Far too many aboriginal children were separated from their parents, physically and/or sexually abused, forbidden to speak their native language, poorly fed and forced to live in overcrowded, unhealthy firetraps and, overall, denied the benefits of an adequate education.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was clearly moved and deeply troubled by the testimony of thousands of former Indian residential school students and the unspeakable horrors they described. Listening to them day after day, month after month, would break a heart of stone.
However, as communities across Canada mark the first anniversary of the release of the TRC’s report, it’s worth noting the TRC got some things wrong.
Empathy for former students does not justify how the TRC ignored a considerable body of information in its own report or its unbalanced account of why the schools were established.
For example, the TRC’s allegation the residential schools were "an act of genocide under Article 2(e) of the United Nations Convention on Genocide" cannot be substantiated.
The schools — even at their worst — were not comparable to what the United Nations General Assembly had in mind in adopting Article 2(e) in 1948 in response to the Nazis abducting an estimated 400,000 children in occupied Europe.
Equating the conduct of the churches and Canadian government to that of Adolf Hitler and the Gestapo is totally unwarranted. The TRC should familiarize itself with why Article 2(e) was adopted and, with the benefit of a fuller understanding, withdraw its allegation the Government of Canada committed "an act of genocide."
The TRC claims the Canadian government engaged in "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group" — as described in Article 2(e). However, that claim is contradicted by a substantial body of evidence in its own report.
It wasn’t until 1920 that school attendance became mandatory. Even then, the TRC’s report notes: "In most years, there were more First Nations children attending Indian Affairs day schools than residential schools."
According to the TRC, there were 28,429 school-age aboriginal children in the 1944-45 school year. Only 16,438 (57.8 per cent) attended school. Of those, 8,865 (53.9 per cent) attended residential schools and 7,573 (46 per cent) attended day schools. The report says: "This meant that 31.1 per cent of the school-age aboriginal children were in residential school." That also means that 68.9 per cent were not.
As the day-school students were still living in their own homes, they would have been speaking their native language with their parents, siblings and relatives and would not have lost the ability to speak Cree, Ojibwa or any other native language.
The parents of those in the boarding schools on the reserves were most likely away hunting for months at a time — just as so many were before the treaties of 1871-1921.
The TRC records many instances of parents refusing to send their children to the schools, withdrawing their children from the schools and insisting certain changes be made before they would return their children to the schools. The parents of the estimated 400,000 children abducted by the Nazis had no say whatsoever.
As so many parents refused to enrol their children, the residential schools — which depended on per capita funding from the federal government — were severely underfunded. Many were closed because of lack of students and funds.
It’s worth noting church-run schools for aboriginal children were established decades before the Dominion of Canada came into being and before the out-of-context quotes from Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, Duncan Campbell Scott and others the TRC relied upon to bolster its unsubstantiated allegation of genocide.
The first Anglican church in Ontario was built on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve south of Brantford in 1785 — 82 years before Confederation — by the British Crown in gratitude for the important role the Mohawks played in support of the British during the American Revolutionary War.
By 1830, the Methodists were operating 11 schools for aboriginal children in southern Ontario attended by about 400 students, 150 of whom could read. Ojibwas who had converted to Christianity promoted the church-run schools as a means of rescuing children from the deplorable conditions so many were living in because of widespread drunkenness in Ojibwa communities.
Many aboriginal people covered by the treaties the newly formed Dominion of Canada entered into had converted to Christianity, and their children were attending boarding schools established and maintained by the different churches.
A significant number asked for missionaries and education for their children. Those who were Roman Catholic or Protestant demanded teachers from their own denomination.
Given the significant number of aboriginal people who had converted to Christianity and voluntarily placed their children in church-run schools decades before Confederation, the TRC’s claim the schools were established by the Canadian government as a means of "destroying the race and culture" of the children’s parents and breaking "the chain of memory that connected the hearts, minds, and spirits of aboriginal children to their families, communities and nations" cannot be substantiated and should be reconsidered and withdrawn.
Robert MacBain’s recently released Their Home and Native Land is based on interviews conducted with Ojibwa, Mohawk and Cree people.