Based on my reading of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’) the harms inflicted on indigenous students were not caused by some bad apples. It was not just the result of nasty sexual predators. That was only part of the harm. The actual harms went far beyond that. Too many Canadians don’t know the story of the residential schools in Canada and too many are completely ignorant of Canadian government policy for more than a century.
As the TRC said on the very first page of its executive summary which itself is 382 pages long:
“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide”.”
That is certainly an attention grabbing first paragraph. It should be enough to set aside puerile presumptions of good intent. Canada was not filled with “good intent” when it started Indian Residential Schools nor was it when it operated those schools through contractors consisting largely of various church groups. The churches too were not filled with “good intent” either. That does not mean there was no good intent. There were some sincere people with good intent in the system. They were just not as abundant as we might have hoped. It was the system that caused most of the harm. Not bad apples.
Some people were startled by the use of the expression “cultural genocide” in the TRC report. How could Canada be guilty of that? Others thought the TRC did not go far enough. They wished the report had not prefixed their indictment with the word “cultural.” These people thought Canada’s actions were just plain “genocide”.
The fact is the TRC was under legal constraints. It had obtained legal advice that it could not allege anyone was guilty of genocide because that is a crime and only a court of law can find criminal guilt and only after a trial at which the accused is represented by counsel, has the right to submit evidence and cross examine witnesses speaking against their interests. The TRC was not a court. It was a tribunal or commission. This is what the TRC said,
“Physical genocide is mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction of the group’s reproductive capacity. Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And most significantly, to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.
In dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.”
The TRC really did not pull any punches!
The government estimated that 150,000 students attended the Indian Residential Schools. Those schools and the students inside them, were a vital part of Canada’s program to force assimilation on the First Nations people of Canada against their will. It was not just an ugly chapter in its history. It was a vital part of what Canada was all about it. It is, and continues to be, a vital part of who Canadians are. Canadians must face that ugly truth.
African American novelist, James Baldwin was one of the sharpest critics of racism. We could all learn a lot from him. As he said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
That is what Canada and Canadians must do.
It wasn’t a few bad apples that caused the problem. It was the tree.