Confronting A Difficult Past: The Tragic History of Canada’s Residential Schools | History Hit

Confronting A Difficult Past: The Tragic History of Canada’s Residential Schools

Dan Snow

27 Dec 2021
Genoa Indian School Students
Image Credit: Public Domain

I am a Canadian. I was born in London, England, but my proud Canadian mum or mom, ensured that I had a Canadian passport from the get go. Every Christmas and summer we would board a plane and spend seven long, pre-individual in-flight entertainment hours in the air before we touched down in the Lester B Pearson airport in Toronto. As I looked out the cabin window, or smelt the first gush of air as the door opened, it felt like home.

My grandparents lived on a 160-acre farm north of Toronto on the intersection of Dufferin and Major Mackenzie. There were rolling fields, a couple of red barns with tarnished silver roofs, a grain silo and a Victorian brick farmhouse. In the summer the crickets were deafening, and the corn stood twice as high as me and my cousins as we rampaged through it. In the winter, snow lay metres thick as we chopped wood to heat the house, made huge fires out of brush in the forest and cleared the pond so we could play ice hockey until dusk hid the puck.

The discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former Canadian residential schools have has led to a crisis of identity for the country as it comes to terms with the trauma of the past. For many, these discoveries fit into a pattern of discrimination and demographic replacement with the arrival of European settlers which could be described as genocide. In this episode, Dan speaks to Tracey Bear and Jim Miller about what happened to the indigenous people of Canada at the schools and what this means for modern Canadians if their country is, in fact, the product of Genocide?
Listen Now

My grandparents presided, steady, settled, happy, encouraging us to explore until our stomachs drew us back, listening to our adventures and ideas, telling us about their childhoods, and doling out endless hot dogs, corn on the cob, pie and homemade lemonade. It was my happy place, and Canada generally was cool. It had the exciting movies, accents, giant portions of ice cream of its southern neighbour without the guns, culture wars, actual wars and dysfunctions. Canada genuinely attempted to be multi-cultural and lingual, it provided aid and peace keepers. Canada was a good global citizen.

Today Canada and being Canadian feels more ambiguous. It is according to the Canadian Historical Association, a body representing hundreds of Canadian historians, a country that has experienced, in the last couple of centuries, a genocide. That most terrible of terms.

Their statement followed a unanimous vote by its governing council. It was prompted by the recognition that “the recent confirmation of hundreds of unmarked graves at former Indian residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan is part of a wider history of the physical erasure of Indigenous peoples in Canada.”

Sept-Îles Residential School dormitory, Québec, Canada

Image Credit: Public Domain

The Kamloops Residential School was one of the largest in Canada from its opening in the late 19th century to the late 1970s. It was run by the Catholic Church until it was taken over by the government just before it closed. Thousands of indigenous children were sent to these schools, where they received inadequate healthcare and many experienced sexual and other abuse. The Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has acknowledged that these schools were part of a process that amounted to genocide.

How then should I think about my country? What does it mean if Canada, by many measures the top major country on earth in which to be born, is the product of a genocide?

Tracy Bear Nehiyaw iskwêw, a Cree woman from Montreal Lake First Nation in northern Saskatchewan is the Director of the Indigenous Women’s Resilience Project. I talked with her for the podcast and asked how we need to think about Canada’s past. For her the word genocide is appropriate.

As part of the Residential Schools programme indigenous kids were sent away, discouraged from speaking their languages or learning about their own cultures. The schools were places of underinvestment, often cruel and abusive. Kids died under conditions much worse than those endured by their Canadian, settler counterparts in cities like Toronto and Montreal.

A cairn erected at the Battleford Industrial School in Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada following the excavation of 72 graves.

But is that genocide? The UN definition of genocide includes actions that result in “ Killing members of the group… Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part….Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

But the UN Office on Genocide Prevention adds, “The intent is the most difficult element to determine. To constitute genocide, there must be a proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Cultural destruction does not suffice, nor does an intention to simply disperse a group. It is this special intent… that makes the crime of genocide so unique.”

Canadian historian Jim Miller has been studying indigenous history and residential schools for decades. He believes this intent is lacking. They are not, for example, equivalent to the death camps of the Holocaust or the massacres of Armenians in the early 20th century. He agrees they were cruel, incompetently run and underfunded. The Canadian government certainly neglected these children, but he says, did not wish to see them systematically killed.

Jim thinks cultural genocide is a more appropriate term. The children were encouraged to absorb the values of their Christian, European rulers. Jim points out that these schools were established in response to the catastrophe that had overtaken the indigenous peoples of Canada. An astonishing 90% of the population of the Americas had died in the 200 years following the European arrival in the 15th century. The diseases they carried killed unimaginable numbers of indigenous people, tearing societies apart and obliterating a way of life.

Journalist and author Sathnam Sanghera joins me on the podcast to talk about his book Empireland.
Listen Now

Adding to the revolutionary changes was the technology that Europeans brought. Gunpowder, iron, printing presses arrived. Steam engines, paddle steamers and railroads followed. The result of all this was transformation. A process which saw the indigenous way of life assaulted from every angle, overwhelmed by a demographic, military and technological perfect storm. The virtual extinction of bison on the western prairies represented another catastrophe. The indigenous way of life depended on the bison: their disappearance caused terrible distress.

The indigenous peoples of Canada were pushed to the point of extinction following the arrival of the Europeans. Scholars will continue to debate whether the 19th century Canadian authorities resorted to genocide. It will be a painful process for those, like me, who were too unaware of the foundations of modern Canada, but the unsparing honesty of the process is a sign of strength, not weakness. Confronting the past, and making decisions based on that knowledge is the process that will help make Canada a good global citizen after all.

Dan Snow