Today the CBC reported on an Ontario Conservative senator, Lynn Beyak, defending the “good deeds” of the residential schools system and, according to CBC, “lamenting that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did not “focus on the good” done at these institutions.”
“I speak partly for the record, but mostly in memory of the kindly and well-intentioned men and women and their descendants – perhaps some of us here in this chamber – whose remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part.”
Senator Lynn Beyak
Upon further exploration, I found that this is not the first time that Senator Beyak has been accused of criticizing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) report and defending the residential schools. At a meeting of the Senate’s Aboriginal Peoples committee on January 31, 2017, she highlighted how they “didn’t mean to hurt anybody.” She continued:
“The little smiles in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are real, the clothes are clean and the meals are good. There were many people who came from residential schools with good training and good language skills, and, of course, there were the atrocities as well.”
I took the time to read the meeting minutes from this committee meeting to see if perhaps CBC was misrepresenting Senator Beyak. However, upon reading the minutes I can’t help but wonder if Senator Beyak has actually read the Truth and Reconciliation Report. I have. Although I haven’t yet made it through the entire six-volume report, coincidentally this week I finished reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) summary report, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future.
About the TRC Report
The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was led by commissioners Senator Murray Sinclair, Dr. Marie Wilson, and Chief Wilton Littlechild. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future – one of the books in the first of six volumes – provides a summary of the TRC’s report. The investigation was a combination of document analysis and interviews with over 6,000 witnesses, including 96 interviews with former staff and children of survivors. The book begins by explaining the historical context, including introducing colonialism and the progression of cultural genocide that resulted in and continues beyond the residential schools in Canada. The report then moves from the legacy into a discussion on reconciliation, which the TRC defines as developing mutually respectful relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada. The TRC argues that while we must acknowledge and address the legacy of the residential schools, we must actively work to abandon such paternalistic and racist policies, and engage in reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.
“Reconciliation is not about ‘closing a sad chapter of Canada’s past,’ but about opening new healing pathways of reconciliation that are forged in truth and justice.”
(TRC, 2015a, p. 12)
A Brief History of the Residential Schools
While Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future primarily focuses on the residential schools, it also provides an overview of the process of cultural genocide which surrounds the residential schools. The Canadian government could not afford the militant style of genocide against the Aboriginal peoples that was commonly practiced in the US. Instead, they entered into Treaties with Aboriginal groups. While this started out positive, it left the government with commitments that it did not (and continues to not) fulfill. The government wanted to divest itself of such commitments, which was attempted through cultural genocide. The Canadian government committed cultural genocide by relocating Aboriginal groups to remote and economically marginal reserves, disempowering their band councils and women, banning their spiritual practices, denying their right to fully participate in Canadian life, and attempting to extinguish their culture, identity and language through the creation of the residential schools.
“When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
Sir John A. Macdonald, 1883
Approximately 150,000 children went through these schools, which were initially church-led but later were a partnership between churches and the federal government. For over 160 years, Aboriginal children in Canada were subjected to the residential schools. Children were separated first from their parents, and then siblings were separated once they arrived. They were stripped of their belongings, and their hair was cut. Aboriginal cultural and language was often brutally suppressed – leading to what Senator Beyak describes as “good language skills” within English but at the detriment of their own languages. Students were often neglected, humiliated, and abused physically, sexually, mentally, emotionally and spiritually by staff who were overworked and often poorly trained or completely unqualified. The neglect allowed for situations where the students could also abuse one another. The poorly constructed and overcrowded buildings combined with poor diets allowed disease to spread rampantly. The mortality rate in the schools is thought to have been 2 to 4.9 times higher than in the general school-aged population. Those who died were often buried in mass or poorly/unmarked graves. The schools also had a national security aspect to them; it would be difficult for Aboriginal groups to revolt when the government could in essence hold their children hostage in the residential schools.
As Senator Beyak points out, there was some good in the residential schools. The TRC describes how some of the staff genuinely wanted to help and improve the lives of these children, and many students sought solace in sports and the arts. However, even those with the best intentions can still cause harm, especially when the popular underlying worldview is racist. Nor does this change that the residential school system was intended to bring about cultural genocide.
In fact, they were far from being educational, partially due to poorly trained staff, lack of resources, and the racist assumption that Aboriginal people were less intelligent. The federal government’s goal was assimilation and cultural genocide – not preparing students for higher education – so much of the training was geared towards a limited number of trades. Many of the schools also operated on a half-day system whereby students spent half of the day in class, and half of the time doing labour and chores. This includes doing the laundry (to get their clean clothes) and sometimes students lost fingers when their hands got crushed in clothes wringers or other machinery. The use of student labour combined with poor wages for staff was intended to make the schools self-sufficient, saving the federal government money. By the 1940s the schools began to function more so as child-welfare facilities rather than being places of education.
“One hundred years from now, our children and their children must know and still remember this history, because they will inherit from us the responsibility of ensuring that it never happens again.”
(TRC, 2015a, p. 16)
It is important to note that the history presented in Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future is a highly condensed history. As I read through I noticed many of the stories I have heard through my work were absent, particularly surrounding mistreatment by healthcare professionals. However, I found the history is described in greater detail in two subsequent volumes (Part 1 and Part 2), as well as separate volumes dedicated to the Métis and the Inuit or northern experience. There is also a volume dedicated to the missing children and unmarked burials, what the TRC learned, further excerpts of survivors’ stories in The Survivors Speak, and additional volumes on the legacy and reconciliation. However, this does make me wonder about the process that was undertaken to decide what would be in the summary volume and what would be left out, especially considering that some parts are extremely repetitive.
Ongoing Legacy and Reconciliation
Although some people like to think the residential schools are just history, they are not. While most of the schools had closed in the 1980s, the final schools did not close until 1998. Moreover, there is the ongoing legacy of the residential schools and the patriarchal, oppressive policies that the government continues to practice, which pose as barriers to reconciliation. Although the government did not achieve its goals with the residential schools, the goal of cultural genocide could still be actualized if we do not begin to work towards reconciliation (e.g. the preservation of Aboriginal languages). The TRC explains the legacy by combining history, past and current statistics, current practices and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to propose its calls to action. The 94 calls to action fall under the categories of legacy and reconciliation with recommendations affecting a number of different disciplines, such as education, healthcare, child-welfare, law, government, media, and churches. However, there are challenges to achieving reconciliation, such as social attitudes, fear and pain, disputes between provincial and federal government, and distrust of and continued racism embedded in Canada’s political, legal, education and healthcare systems. Reconciliation calls for personal, group, community, provincial/territorial, federal, and national commitment and action.
Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future concludes with a number of appendices, including the mandate of the TRC, a list of Canada’s residential schools, a chart of people found guilty of abusing resident school students, and a list of those involved with the TRC. There is also a collection of apologies made in the House of Commons, by Churches and church leaders, and the RCMP.
Overall, the TRC takes a balanced approach to investigating the truth behind the residential schools while maintaining a firm stance against the grave injustices that were committed. Depending on the reader’s discipline and circumstances, s/he may need to read further volumes of the TRC’s report to fully understand how the legacy of the residential schools impacts her/his discipline. Honouring the Trust, Reconciling for the Future is a critical interdisciplinary report that every Canadian – especially Canadian senators – must read to understand the ongoing legacy of the residential schools, cultural genocide committed by the Canadian government, and the continued racism that continue to impact the lives and wellbeing of Canada’s Aboriginal population.
Senate of Canada. (2017, January 31). The standing senate committee on aboriginal peoples. Retrieved March 16, 2017 from https://sencanada.ca/en/Content/Sen/Committee/421/APPA/53022-e
Tasker, J. P. (2017, March 16). Calls mount for Senator Beyak to step aside from Aboriginal committee after residential school remark. CBC News. Retrieved March 16, 2017 http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/beyak-aboriginal-peoples-committee-1.4027716
Tasker, J. P. (2017, March 8). Conservative senator defends ‘well-intentioned’ residential school system. CBC News. Retrieved March 16, 2017 from http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/residential-school-system-well-intentioned-conservative-senator-1.4015115
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015a). Final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, volume 1: Summary: Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future. Montréal, Québec: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015b). Final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 7 vols. Montréal, Québec: McGill-Queen’s University Press.