Category Archives: Indigenous–Indian Residential Schools

Our Lady of the Bog


The swamps of Manitoba are amazing places.  Some people think I am nuts for saying that, but I think it is true.  Our swamps I (I really should say wetlands because swamps are just one type of wetland) contain some phenomenal beauty—like the Showy Lady’s-slipper. What could be more beautiful?

The scientific name for the Showy Lady’s-slipper is Cypripedium reginae and the second part of the name is Latin for Queen. This is indeed the queen of the wetland. It is one of the showiest and most splendid of our native orchids.


Religious Sexual Predators


Most students came to Indian Residential Schools with little knowledge of sexual activity and were very confused by what was happening to them. As the TRC  described it,

“Abuse left them injured, bewildered, and often friendless or subject to ridicule by other students.  Many students thought they were the only children being abused. This confusion made it difficult for them to describe or report their abuse. Some were told they would face eternal damnation for speaking of what had been done to them.”


Some students did not report the abuse because they feared (often with justification) that no one would believe them. Some students who reported abuse were told it was their fault. After all good Christian leaders would never do such heinous things that were being alleged. Former students told of how betrayed they felt when nothing was done about their complaints. Many felt ashamed of what happened to them. Many felt it was their fault. After all they had been taught how unworthy they were. As the TRC reported,

“Family members often refused to believe their children’s reports of abuse, intensifying their sense of isolation and pain. This was especially so within families that had adopted Christianity, and could not believe that the people of God looking after their children would ever do such things.”


There was no safe haven for the vulnerable children in residential schools. Some students were “assaulted in the church confessional.”

 If there is no special place for religious predators in hell there is no  justice. I don’t really believe in eternal damnation, but iIf anyone deserves eternal damnation these religious predators did.


Sexual Terrorism


In Canada’s Indian Residential Schools some of the abusers stood out.  Arthur Plint who worked as a boys’ supervisor at the Alberni residential school for 2 five year periods between 1948 and 1968 (between the year I was born and the year I went to First year university) pleaded guilty to 198 counts of indecent assault.  When Justice D.A. Hogarth sentenced him he called Plint a “sexual terrorist.”

Students were subjected to the gamut of abuse—from touching to the horrendous. Sadly, where some people (not just men) were put in charge of vulnerable people they used their power to exploit the less powerful. That is something that happens over and over again in society, not just residential schools. The powerful take advantage of the vulnerable and it happens repeatedly. But residential schools were perfectly designed to cater to exploitation. Young children had been taken against their will away from their families that might have protected them. Their parents were often  were often far away and were not allowed to contact their children. Sometimes they were separated for months and even years without contact. They were cut off from their only protection. They were surrounded by others who disparaged them. The opportunity to take advantage of power was difficult for some to resist.  As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’)  reported, “There was no single pattern of abuse of students: students of both sexes reported assaults from staff members of both the opposite sex and the same sex.”

As the TRC explained,

“First-year students, traumatized by separation from their parents and the harsh and alien regime of the school, were particularly vulnerable to abusive staff members who sought to win their trust through what initially appeared to be simple acts of kindness. In some cases, this might involve little more than extra treats from the school canteen. This favouritism, however, was often the prelude to a sexual assault that left the student scared and confused.”


Many students were raped. One student reported a moment of terror when a lay brother at the Fort Albany school cornered her and she couldn’t call for help. Some dormitory supervisors used their power to organize dormitory-wide systems of abuse. Many students feared being called into supervisor’s rooms at night. Many tried to always be with others. Some older students tried to protect the younger students.

Often the abusers used religious feelings to set the stage for abuse. Many victims thought their abusers were instruments of God. Many victims had been trained to believe they were inferior and unworthy making resistance difficult. The victims had no one they could turn to for support. It was a problem from hell.


Abuse by the numbers


Child abuse from religious leaders is acutely horrendous. Children often see those leaders as representatives of God. As a result, it is natural for the children to think what is being done to them has the sanction of God. That adds a particularly distasteful element to the abuse. Some of the victims might believe it must be their own fault.


At the same time, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’) reported, “complaints were improperly investigated.” The TRC mentioned one case that happened in 1956 when complaints were made against a principal and the investigation was made by school staff members. As the TRC found, “the church officials failed to report cases of abuse to Indian Affairs, and Indian Affairs failed to report cases of abuse to families.” In fact it was not until 1968 that Indian Affairs began to compile and circulate a list of former staff members who were not to be hired at other schools without the approval of officials in Ottawa. As well, as the TRC found, “The churches and the government remained reluctant to take matters to the police. As a result prosecutions were rare.” Of course that meant perpetrators could continue their predation elsewhere unhindered.

The TRC identified over 45 successful convictions of former residential school staff who had physically or sexually abused students. As they said, “Most of those prosecutions were the result of the determination of former students to see justice done.” It was not the government nor the churches that get the credit for taking action. It was the victims and their families who stood up, that deserve the credit. Were it not for those heroic actions, Canada would never have learned what happened. This secret would likely have been buried forever.

The reluctance to report to the police is one of the reasons so few Canadians knew what was going on. After the lawsuits against the churches and the Canadian government were settled, a process was established to assess claims of abuse in residential schools in order to take the matters out of the hands of the courts where the resolution of claims was dragging on unpardonably. As of January 15, 2015 just before the TRC released its report they reported that 37,951 claims for injuries resulting from physical and sexual abuse had been made under the Independent Assessment Process (‘IAP’). We must recall that a lot of people had already died before they had a chance to make claims and many did not want to reopen old wounds.

So, the percentage of former students who could have made claims was high. Very high. Remember about 150,000 students went through the system. Often people mention isolated cases of where indigenous students felt that they had been well treated in those schools. For example, the Assiniboine Residential School in Winnipeg which I and Chris recently visited was one of those schools were many have favourable stories of the schooling they received. But the pattern was clear.

The TRC reported in 2015 that pursuant to the Common Experience Payment (‘CEP’) program established under the settlement agreement, 78,748 claims of former residents of residential schools were recognized. These payments were made to people who attended the schools and did not have to make specific claims of abuse in order to speed resolution of the claims and in order to permit those who wanted to move on (as so many non-indigenous Canadians have urged the indigenous). As the TRC said,

“The number of claims for compensation for abuse is equivalent to approximately 48% of the number of former students who were eligible to make such claims. This number does not include those former students who died prior to May 2005. As the numbers demonstrate, the abuse of children was rampant. “

The numbers do not support the contention some have made that most students in Residential schools were satisfied with their education.


Just Indians


Child abuse is bad. It is always bad. But when it is facilitated by the government it is awfully bad. When I first heard about residential schools, long after I finished a university education where I learned absolutely nothing at all about residential schools, what I learned first was, that children in these schools, run by churches, had often been the victims of horrific abuse. I assumed (wrongly) that there were just a few bad apples in these schools. Later I realized that things were much worse than that. The entire system was abusive and it was designed to be that way.

At first I wondered why the federal government would be responsible for those schools when the churches administered them. I was very naive in other words.

First of all, the churches and even the government knew what was going on and did little or nothing about it. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’) reported,

“From the nineteenth century onwards, the government and churches were well aware of the risk that staff might sexually abuse residential school students. As early as 1886, Jean L’Heureux, who worked as a translator for Indian affairs and recruiter for Roman Catholic schools in Alberta was accused of sexually abusing boys in his care. Despite this, there is no record of a criminal investigation being carried out at the time. When new allegations against L’Heureux emerged in 1891, he was allowed to resign.”

 The government and the church acquiesced in the abuse. After looking at many cases of abuse, the TRC concluded,

“When it came to taking action on the abuse of Aboriginal children, early on, Indian Affairs and the churches placed their own interests ahead of the children in their care and then covered up that victimization. It was cowardly behaviour.”

This set the tone for the way churches and government would treat the sexual abuse of children for the entire history of the residential school system. Complaints often were ignored. In some cases where allegations were against a school principal, the only measure that Indian Affairs took was to contact the principal. In at least one case, Indian Affairs officials worked with school officials to frustrate a police investigation into abuse at school.

These were not isolated incidents. There was a pattern of protecting schools and the government officials at the expense of innocent children.

In one case in BC in 1939 B.C. police investigated claims of abuse against children who ran away from school to avoid the abuse. As the TRC reported, the police concluded the allegations had merit, however, “to protect the school’s reputation, the local Indian Affairs official advised the suspected abusers to leave the province, allowing them to avoid prosecution. Nothing was done for the students who had been victimized or for their parents.”

The TRC found, “These patterns of abuse persisted into the late twentieth century. Officials continued to dismiss Aboriginal reports of abuse. In some cases, staff members were not fired, even after being convicted of assaulting a student.”

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that these cases of abuse were ignored because the victims were “just Indians.


Facing the Uncomfortable Truth


Whenever I want to learn something important about race I turn to James Baldwin or Toni Morrison.  James Baldwin said this among, his many significant pronouncements about race:  “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.


In the US and Canada conservatives are doing to the best they can to help their followers avoid looking at the truth. In the US they do this in many ways, including their opposition to any criticism of their beloved country by people of color. For example, they have launched a concerted campaign against something they refer to as “critical race theory.”  That is nothing else than a technique that permits interested people to look behind the facades and  myths surrounding race. That can reveal some ugly truths that people in power–in the comfortable pews–don’t want revealed. Such people also do it by decrying what they feel is a negative view of their country promulgated by the New York Times 1609 project which again attempted to look at slavery in particular and race in general based on actual history, and not just the comfortable legends of white supremacy.

In Canada conservatives, among others, try to avoid looking at the truth by curtailing any criticism of people considered by them to be sacred, as evidenced by monuments around the country. The sacred include John A. MacDonald, Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth. By definition, conservatives like things the way they are. Many of them are people of privilege who have benefited from the status quo.


Recently, in Manitoba, Conservative Premier Brian Pallister, fell into this trap when we ignored the sins of European settlers and concentrated instead solely on their ability to “build.” Here is what he said,

“The people who came to this country, before it was a country and since, didn’t come here to destroy anything. They came to build. They came to build better. To build, they did. They built farms, and they built businesses. They built communities, and churches too. And they built these things for themselves, and for one another, and they built them with dedication and with pride.”


Later the Premier claimed that he was complementing both settlers and indigenous people, but I don’t see that in his statement.  It might have been in his imagination.  When he later “apologized” for his statement, he did so in a clumsy fashion. He said, at a news conference he called, “I feel awful about the reaction and the misunderstanding I created with my comments.” He never admitted his statements were wrong because of what they ignored.  Pallister did not catch on that people did not think they misunderstood him. They heard him and were insulted at his casual dismissal of the offences committed by the settlers and only saw what they had built without paying attention to what they destroyed. Pallister was blinded by his own privilege in failing to understand this.

His statements made in the context of current discussions of the horrific abuse at Canada’s Indian Residential Schools is a sad reflection of white ignorance about their own white supremacy and privilege which for more than a century in Canada has given them a pass. They have been blinded to their own privilege.  Their current conservative supporters want to continue that pass. They want to ignore the truth.

Truth can set you free, but ignoring it, as Baldwin said, can turn you into a monster without you realizing it.


The Price of Colonization


Canada after 1867 took over as the colonial authority in Canada. The policy of colonization is closely tied to the concept of white supremacy. The colonial powers—first the French and English, followed by the Canadians—saw their role as civilizing the savages. They believed they were doing a favor to the Indigenous people by taking over from them. With the collapse of their way of life and food source (hunting and fishing) Indigenous society was getting ready for disaster and so were their schools. Canada faced a health crisis largely of its own making.

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report said,

“The high death rates in the schools were, in part, a reflection of the high death rates among the Aboriginal community in general. Indian Affairs officials often tried to portray these rates as simply the price that Aboriginal people had to pay as part of the process of becoming civilized. In reality, these rates were the price they had to pay for being colonized. Aboriginal livelihoods were based on access to the land; colonization disrupted that access and introduced new illnesses to North America. Colonial policies wiped out food sources and confined Aboriginal people to poorly located reserves, with inadequate sanitation, and shelter. The schools could have served as institutions to help counter these problems. To do that however, they would have had to have been properly constructed, maintained, staffed, and supplied. Government officials were aware of this. They were also aware that death rates among students at residential schools were disproportionately high. It would be wrong to say the government did nothing about this crisis: the 1910 contract did provide a substantial funding increase to the schools. But the federal government never made the type of sustained investment in Aboriginal health, in either the communities or the schools, that could have addressed this crisis—which continues to the present. The non-Aboriginal tuberculosis death rate declined before the introduction of life-saving drugs. It was brought down by improvements in diet, housing, sanitation, and medical attention. Had such measures been taken by the federal government earlier, they would have reduced both the Aboriginal death rates and the residential schools students’ death rates. By failing to take adequate measures that had been recommended to it, the federal government blighted the health of generations of Aboriginal people.


Principal J.F. Woodward complained to Indian Affairs: “For sickness, conditions at the school are nothing less than criminal. We have no isolation ward and no hospital equipment of any kind.” Despite many principals advising the federal government of the horrible conditions in residential schools who had no means of containing illnesses their pleas went unheard. As the TRC said, “General Aboriginal health care was never a priority for the Canadian government. Tuberculosis among Aboriginal people largely was ignored unless it threatened the general Canadian population.”

In 1937, Dr. H. W. McGill, the director of Indian Affairs for Canada, sent out an instruction that Indian health services “must be restricted to those required for the safety of limb, life or essential function.” As the TRC concluded, “Hospital care was to be limited, spending on drugs was cut in half, and sanitoria and hospital treatment for chronic tuberculosis were eliminated.”

The conclusion is inevitable. Health was only important for the Canadian government when white people were affected.

Moving On


Like Manitoba’s Judge Brian Giesbrecht, many non-indigenous people urge Indigenous people to move on. I am sure many would like to do that. But we need to move on to serious action. We need to move away from white privilege. We have to stop being bystanders. Not many of us can be a hero, but we can stop acquiescing to racism. And Indigenous people need to move on to important current issues, but the rest of us need to get out of their way. As well, I think it is up to us who have benefitted from this system for decades that must move on first.

Not many of us are up to being heroes. I know I am not. But we can speak up. We should not let racist comments from people we know pass without challenge. We need to speak truth to ignorant privilege. We might have to pay a price for that. After all, many people don’t want to hear such messages. It could cost us. But we at least have to do that. Dissenters  may pay a price while bystanders can be comfortable.

Canada did not want to know the truth about Residential Schools


I blogged earlier about Dr. Bryce who was non-indigenous prepared a series of annual reports for the federal government in the early part of the 20th century, warning them in one of those reports that the schools in Manitoba and the Northwest Territories had very high rates of tuberculosis because of overcrowding and poor ventilation. Dr. Bryce told the government that 25% of children in Indian Residential Schools had died. Such numbers were far beyond “normal” death of children in white schools. He knew there was a reason for this. He did not, as Judge Giesbrecht did, use it as an excuse for why so many indigenous children were dying. It was no excuse.  There was a reason why so many were dying. Dr. Bryce demanded that the government find an “immediate remedy.” But, of course, the government did not act. As Amy Dempsey reported in the Toronto Start and reprinted in the Winnipeg Free Press,

“Bryce felt certain that the public hearing his account of conditions in residential schools would demand change from the government. That didn’t happen. The story faded from the headlines and the public consciousness.”


Although the public lost interest, as they so often do, unless the story leads to violence, it did catch the attention of government officials at the federal department of Indian Affairs like the by now infamous Duncan Campbell Scott, who insured that life for Dr. Bryce became difficult at the department because he was standing in the way of civilizing the natives. As Dempsey said, “Bryce was sidelined for being a whistleblower and ultimately pushed out of public service.” As Dempsey reported,

“Bryce faced career repercussions for speaking out. The government suspended funding for his research, prevented him from speaking at international conferences, and blocked him from positions within the federal civil service. Forced into retirement in early 1920s, he wrote a tell-all book lamenting that this ‘trail of disease and death has gone on almost unchecked.’


Bryce wrote that Duncan Campbell Scott, a high official with Indian Affairs, and others like him, were counting on the ignorance and disinterest of the Canadian public. They were right. Canada did not want to know the truth. And it certainly did not want the truth broadcast. Or will that now change? Time will tell.

The issue of Indian Residential Schools briefly caught the attention of Canadians in and around 2015 when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did its investigation and then delivered its damning report. I suspect few Canadians read it. I did. That is why I have been blogging about it, because so few read it.

There are some heroes in the story of Canada’s residential schools, like Dr. Bryce, but some of them paid a heavy price.  The Canadian  authorities did not like to hear the truth. They preferred comfortable myths, like the assumption that the people in the system had good intentions. Heroes, unlike bystanders, often pay a heavy price. Most of us are bystanders. We don’t have to pay.

Canada did not want to know the truth when Dr. Bryce delivered his report, early in the 20th century. Does it want to learn the truth now?


Good Intent?


Recently, in southern B.C. First Nation of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced that the remains of 215 children were found on the grounds of what used to be the site of Canada’s largest residential school. The school was closed in 1969 the year I attended first and second year university at the University of Manitoba. I just want to put this into context for me. I don’t think I am that old and this was not that long ago.

What I want to emphasize right now is that in Indian residential schools there were children taken from their homes to be “educated.”  Often this was against the will of the parents. We Canadians often think of ourselves as a kinder gentler version of our more powerful neighbours to the south. Many of us think that we took these children from their homes and into these schools to be educated.


Recently, the new Minister of Indigenous Affairs Alan Lagimodiere, who self-identifies as Métis,  got in big trouble, when he said, at his first press interview after being appointed, “The residential school system was designed to take Indigenous children and give them the skills and abilities they would need to fit into society as it moved forward…At the time, they really thought that they were doing the right thing.”  He was trying to say the designers of the system had good intentions. That caused the leader of the opposition Wab Kinew to take exception on behalf indigenous people and immediately brought numerous calls for him to resign.

The problem with that statement was that it just was not true. Many Canadians think that was the intent, but the evidence that has come out ever since the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 does not support that convenient assumption. Although many white people think children were brought to Indian residential schools to get educated, bu now, by now many people know that was a myth. It was a comfortable myth. Actually, we wanted them to become like us because we believed we were better than them. So, we thought. Assimilation we called it. it would be good for them. As the Truth and Reconciliation report explained, “Into the 1950s and 1960s the prime mission of residential schools was the cultural transformation of Aboriginal children.” Their main goal was not to educate children and give them the skills they needed to succeed in Canadian society. Their main goal was to turn the indigenous children into white children, or reasonable facsimiles. As J.E. Andrews who was the principal of the Presbyterian residential school in Kenora said, in 1953, about the time I was entering Kindergarten or Grade one, “we must face realistically the fact that the only hope for the Canadian Indian is eventual assimilation into the white race.”

Children shouldn’t often die in schools should they? When we now learn that this school had 215 bodies  buried outside it in unmarked graves. I admit I am presuming most of them were children. We don’t really know that yet. So far at least 2 other schools have made similar discoveries. Other communities of indigenous people are investigating. What possible explanation is consistent with a good intent? We wanted them to become civilized—like us.

We have to ask ourselves, who was civilized here? And who was not? When I think that we did it all to make indigenous people more like us, all I can say, is thank goodness we failed to do that.