with the Blood/Kainai students for six of those years. Later, as a university student, I had opportunities to see what life was like at the second of my father’s schools in the town of La Tuque, Quebec. What I experienced and witnessed at those two schools clashes dramatically with the oft-repeated claim that the IRS system was an atrocity and a cruel attempt to commit cultural genocide. Recent claims of “mass graves” and “secret burials” further the notion that the residential schools were hellish places where vulnerable children lived (and died) in misery.
But it isn’t just my own experiences that have me objecting to this extremely unfair black and white picture of a very complicated and very human story. Unlike most of the journalists, native leaders and well-meaning activists who rail against the residential schools, I have done a good deal of research into the history of the IRS system, and I communicate regularly with others (admittedly non-Indigenous Canadians) who have had personal experience with the schools and have conducted serious research of their own. I am now passing along to you some of that research in the hope (not a forlorn hope, I trust) that The Guardian will cease publishing pieces that simply repeat what other media have splashed across their front pages. For a very long time, The Guardian has been trusted and respected for both its high standards of journalism and its coverage of vital issues that affect the public good. It pains me to see published pieces like the one that sparked this message.
Here are those facts:
* While Canada’s treatment of its Indigenous peoples was both paternalistic and, during certain periods particularly, dismissive of Indigenous beliefs, needs and aspirations, the nation’s history shows far less violent conflict, far less distrust and hostility between the two populations, and far more efforts to protect native people from “white” encroachment and exploitation than has been recorded in many other countries where European colonizers encountered Indigenous people. For a very long time, this relatively benign approach was a matter of pride for many Canadians.
- The nation’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, included among his friends prominent members of Indigenous communities in southern Ontario. His government was criticized by the opposition Liberals for spending too much money on relief for the “Indians” who were at the time both impoverished and suffering severe illness. Heeding the advice of respected individuals who had studied the issue, and having listened to the views of his First Nations acquaintances, he and his government established the Indian Residential School system in 1883, partnering with established Christian Churches, in part to save money but also because the Churches had for some time been operating residential schools for native children and thus had some experience. For the first 37 years of the IRS system, enrolment in an Indian Residential School was purely voluntary. Only in 1920 did an amendment to the Indian Act make attendance in some sort of school compulsory for Indigenous children. Although the number of federal day schools was increasing — in 1896 there were 239 day schools of native children, compared to only 34 residential schools — a great many Indigenous parents in more remote communities had no other choice but to enrol their children in an IRS institution, and so were “forced” by law to do so. But the Indian Act clearly stated that no parent would be penalized if their child was “unable to attend school by reason of sickness or other unavoidable cause” or “has been excused in writing by the Indian agent or teacher for temporary absence to assist in husbandry or urgent and necessary household duties.” The penalty for failing to enrol a child was “not more than two dollars and costs, or imprisonment for a period not exceeding ten days or both.” (In 1920, $2.00 was about the cost of two dozen eggs.) The Indian Act of 1920 also stated that “The chief and council of any band that has children in a school shall have the right to inspect such school at such reasonable times as may be agreed upon by the Indian agent and the principal of the school.”
- It is significant that not a single Indigenous leader or activist has ever suggested a credible alternative to the establishment of the IRS system. It is also significant that no credible media organization has published the verifiable fact that, of the 150,000 Indigenous children and youths who are estimated to have attended an IRS institution, only a fraction of that number were “forced” by law to attend.
* Over its 113-year history, the IRS system was comprised of as many as 80 schools (that was in the late 1930s) — schools that were established in very different parts of the country, administered and staffed by a number of different Christian Churches, and financially supported in a variety of ways (and different levels of funding) over time. The schools’ educational and supervisory practices in any given period usually reflected the attitudes and values of most Canadians at that time, and some practices seen today as harsh and even cruel would also have been found in many provincial schools serving non-Indigenous children in those years. Moreover, the purpose of the residential schools changed over time, as increasingly they were used as child welfare institutions, there being no federal or provincial child welfare system available to children in need. A search of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Final Report reveals something of this complexity.
* It has been reliably estimated that during the 113-year history of the schools, only about 1/3 of school-aged Indigenous children ever attended one. It has also been estimated that during those 113 years, about 1/3 of Indigenous children received no formal education at all. As late as 1939, annual reports from Indian Affairs gave 18% as the percentage of Indigenous children not attending any school whatsoever. Surely a lack of education is partially responsible for the poverty and dysfunction one sees in native communities today.
* While some IRS students would have been enrolled for as many as 9 or 10 years, the figure of 4.5 years as the average length of enrolment in Indian residential schools has never been credibly disputed. This means that a good number of the 150,000 IRS students were enrolled for only a few years. This too meant a serious lack of education in many families, with predictable results.
* It is frequently claimed that schools were deliberately situated far from students’ home communities in order to sever any bonds with their families, but the location of IRS institutions was largely a matter of economy, an attempt to serve a large expanse of widely-separated communities at the least cost. Children and youths who lived in those remote communities were often quite happy to find themselves in institutions that offered relatively good food, warm housing in winter, sports and social activities, and the comradeship that boarding schools provide.
* While some IRS students were unable to return to their homes more often than once a year — and in some rare cases, not at all, because of particular circumstances — a great many residential school children whose homes were relatively nearby went home on weekends and holidays. Thus they had ample opportunity to speak their native language with family members, and had every opportunity to report on their treatment at the school. A good number of IRS staff were themselves Indigenous, and they would have had ample opportunity to see and speak out about neglect and cruel treatment. The fact that very few serious complaints about the treatment of residential school students were made by Indigenous leaders prior to 1990 says a great deal about how the schools were regarded by Indigenous communities.
* The administrators and staff of some IRS institutions were greatly respected by the Indigenous leaders whose communities were served. On the Blood/Kaaini Reserve in southern Alberta, both Father LaFrance, Principal of St. Mary’s Indian Residential School, and Canon S.H. Middleton, Principal of St. Paul’s Anglican School were made Honorary Chiefs of the tribe. James Gladstone, an adopted member of the Blackfoot Confederacy, was a St. Paul’s student who, because of his strong advocacy on behalf of the Kainai, was made Canada’s first Indigenous Senator. The widely-respected Senator Gladstone never once spoke out against the residential school system.
* The Indian Act never specified that IRS students must speak only English or French, not did any other government document. While children’s use of a native language was strongly discouraged and even forbidden in some schools, in other schools the students were free to speak their native tongue when not in a classroom. As learning English or French was a prime objective, discouraging the use of the language spoken at home was quite common, just as it is in French immersion schools today.
- While some IRS administrators and staff held European supremacist views and did what they could to scrub traditional beliefs and practices from their students, other administrators and members of staff took great interest in those beliefs and practices, and took steps to preserve them. Some administrators attempted to learn their students’ native language, and some administrators and staff were themselves Indigenous. A good percentage of the residential schools bore Indigenous names.
- It is significant that the experiences and views of former IRS staff members and their families are never sought out, despite the fact that theirs is an important part of the residential school story. When a former IRS staff member who is an acquaintance of mine contacted a well-known journalist, describing her own experience and expressing her concerns, she received the curt reply, “That’s not a story!”
* Some former IRS students who have thrived in the years after their residential school time have spoken publicly about the benefits they received from their IRS experience. A good number of today’s Indigenous leaders and prominent activists have an Indian Residential School in their family history.
* The TRC’s Final Report contains a good deal of information that fleshes out the picture of the IRS system — that information is buried deep in the Report, but if one makes the effort, one can find it — but the Commission’s Summary Report includes only one dismissive comment about some students receiving benefits. The Report actually includes the charge that Indigenous children were considered “subhuman”, an accusation that is clearly contradicted by a host of documents and other evidence.
And the “secret burials” and “mass graves”?
* During the 113-year period during which the IRS system was in operation, Canada suffered a number of very serious epidemics that struck native communities especially hard. Even when federal funding was arguably insufficient, the residential schools provided better medical and nutritional care of Indigenous children and youths than they would have received at home. Children in very remote communities, living in homes without electricity and often without adequate food, would have had no access to health care at all. The worst that can be said about high mortality figures in IRS institutions is that dormitories, classrooms and crowded dining and play areas would have facilitated the spread of disease, but records show administrators taking steps to minimize this danger. By the 1950s, a medical certificate was required when parents applied for their child’s admission.
*The recently-published list of IRS students who supposedly died while enrolled at a residential school includes a good number of students who were not residing at their school at the time of their death. Despite confident claims that bodies have been discovered, a close examination of information about the “discoveries” reveals two things: very few bodies, if any, have actually been located and/or exhumed, and many Indigenous communities were actually quite aware of what graveyards existed near the schools. While a great deal of government money is being directed to groups conducting explorations, detailed reports on that exploration have been kept from the public.
* It would be surprising if the graves of IRS students, some of them unmarked, were not found at the site of a former residential school. A close examination of Indian Affairs reports shows that deaths of enrolled students were carefully recorded, the largest number of deaths occurring in times of epidemic, but as the government refused to pay for the transport of children’s bodies to distant home communities, a burial on school grounds or in the neighbouring community would have been necessary. When epidemics claimed many lives in a short period of time, the markers that the school placed on students’ graves would have been simple wooden crosses that, over time, would have rotted away.
* Historical documents that demonstrate this complexity can now be found online. But anyone who speaks out against the simplified and overwhelmingly negative picture currently painted of the Indian Residential Schools is labeled a “denialist” and an anti-Indigenous racist.
Well, that’s enough, don’t you think? Accepting the truth of the above facts does not mean that the residential schools were all wonderful, highly beneficial places, or that the painful testimonies of former students do not contain truth. But I hope this information demonstrates the complexity of the IRS system’s history and helps to make that system more understandable and more human. I attach a few photos taken from home movies shot at the two IRS institutions that I saw in operation, as well as some photos and a few documents that support the above points. (I trust attachments will not prevent this message from getting through.) I live for the day when readers of The Guardian will be presented with an honest, unbiased portrayal of this country’s Indian Residential School system, a portrayal that will build trust between Canada’s Indigenous people and “the rest of us”, and restore Canada’s tarnished reputation.
Mark DeWolf, Halifax, N.S. Canada
* Blackfoot name: “Little Yellow Hair”
** As of September 20 2021, there has been no reply to this message of September 6th.
Mark DeWolf is co-editor of From Truth Comes Reconciliation: An Assessment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report (354 pages) available here from Amazon.ca