What We Did Not Learn in School

May30, 2021

Rob Irish

On Friday, May 28th 2021, the Honourable Murray Sinclair spoke to three regions of the United Church about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the history of Residential Schools in Canada.  Mr. Sinclair, who is a former senator and former Manitoba judge, chaired the TRC from 2009-2015. He is Anishinaabe from the Peguis First Nation. This is a reflection on the talk he gave. When the video becomes available, we will link to it here.

Part I: What We Did Not Learn in School

There is so much we did not learn in school.

We did not learn that 130 residential schools operated in Canada from 1870 to 1996—17 of them by our own United Church.

We did not learn that thousands of children died at these schools from accidents, abuse, disease, or trying to escape. The recent finding of 215 unmarked graves of children at the Kamloops residential school is bitter news, but no surprise. Indigenous families for more than a century had their children taken, never to return. Estimates are that 10-20% of students died at the schools or shortly after they returned home because of the schools. The number could be as high as 50% at the seven schools in Saskatchewan. A soldier in World War II had a better chance of survival than a student in a residential school.

We did not learn that when a child was returned home, it was because the child was deathly sick with tuberculosis and the school had no interest in caring for them. Such sick children then infected whole communities, which in turn were ravaged by the disease with little access to health care.

We did not learn that Indigenous parents who may have wanted to protest were barred from doing so by law—to leave the reserve to protest was committing an offence. They were denied the right to protest. Not only that, but they could not sue the schools. Any legal action by an Indigenous person had to be approved by the Department of Indian Affairs—the same organization that oversaw the schools. Indeed, a lawyer who met with an Indigenous person without the prior approval of that same department would lose their license to practice. They were denied the right to legal recourse. Not only that, but to ensure that Indigenous people could not disrupt their legal disenfranchisement, they were denied the right to vote—something they would not gain federally until 1960.

There is so much we did not learn in school, or for most of our lives.

Part II: Putting Canada in Context

We like to think that Canada is a noble project, a free country, a great nation—not mired in a history of slavery like our neighbours to the south.

And yet,

When Canada was founded in 1867, there were 10 to 15 times as many Indigenous people as Europeans. Yet, that majority was kept in subjection, kept in ignorance, prevented from gaining access to education, land, or means of a living. Mr. Sinclair compared this to apartheid: a white minority uses legal maneuvering to maintain power over a non-white majority.

In 1887, MacDonald—who served both as Prime Minister and Minister of Indian Affairs—introduced legislation with an explicit aim:

“The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.”

The Residential Schools were essential to this objective. Yet, MacDonald believed that Indigenous children could not actually be educated because they were not capable. However, they needed to be taken from families to get some basic reading and writing skills—otherwise they would continue to be “heathens and savages like their parents.”  What’s worse, the government did not want “heathens and savages” who could read and write, thus they needed to be civilized. The intention of the education was that it would enable them to become labourers on farms and domestic help in white homes.

Yet, graduates of residential schools could not assimilate into White culture because of rampant racism—they were viewed as sub-standard, drunken, violent, and unintelligent. Our white prejudices prevented them from getting any but the most menial jobs. Their trauma from the schools made them prone to addictions, self-loathing, disease, mental illness, and suicide.

Neither could they easily return home. The schools had beaten their language, culture, and way of life out of them. They had not learned the ways of the land that would allow them to thrive and survive in the Indigenous way of living. They were alienated from their families and the bonds of kinship were fractured or worse.  They had not learned the means of being family, parents, or neighbourly relations, making their communities fragmented and dysfunctional.

Growing up in that environment, Indigenous youth learned to believe the lies: They believed they were no good. They believed they were unintelligent.  Even today, the drop-out rate for Indigenous youth in high school is 80%. Even Murray Sinclair, who was successful in school, who was valedictorian in his high school, had absorbed the idea that he was inferior and that he had to overcome his past to prove himself.

Such messaging of inferiority has been prevalent in media and society—remember Tonto and the Lone Ranger and every Western movie—such that Indigenous people have trouble seeing themselves as part of this Country.

Some people want to say, “That was the past, get over it.” But to say that is to speak from the privilege of a dominant race position. How does one get over five generations of trauma? Do we ask Jews to “get over” the Holocaust? How well have Americans gotten over 9/11? Such events have been acknowledged, lamented, and memorialized. Before anyone can get over the trauma of residential schools, Indigenous people need to be acknowledged, their loss needs to be lamented, and the memory needs to be commemorated.

The TRC was a step in this process. For six years, Mr. Sinclair and the other commissioners and communities heard the stories, shared the tears, learned about the losses of communities and families and individuals. The TRC has more than four thousand pages of testimony. Mr. Sinclair did acknowledge that the United Church was a supporter of the commission. Frequently, we were represented at hearings, supported the communities, and our church was the first to issue an apology for our part in the Residential Schools.

Part III: Learning What We Need to Learn

Of course, there is much more to be done. We who are settler Canadians need to admit the truth of Canada’s deep vein of systemic racism against Indigenous people. As people of faith, we need to confess our own sin, whether of commission or omission. We need to look at the hard truth of Canada’s story and admit that we have been the beneficiaries of a long, racist history built on the blood of Indigenous peoples. We Christians like all Canadians have denied Indigenous people access to their own stories and their own worldview. As Indigenous people now get stronger, so too do we all.

Paul describes the Christian mission as a “ministry of reconciliation” (II Cor. 5:18).  We now have an opportunity to live out that reconciliation with Indigenous brothers and sisters. When we asked Mr. Sinclair what steps the Church should take to become allies and supporters, he said that the most important step we can take is to educate ourselves and our children about the long history of the Indigenous people, about our mistreatment of the past, and to work toward reconciliation over time. Education of ourselves and our children is the Church’s first step that we need to take together.

However, that first step cannot be our only step. We take two other steps: one personal and one practical.

Personally, we can each begin to unpack our own privilege and how our own story is entwined with the history of the people and the land. Such work requires some soul searching and requires us to walk in humility.

Practically, we can lobby the Federal Government to pass Bill C-15—the Bill passed third reading in the House of Commons on May 25th, 2021 and is now before the Senate. This Bill seeks to Implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) to begin the process of aligning Canadian law with international standards for human rights for all people.  A similar bill was defeated by the unelected Senate in 2015. Now is a time when we can stand with Indigenous brothers and sisters for their dignity and humanity. Take a few minutes to send a letter to the senate by using this link.

Rev. Glen Wells mentioned to me that he has been pondering, Psalm 103:6: “The Lord gives righteousness and justice to all who are oppressed.” This is good news. Indigenous brother and sisters have been waiting for generations for fulfillment of this promise.

There is so much we did not learn in schools. By God’s grace, we can now learn how to love Indigenous peoples and be ministers of reconciliation toward them.

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