Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Residential schools have been demonized

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PRIME Minister Paul Martin would like us to believe that the $2 billion he is offering to "survivors" of Indian residential schools is a just resolution -- an agreement for the ages, national chief Phil Fontaine proclaimed.

There are legions of stories about children horribly, unforgivably abused sexually and physically at the schools. That is Canada's shame.

The stories have become legendary, supplanting the other truth: Many who attended the schools did not suffer.

But this 11th-hour "fair and lasting" fix, cooked up on the eve of an election, effectively indicts all who worked at any of 130 schools run by churches for the government, dating back before confederation. It turns every student into a victim, including those who were better off for the experience. There's a separate fund for them too, because they are clearly suffering from repressed memory.

The truth about the legacy of residential schools is now an inconvenience, a pimple on the collective consciousness in the stampede to right the wrongs, including those not done.

Don't take my word.

Clarence Easter is a good friend, and chief of the Chemawawin Cree Nation, which sits on a rocky shore of Cedar Lake, a beautiful body of water that is now a gigantic holding pond for Manitoba Hydro's Grand Rapids dam. Easter's original home was an idyllic peninsula a bit farther west, where farming was fruitful and the fishing good. In the 1960s, Hydro flooded the lake and Easter's community was relocated to its current home -- where farming was impossible, a promise of running water meant running for water, and the fishing eventually died off. In 1973, amid the social disintegration that followed on the reserve, Easter left for high school at Dauphin's McKay residential school.

Easter remembers being harshly treated: Getting painfully yanked out of bed; struck with a belt buckle; kicked; and forced to wash floors and stairs as punishment for misbehaviour. Residential school left its mark.

That mark has made him what he is today. He went to university, almost got a teaching degree, returned to Easterville, worked in education. He has been chief for more than a decade.

"I feel like I was physically abused but I got an education out of it. I learned a few things. I am the way I am today because of that. "It's a good thing. I like where I am today."

He says he learned how to survive, to be independent, a feat not to be discounted given reserves' unemployment rates of 80 per cent and more.

Easter is eligible for $19,000 from the plan cooked up by the Liberals, the Assembly of First Nations and the dozens of lawyers who had launched class-action suits on behalf of 80,000 status Indians -- whether they knew it or not.

Easter says he never filed a claim; he never thought of it, in fact. The government's records show almost 15,000 claims were filed for out-of-court settlement for abuse. Fewer than 3,000 have been settled, at a cost of $110 million to date. The new agreement to compensate everyone for the "common experience" also promises to expedite the claims for grave physical and sexual abuses.

Residential schools were a government's attempt to educate and assimilate generations of small, vulnerable children. Some schools were rotten to the core. Some were good. Most, I suspect, fell somewhere in between, not unlike public schools today.

I can't imagine sending my kids off for eight months into a stranger's care. I sympathize with any parent who had to, to get their kid educated and more so for those who were scarred by the experience. But I know that the government's plans to spend $60 million on a "truth and reconciliation" process has already dispensed with the truth. Reconciliation will become historical revisionism, cementing a myth that all native families today suffer from the irrevocable harm of residential schools.

Don't take my word on this.

Today, Easterville teens are sent to high school in The Pas. They billet with local families, paid by the band. It's not good, Easter says. Kids go to families that are strangers. In residential schools, kids had each other.

The teenagers come home on weekends, get caught up in family stuff and sometimes don't go back on Mondays.

If he had a choice, he says, he'd send the kids to a residential school, where they'd get a better education.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2005 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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