A Few Thoughts on the Current Residential School Media Narrative

D. McManaman 

Every time I read something about residential schools, my thoughts always return to two things. The first has to do with the Ontario School System. Because we are members of the OCT (Ontario College of Teachers), we receive 4 issues of Professionally Speaking every year. I don’t know one teacher who reads anything other than its infamous blue pages found at the back of the magazine and which highlight the most recent hearings and disciplinary action involving teachers of various boards around the province. It does not make for pleasant reading. It is hard to believe that there are such people in the teaching profession today, teachers who are willing to have a sexual relationship with their students, who would text students nude photographs of themselves, groom them, kiss them, touch them, abuse them, swear at them, insult them, assault them, etc. Now let’s try a thought experiment: take all the issues published since 1997 and spend a full day reading the blue pages straight through. Or, imagine doing that 25 years from now with about 200 issues in front of you. Without any doubt, if one is not careful–and most people are not careful–, one can easily walk away with the impression that the Ontario School system is horribly deficient, abusive, and broken. The problem with such an impression is that it arises out of a very large but unrepresentative sample, namely the blue pages. Although the facts are indisputable, the impression is simply not true to the facts; for the vast majority of our students would have gone through their 12 years in school without ever encountering such teachers or hearing about them. I’ve spent 32 years in Ontario schools and have only come across one colleague who was written up in those pages. 

The second idea has to do with the clerical sex abuse scandals. One of my favourite lines from the 2015 film Spotlight, a film about the Boston Globe’s uncovering of the massive clerical sex abuse scandal and cover up within the Archdiocese of Boston, is from a discussion that takes place in a Cafe between a reporter and a lawyer who represents some of the abuse victims. The lawyer says to the reporter: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse a child”. And this is one point that struck me as I was making my way through Sacrilege, a 500 page tome that examines the clergy sex abuse crisis, by Leon Podles. It was astounding to realize just how many parents refused to believe their child and who would in some cases severely punish the child for daring to suggest “father” could do anything like that; or, those parents who did believe their child, but would be shunned by other parents of the parish or neighborhood for daring to suggest that “father” could do such a thing. And this extended beyond parents to district court judges, prosecutors, newspaper editors (who refused to publish), police chiefs and police officers (who refused to investigate), etc., let alone certain bishops. The participation in the cover ups was mind-bogglingly widespread. There is no doubt that “villages” destroyed the lives of so many children. 

The Prime Minister has called on the Catholic Church to step up and take responsibility for the residential schools. Aside from the issue of what conditions must be in place for justified ascription of collective responsibility, it can easily be pointed out that if the Church must apologize, then Canada as a whole must apologize, for it happened in this country. In an article entitled “Myth versus Evidence: Your Choice” (2018), Mark DeWolf writes: 

A close examination of recorded fact, along with a bias-free examination of those studies that have attempted to measure the long-term effects of the residential experience on former students, turns up telling evidence that the IRS system is far from the greatest villain in this story. Far more significant factors have created — and perpetuate — the many problems faced by First Nations people today, and those include the underfunding of native education generally, the government’s repeated failure to observe treaty obligations, and a variety of other misguided federal policies. These last include the failure to consult meaningfully with native groups regarding issues that affect them significantly, the 67-year ban on such important gatherings as the Sun Dance and the potlatch, and the rush to place native children in provincial schools in the 1950s. And the finger-pointing should not just be directed at Ottawa. The rapid spread of non-Indigenous culture through technology has likely done more to erode First Nations culture and community life than any efforts by Christian missionaries.

Once again, it takes a village, or in this case, an entire nation. This brings me to the question of sound representation. I say this because a number of friends of mine who have had much greater interaction with First Nations people than I have, for example on the Manitoulin and in the Brantford area of Ontario, have been told by a number of them that they loved their residential schools and couldn’t wait to get back to them after the holidays. They were fed, looked after, and saw none of the abuse that others had seen. In an article by William Gairdner entitled “Balancing the Biased “Genocide” Story About Residential Schools” (2018) are included a number of testimonies that have to make us wonder about the representative nature of the current narrative regarding the residential schools. For example: 

I worked with Chipewyan people as an employee of the Catholic Church from 1991 to 2001 …. I heard many positive comments by native people who had attended residential school in Fort Resolution…. One woman, a Chief of her community for some years, said, ‘I couldn’t wait to go back to residential school.  You were clean and you had good food.’ I knew another family, eight children. The Dad was a trapper who spent the winter on the barren lands. His wife contracted TB and was placed in the isolation hospital in Ft. Res. The children were taken by the Dad each year to the school to keep them safe. It was very hard for the youngest who was only 4 yrs at the time – traumatic even to be separated from parents and older sibs. However, the child survived where otherwise he may not have. The schools must be viewed in the context of the social and economic circumstances at the time.

Gairdner also writes:  

Hodgson-McCauley, the first female chief of one of the 23 bands in the Northwest Territories. She also wrote a popular weekly column for Northern News Service right up until one week before she died of cancer at the age of 95 on March 12, 2018. Hodgson-McCauley, the recipient of a 2017 Indspire Award for her achievements and contributions in politics, reported that many former students were coming forward “with their good and positive side of their residential school experiences.” Elders had phoned her to express concern that only the negative side of the residential schools was being publicized. “They are planning to start a committee of elders to make public the positive side of the residential school.  They all agree that Canadians must be made aware of the positive stories,” she wrote. Surely one of the most impressive positive stories is by the famous Tomson Highway, which can be found here: https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/12/15/tomson-highway-residential-schools_n_8787638.html

He states: “There are many very successful people today that went to those schools and have brilliant careers and are very functional people, very happy people like myself.

One begins to suspect that perhaps Rubenstein and Clifton have a point. In an article from the National Post entitled “Truth and Reconciliation report tells a ‘skewed and partial story’ of residential schools” (2015), they write: 

The mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to “reveal to Canadians the complex truth about the history and the ongoing legacy of the church-run residential schools, in a manner that fully documents the individual and collective harms perpetuated against Aboriginal peoples.” By indigenous cultural standards of evidence gathering and truth telling, perhaps it did. By contemporary Western juridical and objective social science standards, however, the report is badly flawed, notably in its indifference to robust evidence gathering, comparative or contextual data, and cause-effect relationships. The result is that it tells a skewed and partial story of what actually occurred at the residential schools and how this affected its students. Among the report’s many shortcomings are: implying without evidence that most of the children who attended the schools were grievously damaged by the experience; asserting as self-evident that the legacy of the residential schools consists of a host of negative post-traumatic consequences transmitted like some genetic disorder from one generation to the next; conflating so-called “Survivors” (always capitalized and always applied to every former student) with the 70 per cent of aboriginals who never attended these schools, thereby exaggerating the cumulative harm they caused; ignoring the residential school studies done by generations of competent and compassionate anthropologists; arguing that “cultural genocide” was fostered by these schools while claiming that aboriginal cultures are alive and well; refusing to cast a wide net to capture the school experience of a random sample of attendees, despite a $60 million budget, which would have allowed the commission to do so; accepting at face value the stories of a self-selected group of 6,000 former students — who appeared before the commission without cross-examination, corroboration or substantiation — as representing the overall school experience.

Nonetheless, cooperation with a government in what appears to include an underhanded attempt to stamp out indigenous culture is unjustifiable. As Pope Francis recently said in Maskwacis, Alberta:

Although Christian charity was not absent, and there were many outstanding instances of devotion and care for children, the overall effects of the policies linked to the residential schools were catastrophic. What our Christian faith tells us is that this was a disastrous error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is painful to think of how the firm soil of values, language and culture that made up the authentic identity of your peoples was eroded, and that you have continued to pay the price of this. In the face of this deplorable evil, the Church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children…I myself wish to reaffirm this, with shame and unambiguously. I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the indigenous peoples.

For Catholics, forgiveness is both vertical and horizontal, like the cross. The reason is that sins are both vertical and horizontal–sins against God are not private, for they affect everyone, by virtue of our social nature and the deep solidarity that it establishes between us. Apologies, in order to be thoroughly meaningful, must be genuine acts of repentance, which involve a change of heart, metanoia, that is, a turning away from sin and selfishness towards the worship of God, which should in turn involve an honest reflection on what it is we are doing in this country today that will call for an apology 100 or so years from now, such as our national indifference to the lives of the 105,000 unborn who are aborted every year in Canada–that’s two full SkyDomes snuffed out each year. That’s going to be a lot of shoes to lay out. 

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