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.”