Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Indian Residential Schools: We Can't Have Reconciliation Unless We Tell The Truth

Inspired by South Africa's post-apartheid normalization process, Canada's Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission is about to begin cross-country proceedings. We cannot afford to get this wrong.

But if we're not careful, the Commission's objectives could be easily defeated. In my Tyee column today, I take a good long look at one of the reasons why.

Not long ago, it was the policy of the Government of Canada to "civilize" aboriginal people by taking their children from them, by force if necessary, and interning the children in Indian residential schools, in order to transform them into productive obedient, Christian subjects. By the 1930s, there were 80 Indian residential schools across this country.

The schools, run mainly by the Roman Catholic, Anglican and United Churches, were often little better than child-labour camps and vectors for infectious disease, sexual abuse, and brutality. The last of the schools in Canada, the Gordon institution in Saskatchewan, closed its doors in 1996.

Some years ago I co-authored a book about the schools with some of the former inmates of St. Mary's Mission, an institution that opened in the Sto:lo territory, the Fraser Valley, in 1863. St. Mary's closed in 1985.

It is not true that horrible suffering was the lot of every child who attended these schools, but it is true that the schools were often places of unspeakable cruelty. It is also true that the schools' legacy is no minor cause of the dysfunction, the poverty and despair so commonplace in Canada's aboriginal communities.

Three years ago, the Assembly of First Nations, the federal government and the churches that ran the schools reached a $2 billion settlement that included symbolic restitution payments to the schools' former inmates (as of yesterday, more than 90,000 aboriginal people - average age, 60 - had enrolled). But the most important element of the agreement was the provision for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Truth and Reconciliation. Two words. The first is as important as the second.


Blogger Jura Watchmaker said...

The opening sentence of your Tyee article has cheered me up after a particularly unpleasant journalistic experience this morning. So cheers, Terry. And thanks for the article as a whole. I was not aware of this bizarre former presbyterian minister and his activities.

6:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Annett is a complete nutter.

He'd be a prime sign-up candidate for the Vancouver Peace Movement

10:45 AM  
Blogger Bill Horne said...

Friends in Port Alberni verify your account, Terry. I groaned recently when I heard one of Annett's demonstrations covered in Vancouver by an unsuspecting, unquestioning CBC Radio reporter. Thanks for writing about this.

4:39 PM  
Blogger richard said...

Chomsky's badly lacking the necessary info on Annett, true enough, and he's always so focused on his versions of the world that he far too often fails to manage the depth that's characteristic of his academic work - but Annett's worse in this instance, no? The Chomsky reference felt like a fairly unnecessary dig at folk like Dirk, who I see has posted predictably at the Tyee (since he's banned here, right?). There are better reasons than this to box Noam's ears.

Right now I'm reading a book called Indigenizing the Academy, which describes a version of the university and the world that isn't familiar to me, in that the writers see it to be organized and focused specifically against First Nations individuals and peoples. The American situation they're mostly writing about may well be different, I don't know, but there's so much justifiably awakened passion that to me it's almost understandable that things go over the top. Predictable, really, and yeah, absolutely it's one of the things that might derail the T&R commission.

This was a terrific article, Terry, and I found the United Church link from your blog post to be especially useful (lots of reading, but a very carefully handled proceeding. I don't see how anyone reading it can find signs of bias).

10:49 PM  
Blogger kurt said...

It was disturbing to hear this morning on CBC that 19 residential school survivors in the far north had taken their cash payouts and killed themselves within a month through alcohol and substance abuse. Instead of truth and reconciliation aren't we just tightening the screws?

2:16 AM  
Blogger Bill Horne said...

Didn't take long for the Tyee thread to get out of hand, eh? Looks like you hit a nerve ;-)

8:14 PM  
Blogger richard said...

I've been watching Annett's "documentary" - fascinating, from a rhetorical perspective. Annett's right about many things, or at least he's repeating stories and ideas held by people whose reputations aren't at issue. (He's wrong about some things, too, of course, but at least he's right part of the time.)

But the mixture of residential school matters with Annett's own story in the United Church in Port Alberni is really troubling.

Annett doesn't tell the truth about his removal from the church. He calls his firing a surprise, for example, and says that it happened without warning, not mentioning the full month of hearings that had happened beforehand.

The mingling of these stories gives the impression that Annett's using the appalling treatment of First Nations peoples and individuals at the residential schools to support his claim to authority. I imagine he thinks he has to overcome the stink of his firing before he can have any authority, but people are prepared to listen to the residential school stories. We are. There's no need for his personal story to be part of this, and certainly not this way.

Fascinating as a rhetorical exercise, as I say, but man. Trouble.

10:14 AM  
Blogger jaycurrie said...

Truth proceeds reconciliation. Kevin Annett wants neither. Your Tyee piece gets it pretty much right. I add a personal memory.

I was sorry to see the Dawg, who can be reasonable, buy this nutter's rant.

10:51 PM  
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7:12 AM  
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3:56 PM  
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8:48 PM  
Blogger misssanna said...

Why take an innocent child and subject him/her to a world they do not know and teach them the ways of the white man, then release them back to world to which they know nothing about.
The very existance of a human being depends on the efforts, determination and unconditional love provided by THE PARENTS.
There is not enough money in the world to compensate the amount of damage that was inflicted upon the children who all attended INDIAN RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL of CANADA.
Only your GOD can save you from the fires of HELL, as we have given you a dozen lifetimes of emptiness and lost identities through our parents who have gone before us and ones that are still with us. May HE have mercy on you, because we ran out years ago.

12:00 PM  

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