Saturday, March 1, 2008

More on Residential Schools

Recent news reports suggest that despite progress made towards a large cash settlement with former residential school students another group is taking further action. They want to accuse the churches and the federal government of being "complicit in crimes against humanity." The focus here is over the number of young people who died while they were students in residential schools. First of all, there is no question that large numbers of young aboriginals died during the era of the residential schools. Reading the yearly reports of the DIA from those years it seems that tuberculosis and pneumonia were the main contributors to the mortality rate with localized outbreaks of those diseases devastating some areas. Secondly, it seems possible that in some cases students may have died from mistreatment or abuse - but I doubt if those cases would have amounted to crimes against humanity.

There is no question that forced separation of young people from their families and long absences from the family were traumatic experiences for both the young people and their parents. At the same time it seems clear (again from reading reports of the DIA from those years) that parents did not passively accept what was being done. Still, for parents whose child was taken from them, the news that their child had died while in school must have been devastating. Underlying this particular group seems to be (again) the assumption that any thing that the residential school did (since its basic policy was assimilation) amounted to "crimes against humanity." I concede again that the assimilation policy was wrong, although at the time it was well intentioned from the point of view of the government and the churches. I doubt that generally there were what we would consider to be crimes against humanity committed during that time. The reality is that many people who became leaders in their own First Nations were educated in these schools. The reality is also that large numbers of First Nations people died during those years (both on reserves and in residential schools). It should be noted that the population of aboriginals in Canada declined during those years. It is probable that some of this suffering could have been alleviated if the government had spent more money on nutrition and health care for aboriginal people. Of course this policy of benign neglect still does not, I suggest, rise to the level of crimes against humanity.

No comments: