Residential Schools Didn’t Hold Back The Marchand Family

Len Marchand Jr. was appointed BC Chief Justice in December last year. He is the first indigenous person to be appointed to that position in the history of British Columbia. His predecessor, Robert Bauman, stepped down in October.


Len Marchand Jr. was appointed BC Chief Justice in December last year. He is the first indigenous person to be appointed to that position in the history of British Columbia. His predecessor, Robert Bauman, stepped down in October.

The Honourable Len Marchand, who died in 2016, was Canada’s first status Indian member of parliament, a federal cabinet minister and senator. Most Canadians don’t know that part of his education was acquired at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School (KIRS), notorious for the baseless 2021 allegations of the murder and secret burial of hundreds of indigenous children.

Now, Marchand’s son, His Lordship Leonard Marchand, Jr., has become Chief Justice of British Columbia. He is the first indigenous person to do so.

The experience of the late Len Marchand at the Kamloops Indian Residential School was a positive one, leading to the unqualified success of his life in politics and indigenous leadership.

And so, without intending it, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently strengthened the case for a more balanced and truthful understanding of the history of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools (IRS) by appointing the younger Marchand to lead BC’s highest court. Both Marchand’s, accomplished and distinguished status Indians, have risen to lofty levels of Canadian leadership.

In his memoir, Breaking Trail, the elder Marchand wrote extensively of the significant contribution the KIRS made to his life’s success. In spite of the “watery potatoes,” served at the school, his memories of a girlfriend in the kitchen, the school’s sports achievements and the dedication and commitment of his teachers stayed with him.

He wrote: “… another motivation took root in the back of my mind: that somehow, by getting educated, I would be able to do something to help my people. I don’t remember the first time that idea came to me, but it probably sprouted sometime during the year that I spent at Kamloops Indian Residential School.”

Len Marchand obviously passed on to his son his positive outlook, his work ethic and his sense of duty to his country and its people.

Whatever trauma has been suffered by others who attended the schools, the Marchand family clearly suffered no such thing. A chief justice suffering from lifelong trauma would obviously not be a suitable candidate to lead British Columbia’s highest court.

Both Marchands have given us good reason to question the statement by former Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Chair Murray Sinclair, that reconciliation may take seven to ten generations to be fully achieved. We can quite easily harbour suspicions about why Sinclair said that, but indigenous people will not wait that long. Nor should they. Nor do they need to.

Len Marchand, Sr. was not alone in his quest for a good education. Many of Canada’s most successful indigenous leaders in politics, business, art, sports, science and education began their journeys in the IRS system.

The fact there are currently more than 60,000 indigenous businesses operating in Canada is clear evidence the Marchands have not been alone in finding good places for themselves in Canadian society.

The fact indigenous businesses contributed almost $50 billion to Canada’s economy in 2020 (during COVID) is further evidence that whatever healing is needed is already well along. Indeed, indigenous business leaders expect to grow the Canadian indigenous economy to $100 billion/year within a few short years.

Anglo-American revolutionary Thomas Paine is credited with the expression: “lead, follow or get out of the way.” It is long past the time for governments to get out of the way of the progress indigenous people want and need. Former IRS students have been labeled survivors, and victims. In the same breath, we’re told they are resilient and strong.

Which is it? Victims can’t lead. Victims don’t prosper. We must stop patronizing indigenous Canadians and let them get on with building better lives for themselves. Generations of failure have demonstrated that governments can’t do that for them, but real equality of opportunity can make it possible.

A wise person recently noted there has never been a better time or a better country for indigenous people who want to succeed. It’s true.

The key is that, first, one must want to succeed.

Second, parents, families, and communities that nurture their children and protect them from abuse and neglect are surely the agents of happiness and success.

Third, young people who are taught to be independent and confident enjoy better lives than those who are taught their country has victimized them and the government owes them their living.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, people who are able to forgive the transgressions of the past are better able to find their way forward.

Reconciliation is about atonement and forgiveness. Atonement is happening. Forgiveness is not.

Former TRC Commissioner Willie Littlechild placed an indigenous headdress on the head of Pope Francis on July 25 2022. He did this following the pope’s apology for his church’s role in the history of the residential schools.

If that symbolic gesture was not an expression of forgiveness, what was it? Like Len Marchand and his family, Littlechild has also benefited from his 14 years’ attendance at a residential school. Littlechild forgave. He has moved on.

It’s clear that many indigenous people are moving on with their lives. The monetary compensation former IRS students have been receiving is just as symbolic as the pope’s new headdress, but we can hope that in their hearts they want to move forward.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper begged for forgiveness, as did Pope Francis. Will there ever be expressions of forgiveness from indigenous leaders like Murray Sinclair?

In a very real way — not in a symbolic way — people such as Leonard Marchand, Jr. are proving there can be a bright future ahead. There are many indigenous people such as Marchand and his father, but there are still others who work hard every day to extend the pain and heighten the anger and bitterness. They are doing their best to pull indigenous Canadians in the opposite direction.

Let those who refuse to forgive, learn from the Marchands.


James C. McCrae, former Brandon, Mb. city councillor and deputy mayor, attorney general of Manitoba and Canadian citizenship judge.

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