When Parliament unanimously passed its motion declaring that residential schools were genocide, it was probably inevitable that municipal and provincial elected bodies would follow.
City councillors in Brandon, Man. are currently debating the following motion:
“The City of Brandon council recognizes that what happened in Canada’s Indian Residential School system, including Brandon Indian Residential School, describes genocide. This had the effect of creating long-lasting, traumatic repercussions for the Indigenous people of southwestern Manitoba, including Brandon urban Indigenous people who call Brandon home.”
The parliamentary motion that was introduced by MP Leah Gazan followed the Kamloops announcement in May, 2021, claiming that 215 graves containing the remains of former students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School (KIRS) had been found.
No evidence had yet been presented to support these claims. In fact, some evidence to the contrary has emerged.
So, why is Brandon seemingly willing to convict former Brandonites of the awful crime of genocide by passing a motion that is almost certainly beyond city council’s authority?
Quite simply, it is all being done with the best of intentions. The Brandon mayor and councillors are urged to decide that a motion declaring their ancestors guilty of genocide is necessary to achieve “reconciliation”.
Here is some information to consider:
Look at the above picture. It shows Principal Thompson Ferrier and another teacher bringing indigenous children to Brandon Indian Residential School (BIRS) in 1904.
BIRS was built by Methodists with the intention of serving the northern indigenous communities up and beyond Lake Winnipeg, an enormous and remote area. In the early days, canoes would have to travel up the Assiniboine River, portage to Lake Winnipeg, then proceed up the formidable lake. It would be impossible to find those remote settlements without the assistance of the indigenous parents, who had applied to have their children attend the school.
Those indigenous parents would be Methodists who wanted their children educated by Methodists. There was no compulsory school attendance in 1904. Compulsory attendance laws weren’t introduced in Manitoba for the general population until 1916.
Compulsory attendance for status Indians didn’t become law until 1920, when indigenous parents were offered a choice between sending their children to a day school, or a residential school.
In 1904, most northern indigenous children didn’t attend any school at all.
The first principal of BIRS, John Semmens, had to work hard at convincing reluctant parents to send their children. He spent much of his time in a canoe travelling to remote communities to make his “sales pitch.” He wasn’t very successful at first, and the first year BIRS operated there were only 38 students. However, more parents became convinced that residential schooling was the only way that their children would learn to speak, read, and write English, and learn the other skills that would give them a chance to succeed in the modernizing world. Semmens, by the way, had mastered the Cree language, and published books in Cree.
It should be noted at this point that only a small fraction of indigenous children attended residential schools during the 100 plus years of their operation. In peak years of enrolment, approximately one-third of status Indians (i.e. approximately one-sixth of the total indigenous population, which includes Métis and non-status).
Simply put, residential schools were never intended to educate more than an indigenous elite. They were very expensive for a young agricultural economy vastly smaller than today, and were intended mainly to produce the educated indigenous leaders and bureaucrats the country needed.
For their part, the churches operating the schools wanted indigenous priests, nuns, and ministers. To a large extent, that goal was attained. Most of the indigenous leaders of the last several generations were educated at residential schools. Many of the indigenous students educated at residential schools went on to work at the schools in various capacities.
But, back to the children in that canoe. Their parents obviously wanted them to attend BIRS. No law required them to send their children to BIRS, or any other school. As Methodists themselves, they wanted their children to receive a Methodist education. They could withdraw their children from the school at any time. Indigenous parents were every bit as involved in the raising and education of their children as any other.
So, if it is true that Principals Ferrier and Semmens were guilty of some kind of genocide in picking up these children and teaching them English and other subjects, then so were the parents.
For that matter, so were the many indigenous leaders, such as Chief Joseph Brant of Brantford, Ont., and Chief Louis Clexlixqen, of Kamloops, B.C. who had advocated for the building of the residential schools. So were the Alberta Catholic chiefs, who in 1957 demanded that more residential schools be built, or the indigenous leaders who opposed the closing of the Marieval and Blue Quills residential schools.
So were the many indigenous priests, nuns, ministers, teachers, dormitory workers, maintenance workers and others who worked at residential schools for those 100 plus years. And so were the Sioux Valley parents who made the decision to send their children to BIRS after 1961 when it became a hostel, to have their children educated at Brandon public schools. And so was every resident of Brandon who funded those schools.
Does any of this make sense?
The 1904 snapshot of the people in the canoe obviously tells only a small part of a very complicated residential school story. The 1920 compulsory attendance laws meant, for example, that status Indian parents with access to a day school had to choose between sending their children to a day school or a residential school. Slightly more parents chose day schools (150,000 attended residential schools, 200,000 attended day schools).
But the real tragedy was that so many indigenous children attended either no school at all or received a very rudimentary and inadequate education at a day school.
That tragedy of poor educational achievement still haunts the indigenous community today. It is said, for instance, that even those students who graduate from grade 12 from a First Nations school only have the equivalent of a grade 8 or 9 education at a good city school.
And that is why residential schools were thought necessary in the first place. The day schools were not working. Very obviously, huge mistakes were made. Perhaps the biggest single mistake was the federal government decision to use residential schools as child welfare placements for children apprehended from inadequate homes.
Brandon’s leaders want to demonstrate solidarity with both the urban the Indigenous community and the surrounding First Nations. This is commendable and necessary. There are probably many worthy projects Brandon could choose to demonstrate this good faith.
There is also no question that Canada’s Indigenous people have been badly treated for generations, and that many abuses occurred at residential schools. There were undoubtedly some bad people who worked there over the years. However, convicting in absentia the overwhelming majority of good people who worked at the schools – and by necessary implication all of our ancestors – who will have no opportunity to defend themselves against the terrible charge is simply wrong.
Internationally respected human rights lawyer, Irwin Cotler, famously said: “If everything is genocide, then nothing is genocide.”
The people in the canoe, setting out on an admittedly flawed attempt at education, is not.
With notes from James McCrae.
Brian Giesbrecht, retired judge, is a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.