I have been waiting a long time to hear a more balanced “truth” about Canada’s Residential schools for Indian/Native/Aboriginal/First-Nations (etc., etc) children. Someday, I thought, voices will be raised in defence of the efforts those schools made to educate, feed, and shelter Indian children in need and help them transition to the realities of the European civilization that had become the dominant force in their lives.
Surely, it was not true that most native children had abusive experiences? Surely, many of them learned to read and write English or French, and math, and more, and then learned trades and some, at least, went on to learn professions?
I found it odd that in so many photos of Indian students in these schools, almost all look like clean, well-dressed, well-fed, happy kids. How come? Well, maybe just because many of them were?
In my previous post on Jonathan Kay’s article I included a couple of “Comments”, one by a fellow with in-depth experience on the Indian file who told us that the typical “genocide” narrative is simply wrong. So don’t believe it. And he directed us to documented proof of this – from our own government!
Now, thanks to an article “Letters to Senator Beyak .. Uncensored,” in C2C Journal (April 16, 2018) by Toronto Journalist and author Robert MacBain, we learn that Senator Lynn Beyak has been vilified and demonized for collecting letters of praise for Canada’s residential schools from Native people who loved, and clearly benefited from, their school experience. Mr. MacBain is writing a book about all this, and it’s about time someone made this effort to correct the public record. No one should ignore the need to call out abuses in human life, wherever found. But we should not withhold well-deserved praise and gratitude, either.
You can read more below to see some of these letters. They are a much-needed corrective.
One of Beyak’s correspondents was former Inuvik Dene Chief Cece Hodgson-McCauley, who thanked her for “opening up the much needed controversial debate on the positive side of the residential school experience.”
Hodgson-McCauley described the 10 years she spent at a residential school in Fort Providence, North West Territories, as “the best years of my life.”
She said she and her brother and sister were well taken care of and ate nourishing food. “We had an education, learning math, reading and writing.” Hodgson-McCauley went on to become the first female chief of one of the 23 bands in the Northwest Territories. She also wrote a popular weekly column for Northern News Service right up until one week before she died of cancer at the age of 95 on March 12, 2018.
Hodgson-McCauley, the recipient of a 2017 Indspire Award for her achievements and contributions in politics, reported that many former students were coming forward “with their good and positive side of their residential school experiences.” Elders had phoned her to express concern that only the negative side of the residential schools was being publicized. “They are planning to start a committee of elders to make public the positive side of the residential school. They all agree that Canadians must be made aware of the positive stories,” she wrote.
Indeed, a significant number of the letters sent to Beyak came from people with personal stories related to Indian residential schools:
– “As retired educators ourselves, with a combined experience of 26 years in Aboriginal and Metis schools, we witnessed first-hand the positive anecdotes and experiences of those who gained from their attendance at Residential Schools. Unfortunately, current orthodoxy forces their ‘voices’ to be silenced.”
– “As the brother of a nun who worked in the system, and the nephew of a Jesuit who worked there too, I categorically refuse to believe that all the people who worked in these schools were as evil as they are being portrayed to be. Indeed, they were seeking, under the social rules that were generally accepted at the time, to do good and to help these children.”
– “I worked with Chipewyan people as an employee of the Catholic Church from 1991 to 2001 …. I heard many positive comments by native people who had attended residential school in Fort Resolution…. One woman, a Chief of her community for some years, said, ‘I couldn’t wait to go back to residential school. You were clean and you had good food.’ I knew another family, eight children. The Dad was a trapper who spent the winter on the barren lands. His wife contracted TB and was placed in the isolation hospital in Ft. Res. The children were taken by the Dad each year to the school to keep them safe. It was very hard for the youngest who was only 4 yrs at the time – traumatic even to be separated from parents and older sibs. However, the child survived where otherwise he may not have. The schools must be viewed in the context of the social and economic circumstances at the time.”
– “My husband has worked and lived in several aboriginal communities in the north which greatly benefited from these schools and where the people speak very highly of the care and instruction they received. We are only given one side of the story.”
– “I spent over ten years living and working on reserves and northern settlements. And I remember, as a teacher, how often we had to convince the population to keep their children at home and go to the Day School, rather than to send them to a residential school. If the residential schools had been so bad why were parents insisting that their children go? I personally saw a lot of good emanate from these schools. I do admit mistakes were made but those same mistakes also existed in the population at large. Yes, most people were well intentioned and worked with the knowledge they thought best.”
– “I have lived and worked in Prince Albert, SK, for a number of years and had the opportunity to meet retired teachers of residential schools, and listen to their experiences as well. Those I met, were all good, hardworking and well intentioned people. I also had the opportunity to meet First Nations people, teachers and lawyers, who are now effective leaders and advocates among and on behalf of their people, exactly because they received education in those residential schools.”
– “I attended a First Nations Art Exhibition in Fort McMurray and I met a native artist who told me how grateful she was to the nuns and priests in her community who ran the school because for her it was a place of refuge. She said that her parents would go out on the trap-line and leave them to fend for themselves and she would go sit on the steps of the school and hope someone would help her.
-“I myself am a product of a Catholic convent school and while some people who attended that school with me will now say that the nuns were racists and treated them unfairly, that was not my experience. Yes, they were strict, but the principles of kindness and consideration for others were held in high esteem and they instilled in me values that successfully took me through more than 40 years in the business world.”
– “My mother has a cousin who attended a residential [school] and whenever she is asked about it she tells [her] that her experience was a good one, in fact she credits the residential school system with having provided her the opportunity to have a good education. Her experience in residential school was so good that when the federal government offered a blanket cash settlement to all former attendees, she refused to take it.”
– “I know from first-hand experience that the Residential schools provided a lot of good and back in the fifties it gave children from the reserves the opportunity to witness life off the reserve, to be educated in more than a one room school house for all, and to join in social programs to broaden their experience.
– “I think of the many people who provided clothing and funding to help ensure the children had a good experience at the Residential school while away from home. I am not naive enough to suggest that in some areas there were[n’t] some serious problems which should never have happened but you cannot tarnish the whole system with the same brush.”
– “Having worked for and with Aboriginal people in northwestern Ontario – many who are my friends – I support what you have said. Are there not two sides to this story? Why is only one side being expressed? Shame on our government.”
Almost no attention has been paid to the fact that many of the letters acknowledge the abuses that occurred within the residential school system, but contend there is another, more positive side of the story.
In publishing the letters, Beyak has given voice to indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians with intimate knowledge of Indian residential schools whose testimony has previously been ignored or suppressed. Until their stories become part of the historical record, the whole truth will not be known, and reconciliation will not be achieved.