Schools were no place to send children

 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’) , after looking at all the evidence, not conspiracy theories, as Judge Giesbrecht would have us believe, concluded that “the badly built and poorly maintained schools constituted serious fire hazards. Defective fire fighting equipment exacerbated the risk and the schools were fitted with dangerous and inadequate fire escapes.” Not a good place to send children, but many indigenous parents were left with no choice. They had to send their children there.

The TRC determined that “at least fifty-three schools were destroyed by fire. There were at least 170 additional fires. At least forty students died in residential school fires.” The schools were no place to send children.

Here is an excerpt from the TRC report on physical conditions in residential schools:

” Well into the twentieth century, recommendations for improvements went unheeded, and dangerous and forbidden practices were widespread and entrenched. In the interests of cost containment, the Canadian government placed the lives of students and staff at risk for 130 years.

         The buildings were not only fire traps. They were incubators of disease. Rather than helping combat the tuberculosis crisis in the broader Aboriginal community, the poor condition of the schools served to intensify it. The 1906 annual report of Dr. Peter Bryce, the chief medical officer for Indian Affairs, observed that “the Indian  population of Canada has a mortality rate of more than double that of the whole population, and in some provinces, more than three times.”  Tuberculosis was the prevalent cause of death.”

 

As a result for Judge Brian Giesbrecht to say, as he did in his Winnipeg Sun article, that the cause of so many people dying in residential schools was the fault of a disease, and not the people in Canada who created and maintained that system that lead directly to great harm on indigenous children is not disingenuous, it is pathetic. And then to suggest as Judge Giesbrecht did, “We should take a look at the history,” is to demonstrate colossal condescension coupled with ignorance. Not a very good combination. As if he knows history that others don’t.

The fact is As Dr. Pryce reported to the government of Canada, the death rate of children in residential schools far exceeded that of the general population. Why is that? I think the answer is obvious—Canada just did not care about the indigenous children. They were not worth the expense of proper care.

Suffering Olympics

A wise friend of mine made a very important point. He said taking children away from their parents without consent in itself was the “greatest abuse.” You really don’t have to rail on about anything else (like I have been doing and will continue to do).  After all, according to the UN convention on Genocide that is enough to constitute genocide.

I would just put it a little differently.  Taking children away from their parents without parental consent is certainly enough to generate outrage. Yet, there are so many other egregious abuses: e.g. starving children in those schools; putting the children into what were literally fire traps; using children as forced labour instead of educating them; physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; shredding their self-esteem and denigrating their parents and their culture; bullying children and hence teaching the children that this was the way to treat their children; robbing children of the opportunity to learn how to take care of children from their parents which led directly to the effects of residential schools cascading through the generations which in turn made it impossible to do what so many blind privileged white people want them to do-i.e. “get over it.”

I don’t want to get into a suffering Olympics where we have to rate the sins when each one itself should be what the Catholics call a mortal sin. I find it impossible to say which is the “greatest abuse” when there is such a long line of horrors. Besides what is the point?

The real point is what are we going to do about it?

 

Rampaging Tuberculosis

 

Judge Giesbrecht in his recent article in the Winnipeg Sun, blamed tuberculosis for the deaths of indigenous children. He said, “Tuberculosis was a major killer, and it didn’t spare children.” That is true, but it hardly gets Canada off the hook. Why did tuberculosis sicken and kill so many more indigenous children than children in the general population? That is the  question that Judge Giesbrecht dodged.

The truth is that the high death rates were a direct result of Canadian policy.

The TRC report chastised the conditions in schools that led to a tuberculosis crisis:

The tuberculosis health crisis at the schools was part of a broader Aboriginal health crisis that was set in motion by colonial policies that separated Aboriginal people form their land their land, thereby disrupting their economies and their food supplies. This crisis was particularly intense on the Canadian prairies. Numerous federal government policies contributed to the undermining of Aboriginal health. During a period of starvation, rations were withheld from bands in an effort to force them to abandon the lands they had initially selected for their reserves. In making the Treaties, the government had promised to provide assistance to First Nations to make a transition from hunting to farming. This aid was slow in coming and inadequate on arrival. Restrictions in the Indian Act made it difficult for First Nations farmers to sell their produce or borrow money to invest in technology. Reserve land was often agriculturally unproductive. Reserve housing was poor and crowded, sanitation was inadequate, and access to clean water was limited.  Under these conditions, tuberculosis flourished. Those people it did not kill were often severely weakened and likely to succumb to measles, small pox, and other infectious diseases.

 

Canadians should also recall what we have learned from a professor of medicine at the University of Manitoba, James Daschuk who pointed out that the prairie of North America, before the arrival of Europeans was one of the best places in the world to live, from a health perspective. The ecology was astonishingly abundant, particularly when it came to bison. It has been estimated there were about 60 million or more bison on the plains before they were decimated after Europeans arrived. Indigenous people were shocked at how sickly Europeans were!

Everything depended on the food provided by bison. The calories provided by bison were astonishing. Some have considered it the miracle food. It was one of the greatest food resources on the planet, and the Indigenous people were the beneficiaries. Its ultimate loss was one of the world’s greatest ecological disasters ever! This was a major step on what Anthony Hall called the journey from ecocide to genocide.

As James Daschuk described it, “Studies of skeletons have shown that, in the mid-nineteenth century, peoples on the plains were perhaps the tallest and best-nourished population in the world.”] The Plains of North America supported one the world’s great civilizations, but because they were blinded by the bias of white supremacy, the Europeans failed to appreciate this. But things spiralled into decline after the First Nations of Canada made Treaties with the white supremacists of Canada.

In their home communities, the TRC reported, many students had been raised on food that their parents had hunted, fished, or harvested. “These meals were different from the European diets served at the schools. This change in diet added to the students’ sense of disorientation.” It wasn’t just that the food at the schools was bad, although it certainly was, it was so different from what the children were accustomed to that they suffered as a result. Bernard Catcheway reported to the TRC that “we had to eat all our food even though we didn’t like it. There were lots of times there I seen other students that threw up, and they were forced to eat their own, their own vomit.”

The schools were also places where the only thing that flourished were diseases like tuberculosis. A report from the National Association of Principals and Administrators of Indian Residences concluded,

“In the years that the Churches have been involved in the administration of the schools, there has been a steady deterioration in essential services. Year after year, complaints demands, and requests for improvements have, in the main, fallen upon deaf ears.

The Canadian government was responsible for the condition of those schools. The Canadian government let down the students there who had been ripped out of their homes, often without parental consent. Canadians cannot get away with their neglect by blaming it on disease. Canadians did everything they could to ensure that disease was rampant in the schools they insisted indigenous people attend.

Sometimes Judges Misjudge

 

Recently a respected former Manitoba Provincial Court judge, and acquaintance of mine, Judge Brian Giesbrecht, made a serious misstep.  I happen to know Judge Giesbrecht since we were both working as porters in the summer for the Canadian National Railway while we were attending University. We both went to Law School where he was a year ahead of me.

In an article in the Winnipeg Sun last week, Judge Giesbrecht severely criticized what he called a “firestorm” that resulted from the discovery of a mass gravesite where the remains of more than 200 people were discovered  in Kamloops on the school yard of the Indian Residential School. Many of the students there were from the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. Some of the remains were of children as young as 3 years old. According to Judge Giesbrecht , “It’s also not clear that there was even anything sinister about the discovery.

I would ask Judge Giesbrecht by what possible explanation that he could give, would this not be seen as sinister? Kelvin High School in Winnipeg is a school in Winnipeg that has been around for a long time. It was always largely populated by white students. What would happen if a mass gravesite were discovered there that contained the remains of more than 200 white children? I suspect there would be an unholy uproar demanding an explanation. Frankly I think the “firestorm” in Kamloops would be a modest flickering flame in comparison.

Judge Giesbrecht complained that the cost of the taking a look at all the possible grave sites in Canada would be “massively expensive.” Again if the families of the victims were white would it be so expensive? That is what the privileged always say about spending money for others. It is always too expensive. At the Kamloops residential school where this happened, the school authorities had not bothered to send bodies home to their families when children died. It was too expensive. Not only that, they often didn’t bother telling the families what happened. This is not an issue of cost. This is an issue of the privileged who just don’t care! They don’t see the pain of others.

Judge Giesbrecht also said this was just a matter of people willing to accept slanderous conspiracy theories about teachers and priests murdering students and secretly burying hundreds of children. First of all, no one to my knowledge  has suggested murder. People are concerned about neglect, lack of interest, and racial bias, not so much murder. No conspiracy theory is needed to be concerned when more than 200 unmarked graves were found. No conspiracy  theories are needed to raise alarms in such a case. After all how often do we find mass gravesites at white schools?

The belief that indigenous children were badly treated at such schools is not based on a conspiracy theory. It is based on the heroic uncontradicted testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (the “TRC”) of hundreds of survivors from schools around the country. To suggest this did not happen is nothing short of willful blindness.

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission  reported, “the number of students who died at Canada’s residential schools is not likely ever to be known in full. The most serious gap in information arises from the incompleteness of the documentary record. Many records have simply been destroyed.” More than 4000 deaths of children from residential schools have been documented, but the real number is believed to be much higher. As Manny Jules, a former chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation where this site was found, and a survivor of that school, said on CBC radio, “As soon as the deaths at a school like the one in Kamloops started to rise the schools stop counting.” [

After making an exhaustive review of the available evidence (and not some conspiracy theory) the TRC concluded as follows about conditions at many of these schools:

“the death rates for Aboriginal children in residential schools were far higher than those experienced by members of the general Canadian population… until the 1950s Aboriginal children in residential schools died at a far higher rate than school-aged children in the general population. It is only in the 1950s that the residential school death rates declined to a level comparable to the general school age population. As late as the 1941-45 period, the Named and Unnamed Combined residential school death rate was 4.9 times higher than the general death rate. In the 1960s, even though the residential school death rates were much lower than their historic highs, they were still double those of the general school-aged population.

Judge Giesbrecht ignored all these facts, and then dismissed their suffering this way: “There are many forgotten cemeteries in Canada. It is far more likely that the deaths simply reflected the sad reality of life back then.” Yes undeniably life was hard back then, but why was it so much harder for aboriginal children than white children? That is that is the question that Judge Giesbrecht dodges.

I will continue my analysis of Judge Giesbrecht’ article  in my next post.

 

Healthy economies depend on healthy societies

 

During this pandemic, the first sign I had that something serious was happening was when I noticed toilet paper was disappearing from stores where we were staying in San Tan Valley Arizona. The next thing that made me think something was happening , was when the National Basketball Association suspended their entire season. Then I knew it was very serious. No toilet paper and no  basketball. This is indeed serous stuff.

Then I started to notice things were shutting down. Like the golf course and pool where we were staying. Many businesses were shutting down. I wondered where would we get our food? I was not keen on driving into the desert to harvest cactuses for eating and drinking. Who would be willing to work in stores? I had no idea. Neither did anyone else.

Then our Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said to Canadians out of the country that we should come home “while we can.” What did that mean? It sounded scary. Would we be stopped from returning to our own country? How would we get from Arizona to Manitoba? Where would we get food along the way? Where would we stay? Would we have to drive straight through? Many crazy thoughts started going through my head.

Then I started worrying about things like “supply chains.” I had never worried about them ever before. How secure was our food source? These were all scary thoughts. Thought I thought I would never have. And I hope I never have them again.

Since then I have come to realize that if global supply chains are disrupted that could have a major effect on my life. Later I realized those global supply chains were stronger than I would have thought. Food kept coming into Canada, though, still no toilet paper. Why was toilet paper a problem? I could not figure that one out.

Over the months that followed I stopped worrying about things like that. It would all work out. I did work out. So far at least.

More recently successful vaccine trials were announced in less than a year. By now at least 4 different vaccines have been approved in Canada. All though were developed outside the country. How would we get them, some of us worried? Have no fear our Prime Minister assured us. His government had invested early with vaccine manufacturers to buy their vaccines as soon as they were available. Our government had gambled millions of dollars to commit to buying vaccines so that manufacturers would produce them. The government paid millions of dollars “up front” before the manufacturers even said they had produced them and they worked and they were safe.  Then regulators around the world, like Health Canada, each with a phalanx of scientists at their call, looked at the scientific reports of the vaccine trials, blessed them and began to send them to government officials to dispense the vaccines. It seemed miraculous.

Everyone, except the doubters, wanted the vaccines as soon as possible. Even sooner than that. They pushed the Biden Administration in the US and the Trudeau government in Canada to get the vaccines “into arms”. The terminology makes it clear. This was to be done with haste and urgency. Canadians were very upset when its supply of vaccines was briefly interrupted by Pfizer on account of production upgrades that were needed to their plants in Europe. In Canada Trudeau was quickly described as incompetent. In the US, without a severance from their local suppliers, distribution of vaccines was ramped up swiftly.

Now some of us are starting to realize that those of us who live in rich countries must help those in the less fortunate countries. Not just because we are nice guys–which we are of course–but because it is in our self-interest. If they also don’t achieve herd immunities it is possible that this virus will keep mutating and evolving and perhaps overcome our powerful vaccines that we have been hoarding. We are in an arms race that we don’t want to lose. That would not be pretty.

I am amazed at what I have learned during this year of pandemic.

What can I do about reconciliation?

 

For obvious reasons I have been thinking a lot about residential schools lately. I went through 4 years of a liberal arts education followed by 3 years of studying law and never once heard of residential schools. My ignorance was profound. It still runs pretty deep, but I have tried to make a small dip into it.

 

Actually, that was one of the reasons I started a blog a few years ago. I wanted to dissent from the omnipresent white supremacy in our society, even among educated people. Even among good, privileged people who were blind to the power of that privilege.

 

I remember the first time I heard of residential schools was when I heard an allegation in the news that a Catholic Priest sexually abused children at one of those schools. How horrible I thought. But I still did not get it. The issue went much beyond abuse, though that was bad. What was much worse was what these schools told us about us whites in Canadian society. What we learned about ourselves when it started to sink in was not pretty.

 

Then at a law conference I heard Justice Murray Sinclair a Manitoba Court of Queens Bench Judge and the Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission speak out about Residential Schools. Frankly, I was shocked by what I had learned.

 

Then a few years later I read the executive summary of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Then my eyes were really opened. In that report all Canadians were urged to do their part to bring about reconciliation. Every Canadian should read that report. That should be homework for each of us who lives in Canada.

 

I don’t yet know what I can do to help bring about reconciliation. Chris and I even took a 4 session course at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on the subject of reconciliation. Recently I heard a talk on reconciliation given by Niigaan Sinclair the son of Justice Murray Sinclair, and a professor at the University of Manitoba, at an Alumni lectures series that Chris and I have been attending for about 5 years or more (the last couple virtually).

 

I asked him what I as an old white guy from Steinbach could do to help reconciliation. His answer was that the least I could do was to speak out. He pointed out that I could talk to people he could not talk to. My friends and relatives in other words. I as a white guy might get a couple of them to listen to me. If he knew me, he would not have been so confident about that. But I think he is right. Most of my friends and relatives I suspect don’t read his regular column on indigenous issues. None of them attended this course. Few of them will have read books on indigenous issues. Even less would read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. But most of them are good people. I can talk to them when I get the chance. They can get it and together we can make a small difference.

 

Of course, most of them have too much good sense to listen to me either, particularly in my blog. But there are a few. That is the least I can do. I liked that answer. I won’t solve this problem, but I hope to make a slight dent in some preconceptions. Therefore, that’s what I will do. I will speak out when I can, even if that bugs some people. So be it. I’ve been a pain before.

What can we do about reconciliation.

Excitement at Home

Frankly, old guys, like should not have too much excitement anymore You never know what will happen. Last night in the storm we had some real excitement.  We were sitting quietly at home last night meeting with friends on Zoom. The only way we can meet these days.  We noticed the rain and wind pick up.  The wind felt like a tornado.  Then briefly this incredibly  huge tree that had been in our backyards for decades caught the wind and crashed down. A tiny box of flowers remained on the outdoor table unimpressed,  but this giant succumbed to the forces of nature.  How the mighty can fall. .

 

I say it crashed down but we never even heard it. We were extremely grateful that it very narrowly missed our house, just nicking the corner of our garage roof and gutters.  This was about the only place this tree could come down on our lot without causing major damage.  Had it crashed into the house it might even have harmed us. Too close for comfort.

 

 

Like Paul Simon said “It was the time of miracle and wonder.”

Silence can Hurt

 

This past week we had shocking news in Canada. Shocking that is to those who have never read the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Reading that report is shocking. Every Canadian should do that. This week a mass grave site or burial ground was located adjacent to what used to be Canada’s largest Residential School in Kamloops B.C.

What do we do when we learn that 215 young children died going to schools where they were compelled to go? Children were taken away from their families to strange places often far away and where they were frequently abused. Many of them died there. They died in shocking numbers. The government knew that. It had been reported to them. And their deaths were never acknowledged. Never admitted. The bodies were simply buried. Often the parents were not even told their children had died. No one bothered to tell them. This is a stain on all of Canada. The world will watch how we react.

All of this is a product of racism that has not vanished.

I believe we have a duty to speak up against racism in our society. We must not look away. We must face it. It is real and it is here. I think at the very least we whites who have benefited from a system of racism that gave us a head start over non-whites must renounce that system, clearly, once and for all. This is no time to avoid the truth. This is time to face the truth publicly to let everyone know where we stand. As the Black Lives Matter movement keeps saying: Silence is violence. I don’t know if that is true, but I do know, silence can hurt. Standing by silently while others suffer injustice, particularly massive injustice, is nothing to be proud of. Once we know about it we had a duty to speak.

John Neufeld is not a terrorist

 

Some of you may have been alarmed yesterday when you tried to access my blog and found it was shut down. Some of you may have thought that the government has shut me down for instigating terrorist acts. I am not on the no-fly list, at least to the best of my belief. None of that is true! I am not like Tobia Tissen the local pastor of the Church of God Restoration who has gone into hiding to avoid being served with an arrest warranty.

I am happy to be back in the business of blogging again free from interference from the forces of darkness. Reports of my death have also been slightly exaggerated.

When I tried to access my blog yesterday I could not access it. I assumed of course that Canada’s security forces, or perhaps the CIA, or perhaps the forces of darkness want to shut me down.  Also not true.

It was negligence on my part in failing to renew my license. Nothing more sinister than that. Freedom lives.

Start the revolution without me.

The Blindness of Privilege

 

Recently a person I know, the daughter of a friend of mine, said that she just could not understand “Indians.”  Why didn’t they just get over it? Why didn’t they forget about past wrongs? She said, “If our family could get over being cheated by a scam artist and robbed of hundreds of thousands of dollars, why can’t they get over residential schools?” I did not hear this first hand, so unfortunately I did not have an opportunity  to challenge her statements.

First of all, I know a little bit about the losses of my friend’s family. They lost a lot of money.  No one would like to lose all that money.  But the fact is that they were still left with lots of money after it happened. The family is still wealthy. They are just a little less wealthy than they could have been and or should have been.

This is actually a common attitude among white people. I have heard similar statements many times.

Frankly, though my white friends are much better off than most indigenous families. None of them were taken away from their homes and made to live in shabby schools with predatory teachers and religious scoundrels while they ate poorly, spent half of each day working literally like slaves, and all the while were taught that their parents were worthless, their culture was worthless, and they were worthless. Then the children that survived (and thousands did not!) were robbed of the opportunity to learn how to take care of children, which they could have learned from their parents. Instead, they were dumped in schools where no one wanted to teach them things like that, they wanted to teach them religion and the benefits of the white ways. Many of those children were then physically, mentally, emotionally, and sexually abused. They grew up thinking that they and their families and their race were all worthless. This happened for generations and the effects have cascaded through the generations. Then as adults these former children were subjected to pervasive systemic racism. The trauma of losing some money hardly compares.

Who do you think was better off? Who should get over it? I think these children of wealthy whites should get over it. They should get over their privilege. They don’t even see their own privilege.  And they don’t even see the gross exploitation of others. There is nothing more blind than privilege. And nothing more ignorant. There is nothing so hard to see as one’s own privilege, because it seems so natural and right.