Atrocities against Indigenous students were an open secret of the residential school system

I’m from Thunder Bay, established on traditional territory of the Ojibway of Fort William First Nation. Sadly, in all my years in public school and in church I learned very little that was helpful or factual about those who first lived on this land.

Instead, I heard stories of “good Indians” — First Nations folks (although we did not call them that) who ran businesses or held down jobs, cut their lawns, joined service clubs and smiled when their white neighbours made Tonto jokes. They were the exception, mentioned in contrast with the majority who were, well, the “bad” ones.

This is how we typically deal with those who are different. We judge the acceptability of “the other” in terms of how much or little they are like us. I suspect we inherited this from distant ancestors who had to quickly assess the “stranger danger” of anyone approaching their camp. Even if it had its purpose millennia ago, in our time knee-jerk suspicion and fear of “the other” is the raw material for racism.

It’s always been easier to colonize their territory, or go to war against “the other,” if it’s believed their differences prove their moral, physical, intellectual or spiritual inferiority. They’re not as good as we are, so less deserving of respect, decency or fair treatment. They are either a scourge to be got rid of or “second-rate citizens” who need us to manage their affairs.

Our news sources are full of stories about the discovery by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation of undocumented remains of at least 215 children buried in hidden graves at the former Kamloops Residential School in B.C.

I hope our collective response to this sad and terrible news is more than a temporary state of outrage. There is so much that has been left undone, even though the final reports of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave a roadmap for the way forward, way back in 2015. Follow this link to look at their work: Reports – NCTR

We need to listen to the survivors. Some revealed decades ago what is just now being “discovered.” The hidden graves and other atrocities were open secrets.We need to mourn the loss of lives and the impact these losses had and continue to have on the victims, their families and their communities. We need to learn about intergenerational trauma. We need to study the real history of the colonization of Canada, including the most shameful aspects.

The Kamloops Residential School is shown in this undated photo from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation archives.

And we need to hold accountable the individuals and institutions responsible for the abuse. I am an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada, one of the denominations which ran residential schools funded by the federal government. In 1986 we formally apologized to Indigenous People for our role in colonization. In 1998 we apologized for our role in the residential school system. These apologies were the result of consultation with First Nations people within and outside the United Church. Our work toward healing and reconciliation continues but is far from complete.

There are renewed calls for the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church to apologize for their role in the residential school system — especially since the school in Kamloops was run by a Roman Catholic religious order.

Duncan Campbell Scott

The churches did this questionable work under contract with the federal government’s Department of Indian Affairs. In 1920, Indian Affairs Deputy Minister Duncan Campbell Scott famously said, “our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question.”

Scott was the son of a minister, a career public servant, and one of Canada’s “Confederation Poets.” He saw it as his mission to spare the Canadian people the expense and inconvenience of the “Indian problem” by assimilating them into the mainstream of the population and stripping them of their culture, language, traditions and identity.

The involvement of the churches in this program was unquestionably wrong. They bought into the accepted wisdom that the only hope for these children was to separate them from their families, break them down and build them up again as rough approximations of little white, English-speaking Christians. It is not surprising that a system that so dehumanized students attracted some employees who were cruel, predatory and abusive. I wonder how long any of us could work in such an environment and keep our souls, and sense of decency, intact.

By taking an active role in residential schools, the churches failed those precious children, their families and communities. By failing to recognize and work against the racism and white superiority that were foundational to the whole project of assimilation, the churches sacrificed a portion of their integrity and also failed their own members and the wider society.

Darrow Woods is the pastor at Harrow United Church. He lives in Kingsville.

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