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.