Thursday, June 17, 2010


Appropriately enough the public events for Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission have begun here in Winnipeg, the aboriginal capital of Canada and perhaps of all of North America polar to the Rio Grand. Winnipeg's native population numbers about 68,380 according to Stats Can as of 2007. This is probably an slight underestimate, but it still places the aboriginal population as about 10% of the city. Having lived here for over a quarter of a century I think this is about the right percentage. This is greater in absolute numbers than many other larger cities such as Vancouver and Edmonton which also have substantial numbers of aboriginal people. There are smaller centres such as North Battleford (18%) and Prince Albert (about 33%), both in Saskatchewan where the percentage of aboriginals is greater than that of Winnipeg, but Winnipeg amongst so-called 'major cities' holds pride of place as the city where the "native fact" is the greatest even though the native presence in western Canada is much more obvious generally.

The events of the first hearing of the T&RC at the Forks here in Winnipeg have drawn large crowds despite weather that has been less than clement to say the least. They have garnered extensive press coverage locally and even nationally. For those interested in general news coverage I suggest that they go to the websites of the Winnipeg Free Press and the Winnipeg Sun. For myself I would like to explore, at least briefly, some of the issues behind these events and compare and contrast them to the situation in other countries. I do this with full understanding that I may make grievous mistakes in describing the situation outside of Canada, and I hope that readers from any country mentioned will see fit to correct me if I make too egregious an error.

To begin with the very title of the event seems to be borrowed from the South African context and their own 'Truth and Reconciliation Commission'. The way in which these two settler societies dealt with their indigenous populations were dramatically different, but the 'Canadian way' was similar if not identical to that which took place in the USA and Australia. In South Africa the Boer ruling class essentially "gave up" on the idea of assimilation of what was, after all, the vast majority of the country's population, and even if they constructed their apartheid state by imitation of the Canadian, American and Australian reservation system they never made serious attempts at cultural genocide. In CAA (Canada, America, Australia) various 'do-gooders' took upon themselves the task of "civilizing" the native population ie abolishing them as an identifiable group. To my understanding in Australia this effort was mainly directed towards what they called "half-castes" there ('half breeds' in Canada) while hoping that the aboriginals out in their reserves would gradually become extinct.

The South African commissions are also markedly different from those now being held in Canada in that they are being held in the context of the victory on the part of the majority of the population relatively recently after a successful armed (partially) struggle. They are almost exclusively concerned with events of the last few decades while the Canadian hearings will be concerned with events that extend back to the 1800s and which concern a minority of the population whose armed struggles were defeated in the 19th century. The interesting, and perhaps controversial thing to those outside of Canada (and even to many Canadians), is that the 'death toll' of Canada's residential schools is probably far greater than that of the armed struggle in South Africa, and most of the dead were innocent children on the 'losing side'. YES, the death toll from the Canadian system exceeds by a large number what might actually be termed as "war", and all the victims were innocents.

So how to view the present hearings ? There are similarities between the native experience and that of all of us who endured Catholic schools even if we weren't native. The methods of "discipline" that many people endured (I include myself here) have shown up documented as military torture methods in later years. One might be tempted to view the 'native case' as special pleading, a view that is held by many in Canada. On the other hand those of us who endured the religious school system had certain advantages over the native children. First of all we were not kidnapped and flown to a prison where the jailers spoke a foreign language and insisted that we speak in within days of arrival. Whatever the brutality that we were subjected to which was little different from that that native children endured we at least went home at the end of the day and there was no opportunity for murder. Murder !! That is the only way that many of the things that happened in residential schools could be described.

According to a reference on the Wikipedia site on the Indian Residential Schools it was noted as early as 1909 that the death rate in these schools varied from 35% to 60%. As time went on this rate declined, but it was still horrendous in the 20th century until the schools were finally closed. A lot of this was because the conditions in the schools were very much optimum for the transmission of infectious disease. Group housing in dormitories where the space between beds was two feet for instance. In his 1909 report and in his subsequent book Dr. Peter Bryce claimed that such a situation was actually deliberate. Personally I doubt this given my knowledge of the Roman Catholic Church where brutality is an accepted method but extermination is to be avoided. One dead child equals one less proselytizer in the future. Ignorance and sadism (things that I noted were almost universal amongst Catholic clerics that I had the misfortune of coming in contact with in my childhood ) are totally adequate explanations, and 'conspiracy' does not have to be invoked.

So how to view the present hearings. There are some such as Kevin D. Arnett whose writings are reproduced at the Porkupine Blog who view these hearings entirely negatively. What Kevin sees in these hearings is an "opportunity" to absolve the guilty, and what he says has a certain validity. YES, one of the purposes of such hearings is definitely to "put the issue to rest". On the other hand the hearings will give victims the only opportunity that they will ever have to present what actually happened to the general Canadian public. All that I can say here is that the actual guilty individual parties are mostly dead by now, and that the presentation is much more important than a futile attempt to bring the guilty to justice. YES, this includes the guilty Church organizations. Their liability has been pretty much settled by now.

What I consider important in these hearings is that the full evil of what was done to native children be thoroughly exposed to the general public, and I think that these hearings are a good forum to do that. This exposure can have great positive benefits in the long term as Canada tries to come to terms with its native peoples, and it can promote proper public understanding of the best ways to deal with this legacy. YES, nothing will immediately result from the hearings, but they present an opportunity to change views that will have long term consequences.
As a conclusion to this sad tale everybody should note that the designers and the operators of the residential school system were firmly convinced beyond tha shadow of a doubt that they were "doing good". This sort of result should serve as a cautionary reminder to reformers and revolutionaries of all sorts of the inevitable 'law of unintended consequences' that plagues all human action.
Here are a few references for those who are interested in this issue:

1)Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada The official site centred here in Winnipeg.
2)Indian Residential School Survivors http://irss,ca/
3)National Residential School Survivors Society
4)Assembly of First nations History of Residential Schools
5)CBC History of the Residential Schools
6)Wikipedia History of the Residential Schools

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