‘Scapegoating the Residential Schools – 1’


ERBLScapegoatingTheResidentialSchools800x800-1‘Scapegoating the Residential Schools’

{Part 1 of 4}:

“I was never lonely there. When I went home on holidays, I was always lonesome for the school. The staff was very supportive of the students, and there were always lots of activities organized. Besides sports, there was choir, piano, even a first-aid course. I even remember the staff reading stories to the younger children.”

“In the week following the Chretien government’s apology to natives for residential schools,

{‘Apology #1’, January, 1998: https://www.itk.ca/historical-event/statement-reconciliation }
news media characterized the historic institutions as “brutal”, “miserable”, “genocidal” and “horrendous”.

“They were repeating vaguely recounted and unchallenged testimony to a royal commission, which concluded that the poorly-funded and allegedly-abusive schools bear large responsibility for the woeful present plight of many Indians.

“In none of the media coverage was the possibility raised that the schools were on the whole beneficial, and widely supported by the Indians who attended them and those who voluntarily sent their children to them. Nor was the possibility admitted that the Indian leaders who now revile the schools might be motivated by the prospect of federal compensation.

“On January 7, 1998, the Chretien government said it was “deeply sorry” for the treatment of natives in residential schools. The apology, part of the government’s official response to recommendations of a ‘Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples’, carried with it a “healing” fund of $350 million, or $500,000 on average per reserve.

Prime Minister Mulroney (IMAGE: CTV News)
Prime Minister Mulroney (IMAGE: CTV News)

“Initiated in 1991 by then-prime minister Brian Mulroney, the commission’s mandate was to examine all aspects of the federal government’s relationship with aboriginal people. There were seven commissioners, four ‘native’ and three {sympathetic} ‘white’, balanced…for gender and region {but not balanced in terms of political attitudes}.

“By the time they had wrapped up their cross-country hearings in 1996, the aboriginal commission had become the most expensive in Canada’s history, with a final cost of $58 million and 445 recommendations, the cost of which were estimated in total at $20 billion.

“While it dealt with a broad range of issues — including treaty rights, self-government, social programs, education and land claims — the commission’s most damning indictment was reserved for residential schools.

“Travelling in threes, the commissioners held meetings in communities all across Canada, from cities to Inuit villages and Indian reserves.
At the height of its undertaking, the commission employed over 100 staff in Ottawa, and countless others in local communities who encouraged people to come forward and make submissions.

“Paul Chartrand, a Metis commissioner from Manitoba, explains that WITNESS TESTIMONIES WERE NOT TESTED FOR ACCURACY OR TRUTHFULNESS.

“We were a body of inquiry and were not there to cross-examine people appearing before us. We were not a judicial process. We listened to submissions, applied our understanding of the issues, and came up with policy recommendations.”

“Mr. Chartrand concedes that not all the testimony was critical of residential schools.

“The report acknowledges that attendance for many people was not an unhappy experience,” he says carefully. “[And] THE REPORT DOESN’T CONTAIN A BLANKET CONDEMNATION OF THE SCHOOLS.”

“Fellow commissioner Mary Sillett, an Inuit from Ottawa representing Labrador, agrees that there were positive stories. However, she believes that the negative testimony far outweighed the positive…
{Big surprise — only those with grievances were encouraged to attend…}

“The commission concluded,

“Tragically, the future that was created [by the schools] is now a lamentable heritage for those children and generations who came after… The school system’s concerted campaign to obliterate Aboriginal languages, traditions, and beliefs was compounded by mismanagement and the woeful mistreatment, neglect, and abuse of many children… The memory has persisted, festered and become a sorrowful monument, still casting a deep shadow over the lives of many Aboriginal people and over the possibility of a new relationship between Aboriginal and ‘non-Aboriginal’ Canadians.”

“Amid sweetgrass smoke and the beating of drums, on January 7, 1998, Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart expressed “profound regret” for the residential schools. The apology was hailed by aboriginal leaders as a first step in recognizing the suffering of the aboriginal people over the 300 years of Canada’s history.

“Phil Fontaine, grand chief of the Assembly of ‘First Nations’, told the ‘Calgary Herald’,

“Let this moment mark the end of paternalism in our relations and the beginning of the empowerment of ‘First Nations’, the end of the official victimization of ‘First Nations’…”

Phil Fontaine (IMAGE: Episcopal Church)
Phil Fontaine (IMAGE: Episcopal Church)

“However, it remains a question, in many Indian minds as well as ‘white’, whether the general legacy of the Indian schools may actually have been quite good…

“Far-removed from Ottawa’s corridors of power, many native people say they are bewildered by the vilification of residential schools. For example, Dora and Donald Cardinal of Onion Lake, Sask., near Lloydminster, attended St. Anthony’s Residential School on the reserve in the 1950s.

“It was a great big, white-frame building,” recalls Mrs. Cardinal of the structure, which was demolished in 1972. “I was sad to see it go; I have a lot of fond memories from that school. I really liked it there.”

“One of her most vivid memories is of the kitchen, with big, wood-burning stoves all along one wall.

“There was a lot of food, we were practically forced to eat,” she recalls wistfully. “Every day, there was delicious fresh bread, porridge, peanut butter and lots of stew. I was a picky eater back then, and the food was always very good.”

“Mrs. Cardinal explains that children from the reserve attended one of several area boarding schools, depending on their religious affiliation. As Roman Catholics, she and her older brother and sister were sent to St. Anthony’s, operated by the ‘Oblates of Mary Immaculate’ and the ‘Grey Nuns’.

“Donald Cardinal adds that although speaking their native Cree was against the rules, HE CANNOT REMEMBER EVER BEING PUNISHED FOR IT.

“It was the boys’ job to look after the garden,” he explains. “We chopped wood, worked on the farm, and looked after the cows while the girls learned to sew, mend, crochet.”

“Dora Cardinal recounts that the Onion Lake reserve was very poor — and so was her family, with six children.

“We lived in a cabin, my dad did a little trapping; we had to survive somehow. I remember nights at home that were so cold, and we never had enough blankets. Sometimes, my mother’s bread wouldn’t rise because it was so cold. I also remember that if we got some second-hand, old clothes, mother would cut off the sleeves and we used them for socks. Many parents at the time thought the school was a blessing.”

St. Mary's Residential School  (IMAGE: Royal Alberta Museum exhibition, Edmonton)
St. Mary’s Residential School (IMAGE: Royal Alberta Museum exhibition, Edmonton)

“The Blood Reserve near Lethbridge had two residential schools: Catholic St. Mary’s and the Anglican St. Paul’s Residential School.

“Rufus Goodstriker, a retired pro rodeo rider and boxer, and now a rancher and herbalist, attended St. Paul’s for eight years in the 1940’s. A three-storey, steam-heated brick building, St. Paul’s at one time had over 500 students.

“We were supposed to speak English, but I spoke Blackfoot all the time anyway,” Mr. Goodstriker remembers. “It was good teaching for survival in society. We learned reading, writing, history, science, as well as how to operate machinery and farm chores. I really appreciated being able to learn all that. I’m a rancher now, and I use a lot of what I learned at the school.”

“A typical day began at 6:45, with breakfast and chapel before morning classes. After a half-day in the classroom, boys worked on the farm or in the shop. The children often went on hikes and camping trips through the surrounding countryside, and the older students were allowed to visit nearby Cardston on Saturdays. Each Friday night, there was a co-education social event, usually a dance.

“Although the children often visited their parents on weekends, school was a lonely experience at first.
Mr. Goodstriker recalls that once, his older brother ran away.

“But my father immediately loaded him up in the wagon and brought him right back and said ‘you don’t run away from school’…”

“For Mr. Goodstriker, the sports program was the real highlight of school. Although St. Paul’s lacked an indoor gym, the students were coached in soccer and softball. In the winter, they flooded a rink for hockey, and numerous social events were organized by staff and students.

“Notwithstanding all these pleasant recollections, indeed almost as an afterthought, Mr. Goodstriker remarks that the schools were practising “cultural genocide.” Asked to elaborate, he declines.
“Another former resident at St. Paul’s remembers that each week began with a chore work-list, which the students worked through in groups.

“We worked together on everything; repairing equipment, cleaning washrooms, sweeping dormitories. I really enjoyed my time at the school; not only did I learn to work with other people, I also learned to respect them and respect myself.”

“The informant, who did not wish his name to be used BECAUSE HE SAYS IT COULD CAUSE TROUBLE, attended the school for eight years in the late 1940’s.

“I was never lonely there,” he says. “When I went home on holidays, I was always lonesome for the school. The staff was very supportive of the students, and there were always lots of activities organized. Besides sports, there was choir, piano, even a first-aid course. I even remember the staff reading stories to the younger children.”

–Patrick Donnelly, Alberta Report, 01/26/98, Vol. 25 Issue 6 {CAPS added}


Roman Catholic Residential School, Onion Lake, Sask., in the 1890s
(Saskatchewan History Online, U. of Sask.)


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