“It Wasn’t All Bad…”

Shortly after the media announcement on May 28, sharing the discovery at the Kamloops Residential School site I found myself in conversation with a couple in my region.  While expressing sadness as a grandfather and father at the news my friend made the comment, one I’ve heard on many occasions, that “I’ve heard that Residential schools were not all bad”.  There is a possibility you’ve heard it too as it relates to residential schools it is even possible that you’ve heard it directly to your ears from a former residential school student. 

To be clear, it is vital to honour the opinion of each residential school student, that is their lived experience.  Personally, as a descendent of settlers to this land, as a non-First Nations, Métis, and Inuit citizen of Canada it is important to acknowledge that whatever good may have come the price was too high.  The intent, indeed the unequivocally stated intent, of the Government of Canada and those who ran the schools was to destroy families and the culture of the Indigenous people of Canada.

In “A Knock on the Door” (Craft, 2016) we read, “Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, told the House of Commons in 1883: 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 It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will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.”  

In 1920 Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs doubled down on this intent when he stated, “our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.” (Craft, 2016). Wiping out the culture, was the government objective and for at least some of those supervising the Residential School operations across the country the stated goal as phrased by Bishop Vital Grandin in 1875 was, “We instil in them a pronounced distaste for the native life so that they will be humiliated when reminded of their origin.  When they graduate from our institutions, the children have lost everything Native except their blood.” 

I openly acknowledge that I yet do not have the level of understanding of all that occurred from the first contacts, north, south, east and west across this land to the present day.  I believe firmly in the adage that the more I know, the more I know I need to know more.  I do believe, particularly when I close my eyes and capture an image of any of my children or grandchildren in my mind and imagine a knock on my door as officials come to take that child away, that this was “all bad”.  Residential Schools as established Canada was bad from the start, bad to the end.  Anything even remotely good or praiseworthy in the Residential school setting could have been accomplished in a manner that supported and empowered a people, their culture, and traditions.  All affected by Residential schools needed the public, all the citizens of the land who knew, to say no to the government, to say no to all the organizations and individuals who suggested this was best for Canada and best for the Indigenous people of the land.  

This failure to catch the stones cast by those bent on destroying a culture and a people is our collective failure. It is a legacy for which we must apologize and work to redeem.  It hurts the heart but embrace every opportunity to know more.  Knowledge is the path to a better nation for everyone.  There are excellent books and resources to help gain that vital knowledge. One place to start, a collection of quick reads with links to dive deeper can be found here https://bit.ly/3g2QzwW .  We must also remember that we should be vigilant, that as citizens of our nation and citizens of mankind across this planet we should have our eyes open to ensure we catch the stones of racism and oppression cast today.  It’s not enough to not throw stones, the anti-racist step is to catch those stones cast by others.  I find myself pondering this point when I think, I’m positive I would have stepped up and said, “This is wrong” had I been alive when Residential schools were championed.  Did I catch stones, stand up and say no today?  

Craft, A. (2016). A knock on the door: The essential history of residential schools from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Winnipeg, Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press.