A critical look back at indigenous-non-indigenous dealings a year after the TRC gave us its final report
By Joan Cohen
“The fundamental misunderstanding of [Europe’s] colonizers was that they felt they were filling a gap and raising Indigenous people from ‘savagery’. They saw an undeveloped culture, language and society in the North and they paid no attention to it. To their Eurocentric eyes, there was no society or culture worth preserving. They needed a clean slate; they needed to kill the Indian in the child.”
So Alberta lawyer Steven Cooper tells us, in a quick but forceful description of the situation that confronted Canada’s indigenous population starting in the still-early days of settlement here. Cooper’s narrative appears in a new book, In This Together, which contains 15 essays by Canadian writers dealing with relations between our indigenous and non-indigenous races. That book is focussed on carrying forward the conversation launched with the publication a year ago of the final, probing report (after six years of hearings and study) by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
As Canadians are only starting to realize in the wake of that commission report, we as a people are being invited to accept a more sobering view of our history than any we might have dreamed of encountering. It’s a layered story of an unconscionable mission that through much of our history drove the actions of our governments in dealing with the indigenous people in Canada.
In pursuing that mission our governments, as colonizers, systematically betrayed, segregated and culturally degraded and dismissed the native peoples who had in earlier times welcomed them here; and in pursuit of its unfortunate goals, our national government had joined forces with church-activated residential schools in cutting off some 50,000, mainly First Nations, children committed to the schools from their traditional familial, language, cultural and spiritual ties, to erase as best they could all that made them Indian. It was the situation and treatment of these children and the after-effects that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to investigate.
There are, it’s fair to say, three startling elements to this story. The first, simply, is that, for most Canadians today, living out our lives in settings seemingly remote from all this, the truth is, “We didn’t know”. The words come up again and again in reference to what transpired, most notably in the grievous case of the children…
Says lawyer Stephen Cooper, looking back: “Even those of us who grew up in the North and with the survivors of this abuse, had no idea of what had happened and the impact it had on our friends and neighbours. We never knew, nor could we even fathom, the real story. . . School textbooks were devoid of information and no one involved said a thing about it.” Launched into his law practice, Cooper spent long hours in northern courthouses with residential school survivors but, he said, they remained silent about the abuses rained on them.
Even two former prime ministers – Paul Martin and Joe Clark – testified to their own lack of knowledge about the ordeal indigenous peoples were put through – particularly at the schools level. “I’ve talked to a number of people here” including some MPs, Martin told participants in the commission’s national hearings in Quebec, “and the question we asked ourselves is: ‘How come we didn’t know what happened?’ I still can’t answer that.”
The truth revealed
But the restraint that had held back the telling (to the world at large) of that brutal tale was no more, after the commission began to take evidence. And the tale the commission encountered put in the public domain a story that would change our understanding of Canadian history – both at the schools level and by shedding new light on a broader role our government played in shaping our nation and dealing with the peoples it found here.
As retired senator Gerry St. Germain would put the situation. “There can be no doubt that the founders of Canada somehow lost their moral compass in their relations with the people who occupied and possessed the land.”
First, then, that broader story. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was direct and uncompromising in its telling – starting with a powerful drumroll of charges in the opening lines of its final report.
“For over a century,” it reported, “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.
Cultural genocide? “States that engage in cultural genocide”, the commission continues, “set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and the objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed.
“And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next. In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.”
For instance: Canada asserted control over Aboriginal land, sometimes negotiating Treaties (in a way that seemed honourable and legal but was often marked by fraud and coercion), replacing existing forms of Aboriginal government with relatively powerless band councils whose decisions it could override; outlawing Aboriginal spiritual practices, jailing Aboriginal spiritual leaders, and so on and so on.
The commission would go on, however, to surprise most of us by reaching into European history for some background to this:
The spread of European based empires, the commission tells us, was set in motion in the 15th century when the voyages of maritime explorers revealed potential sources of new wealth to the monarchs. In the 16th century European states were beginning to control Indigenous peoples’ lands throughout the world.
Millions of Europeans would arrive as colonial settlers. The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs and the Incas early in the century gave Spain and ultimately all of Europe access to the resources of the Americas. It also unleashed an unceasing wave of migration, trade, conquest and colonization. Over time the expansion would be led by Holland, France and in the end, stunningly, by Britain.
The mere presence of Indigenous people, however, blocked settler access to the land. To gain control, the colonists negotiated treaties – which weren’t always fulfilled; they waged wars of extinction, and engaged in the many disruptive and destructive practices already listed here. “The outcome was usually disastrous to the Indigenous people,” in the commission’s judgment.
The commission took on the task of getting at the full story of the residential school system, and the treatment encountered by the youngsters enrolled in the schools. It offers a chilling scene from that saga as it starts to lay out the history of that bleak venture in colonization.
“It can start with a knock on the door one morning,” the commission tells us. “It is the local Indian agent, or the parish priest, or perhaps a Mounted Police officer. The bus for residential school leaves that morning. . .
“It is a day the parents have long been dreading. The officials have arrived and the children must go.
“For tens of thousands of Aboriginal children for over a century,” the story continues, “this was the beginning of their residential schooling. Taken from their homes, stripped of their belongings and separated from their siblings, residential school children lived in a world dominated by fear, loneliness and lack of affection.”
It was after the 1870 transfer to the Canadian government of the vast Hudson Bay Company territory in western and northwestern Canada, and the treaties with First Nations which followed, that Ottawa would deeply involve itself with the residential schools — a move, the commission says, which “was in keeping with [Canada’s] intent to assimilate Aboriginal peoples.”
The commission hearings produced a litany of the cruel, neglectful and abusive behaviour that was rampant in the operation of these schools as an apparent consequence. In the aftermath of all this, the cure, for the commission, is in part to get the truth on the table. Ultimately it would be attainment by us all of a bridge of understanding between Canada’s indigenous and non-indigenous races.
“Too many Canadians know little or nothing about the deep historical roots of these conflicts. This lack of historical knowledge has serious consequences for First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, and for Canada as a whole.”
And the truth did indeed come out as the hearings proceeded. ‘Thousands of survivors publicly shared their residential school experiences at the [hearings] in every region of this country,” the commission notes. They had long been ready to do so, but only when the circumstances were right. Here is a very partial list:
Thousands ready to speak
- The use of Indigenous languages by students was widely banned; students were severely punished for disobeying.
- Students were [for example] slapped, sometimes had their ears pulled as a punishment if they could not understand an instruction given in English.
- Students cited a range of experiences to illustrate how education consisted of nothing that had any relationship to a student’s homes and culture; they were discouraged from participating in traditional cultural activities.
- Students faced constant hunger. An inspector noted that the children were not given enough nutritious food to sustain them or support healthy growth. An Indian Affairs official noted that “in almost every instance when meals are mentioned by inspectors they are said to be well cooked. He doubted that students ever got the food portion called for in regulations.
- Health? “The number of students who died at Canada’s residential schools is not likely ever to be known in full” notes the commission. A 2015 analysis found 2,040 children whose names were recorded died between the years 1867 and 2000. When named and unnamed individuals were counted, there were 3,201 deaths registered in the period.
- Many schools were in a dilapidated condition and acute fire hazards.
- Punishment could consist of strappings on the bare back, time spent in “punishment rooms” or locked in a cell. Severe beatings were commonplace.
- Sexual abuse was widespread, but the government and churches running the schools covered up the violations to protect themselves.