Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Residential Schools

I've been watching a debate on the parliamentary channel regarding an opposition motion that the government of Canada apologize to the aboriginal people of Canada for its residential schools policy over the years. I found it interesting that a number of speakers used the phrase "the survivors of residential schools" in their speech. It seems to me that many of the speakers had a very simplistic view of a complicated issue.

First of all, I want to clearly state that those individuals who were abused physically or sexually while they were students in residential schools are indeed victims and deserve an apology and compensation. The question of whether every single student of a residential school is or was a "victim" is a much more complicated question. It seems clear that the objective of the residential schools policy over the years was one of assimilation. It also seems clear that the residential schools policy was wrong minded and created many problems for aboriginal communities and for some individuals. But was every residential school student a victim? Did the individuals (mostly church people) who staffed the residential schools have malice towards the aboriginal people they served?

Whenever I am in St. Albert, Alberta I like to visit the cemetery on Mission Hill. There, among other things I see the resting place of a huge number of Oblate (OMI) missionaries. Despite the sad reality that a few of them did commit acts of physical or sexual abuse the fact is that the majority of these men gave their lives to caring for the aboriginal people entrusted to them. They did this out of love and without hope of gain except in heaven. When I look at the history of some places in Alberta and the Northwest Territory it seems to me that often the best friends that the aboriginal people had were the missionaries. The missionaries in their letters and memoirs seem clearly troubled by the living conditions of the people they served and they constantly lobbied the government to do something. The original leaders of the aboriginal people in Canada over the last 40 or 50 years were graduates of the residential schools.

So I am saying that we know (with the benefit of hindsight and political correctness) that the residential schools policy was wrong headed and failed in many ways. But, it was carried out for the most part by people who thought that they were doing their best for the people they served. Finally, a cynical question: Do all "victims" of residential schools deserve financial compensation? I was also disturbed by the suggestion by some speakers in the parliamentary debate that an apology was needed so the communities could begin the process of healing. Well that might be but I would suggest that when something bad happens to you only you can recover from it. If your healing depends on someone else you might just be putting yourself in the role of perpetual victim. Like I said at the beginning; a complicated question.

No comments: