In the 19th and 20th century, many Native American and First Nations children were compelled to attend Indian residential schools in the U.S. and Canada. Administered by Christian churches, the residential schools were boarding schools intended to assimilate indigenous children into white culture and Christian religion. At worst, residential schools were attempts at ethnocide that disrupted indigenous families, subjected children to abuse and neglect, and left many students with lifelong trauma.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada investigated the experiences of residential school attendees, finding evidence of inadequate facilities, cultural suppression, and institutionalized child neglect and abuse. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation has also documented the destructive legacy of the colonization and abuse that took place in the residential schools, while also honoring the attendees resilience. Other organizations have also noted the negative impact of the residential schools, and survivors have long spoken for themselves about their experiences.
Despite ample evidence that the Canadian residential school experience was harrowing for many children, one Canadian lawmaker thinks that the public should focus on the good that the schools supposedly achieved.
According to CBC News, in a March 7th speech to Canada's Red Chamber, Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak defended residential schools as institutions run by "well-intentioned men and women" that performed "remarkable works" and "good deeds." In a recording to Beyak's speech, she lamented the fact that child abuse reports have overshadowed the "abundance of good" performed at residential schools, saying that "mistakes were made".
"Honorable senators, I rise today to address Inquiry 19 of Senator Kim Pate, the knowledgeable and thoughtful inquiry that she issued here a few weeks ago. I want to present a somewhat different side of the residential school story. Far too many indigenous people, especially women, are incarcerated in Canada today, and like everyone in this chamber, I seek to find solutions. Today, I will take a broad look at several timely indigenous issues that are before us.Beyak's comments come after she made an equally controversial statement at a January 31st meeting of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, of which she is a member. While addressing Professor J.R. Miller of the University of Saskatchewan, Beyak expressed disappointment that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission "didn't focus on the good" in residential schools. She also claimed that her First Nations friends who supposedly bask in "positivity and happiness" were Christians, but why she emphasized this fact was unclear.
I speak partly for the record, but mostly in memory of the kindly and well-intentioned men and women and their descendants — perhaps some of us here in this chamber — whose remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part and are overshadowed by negative reports.
Obviously, the negative issues must be addressed, but it is unfortunate that they are sometimes magnified and considered more newsworthy than the abundance of good.
It is because of the less partisan nature of the Senate that we have the ability to look at issues a bit more objectively, to take that second silver look that sometimes gets missed in the theatrics of politics. Honorable colleagues, I want to first acknowledge the excellent work undertaken by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Mistakes were made at residential schools, in many instances horrible mistakes that overshadowed some good things that also happened at those schools."
"I live in a riding that has 52 First Nations around us in our catchment area, and I have many friends there, and they have sent me testimonials about many good experiences. The best example is the playwright Tomson Highway, who credits his success to going to residential school. He acknowledges the atrocities but says there were good people doing good things, who taught him language and how to play the piano ... I was disappointed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report in that it didn't focus on the good. The people I talk to are Christians. They belong to Spirit Alive, a group in Saskatchewan, and Tribal Trails. They look through the windshield rather than the rearview mirror. They want to move ahead in positivity and happiness and not focus always on the past."Beyak's comments are not going over well with other leaders. The Globe and Mail reports that the Conservative Party is distancing itself from Beyak's remarks and emphasizing that her comments do not reflect the party's views. CTV News reports that New Democrat Senator Romeo Saganash (himself a residential school survivor) called the residential school system "genocide" and has called on Beyak to resign. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett called the comments "ill-informed, offensive and simply wrong."
While some students at Canadian residential schools did report positive experiences to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, these do not erase the negative experiences of many other students. The positive experiences of some students do not excuse acts of colonization, family disruption, physical abuse, sexual assault, and neglect reported by others.
If we are to avoid repeating historical mistakes, we must take an honest look at those mistakes instead of dismissing them as "theatrics" or "rearview mirror" gazing. Canadians (and Americans) must acknowledge all aspects of the residential schools that people in power imposed on indigenous children. If that legacy causes some people to feel uncomfortable, they should not soothe that discomfort by white-washing the actions of their historical predecessors.
(Hat tip to Shira.)