Sorrow, Shame and Rage: the Wretched Legacy of Canada’s Residential Schools

Residential school group photograph, Regina, Saskatchewan, 1908. Photograph Source: John Woodruff – Public Domain.

Canada is in the midst of a serious crisis of sorrow and shame. Recently ground-penetrating radar was used to locate the remains of 215 children, some as young as three, buried at the site of the intimidating Kamloops (Tk’emlups te Secwepemc) Residential School in BC’s dry interior. Many Canadians know that many Indigenous children died while attending residential schools: estimates range from 4000 to 6,000. But many Native leaders query this number. It is simply too low. Now the terrible revelation of the unnamed 215 deaths in the intimidating Kamloops Residential School (1893-1973), run by the Roman Catholic church, has fueled sorrow, rage and released an angry spirit of vigilante justice into society. Cries abound for the Canadian government to transform nice words and apologies into action on the 95 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2008-2015). The media is feasting on images of residential school survivors’ tears of anguish. Others want vengeance.

On June 21, two Roman Catholic Churches (Sacred Heart and St. Gregory’s) were burnt down at about the same time on the land of the Osoyoos Indian band in BC’s Okanagan Valley. A bewildered image of Ottawa-Cornwall Archbishop Marcel Damphousse, who confessed at first to knowing little about residential school abuses, filters through the smoky ruins of these churches. How can he not know? He has since offered a formal apology, but many angry Native peoples want to hear an apology from Pope Francis. That they won’t get. These days a priest dare not speak of the forms of “good work” and “spiritual illumination” provided by missionaries to indigenous peoples through the centuries of good and rough times.

A Globe and Mail photograph (June 19th) of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, shows a statue of Sir John A. wearing a long cape with a rope wrapped around his shoulders. He looks like he is being prepared to be hanged on the gallows. In the background workers are getting him ready for removal from a park in Kingston, his birthplace in 1815. Eventually he will be relocated in the nearby Cataraqui Cemetery where he is buried. Over the last year or so, others have toppled Macdonald statues. Why do some people want to have him toppled, perhaps even erased from historical memory? Simply this: he is blamed for the Canadian government’s ill-fated establishment of residential schools. The social justice vigilantes have also toppled Egerton Ryerson’s statue in front of Ryerson University in Toronto, spattered with red paint and headless. The Methodist founder of the Ontario public school system has also been blamed for pushing separate schooling for indigenous peoples. Some members of the Ryerson University faculty have gone so far as to advocate changing the name of their university. Topple the statue and erase his memory from Canadian consciousness.

These actions, in my view, are misguided and dangerous. For a start, one is reminded of the gospel story where the Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery and try to trick Jesus into abrogating Jewish law in order to condemn him. But Jesus stoops and writes in the dust. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn. 8: 7). Needless to say, the Pharisees don’t like this answer. The counsel in this famous text is to exercise deep compassion and understanding for those vulnerable persons who violate laws or taboos of various sort. Think long and carefully before casting stones at those who have done what you perceive as “bad things.”

Think, too, of writing-off a person for perceived wrong-doing or disreputable attitudes. How many great artists would survive the Pharisee’s gaze? Gaugin would be stoned for messing with young girls. Caravaggio would be cast to the dogs on the outskirts of town for murder. The list could grow astronomically, extending to the sexist attitudes of Kant and Hegel and Rousseau. But we still study Kant and stand in awe before Caravaggio’s dramatic religious paintings (like The supper at Emmaus). We are all full of contradictions, foibles and wrong-turns. Intellectuals can hold both brilliant and silly ideas. Our personalities are often jagged, edgy, unintegrated. We make bad decisions with bad consequences. We are human. Life cannot be sledgehammered into black/white categories.

Historians name this attitude of casting first stones at historic actors of long ago presentism. We forget how we may have arrived at our moral, ethical and political perspectives. We forget that our anti-racist sensibilities in the third decade of the twenty-first centuries have been learned—the hard-won products of scientific understandings of the nature of race and living respectfully with others unlike us in colour or religion. Neither Macdonald nor Ryerson had the benefit of scientific race theory. Their responses to the plight and suffering of native peoples can be situated in a time when Canada was threatened with dissolution into the hungry United States of America. And the native peoples were fighting for their very existence (on the Plains, for example, the buffalo had disappeared and land-hungry settlers were stomping on their territory and fatal diseases were hounding the land).

But my main point is that every historical era has a cultural, epistemological matrix that generates the ways we think about ourselves and others of different religion or race. In other words, everyone (with some tiny exceptions) shares a similar perception of the native Indians. One is trapped inside a Eurocentric, Judeo-Christian world-view. One cannot think outside this mental box. Only a serious rupture to one’s taken-for-granted perceptions can crack open new ways of seeing and acting. I want to focus attention on Sir John to illustrate my arguments—and call for the writing of compassionate history. I am fortunate to be able to draw upon Donald Smith’s chapter “Sir John A. Macdonald and the Indians,” the opening chapter in his meticulously brilliant book, Seen but not seen: influential Canadians and the First Nations from the 1840s to today (University of Toronto Press, 2021) to develop my main argument.

Donald Smith begins by telling us that Macdonald used to have a basically positive image amongst Canadians. These days, though, negative evaluations have burst into public light with considerable vehemence. James Daschuk, acclaimed author of Clearing the plains: disease, politics of starvation, and the loss of indigenous life (2019), observes that contemporary scholarship has “begun to interpret the state-sponsored attack on indigenous communities as a form of genocide.”

Smith thinks that Macdonald’s Indian policies deserve scrutiny. By a long shot, Macdonald (prime minister from 1867 to 1873 and again from 1878 to 1891) was the “most important Canadian politician in the formation of Canadian Indian policy after Confederation.” That, and his colossal efforts to create a transcontinental nation from disparate colonies and regions in British North America. This meant that he had to finance building a railway from coast to coast. His success has been mythologized in Canadian historical lore. Travel by train through the Rockies and see why. Drive along the John A. Macdonald Parkway in Ottawa and remember him for helping bring Canada to fruition.

Macdonald is portrayed by Smith as full of contradictions regarding Indian policy and issues. “Good John” recognized the “existence of Aboriginal rights in the soil, a right for which the Indian must be consulted and compensated.” The Royal Proclamation of 1763 had granted Canada ultimate title to the land. But the government had to “consult and compensate the Indians for the loss of their right to live off the land in their traditional way.” Macdonald wrote: “We must remember that they [Indians] are the original owners of the soil, of which they have been dispossessed by the consciousness or ambition of our ancestors. Perhaps, if Columbus had not discovered this continent –had left them alone – they would have worked out a tolerable civilization of their own. At all events, the Indians have been great sufferers by the discovery of America, and the transfer of it to a large white population.” Yes, “Good John” said this: but the “circumstances of his time” could not enable him to translate this radical insight into a non-assimilationist national political project.

But critics latch on to “Bad John” for introducing the assimilationist Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 (become a citizen and lose your Indian status) in the Assembly of the Canadas, the pre-Confederation of the future Ontario and Quebec. Decisively for the future of Canada and the Indians, both Liberals and Conservatives agreed that the First Nations be absorbed into the dominant Euro-Canadian culture. Notice that Macdonald initiated the Gradual Civilization Act with support of other parliamentarians (with one exception, the radical liberal William Lyon Mackenzie). He cannot be isolated from the political culture of his day. Every white was assimilationist, swimming in the same ocean.

When Macdonald returned to the prime minister’s office in 1878 he approved the Indian Act of 1876 (passed by the previous Liberal government and still in force today). This egregious Act, despised by Native peoples, classed the Indians as minors, hence wards of the state. Creating the Department of Indian Affairs in 1880, Macdonald chose to serve as superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1878 to 1887. The Canadian government’s involvement with Indian residential schools began formally in 1883. Macdonald approved the establishment of federally funded Indian technical schools. The federal government would co-operate with the churches as the cash-poor government depended on the churches to run them.

His choice had been shaped by ideas about how to educate native people in the Bagot Commission of 1842-44 (it proposed federally run Indian residential schools as a good tool for separate education) and the Nicholas Flood Davin Report of 1879 (who described the residential school as the principal feature of the policy known as “aggressive civilization”). The best thought of the day and even the best practices seemed to point decisively to creating residential schools for Indian youth. By the 1920s this imperial confidence would lie in ruins

“Bad John” supervised the implementation of the illegal “pass system” in the mid-1880s. Smith comments: “Despite treaty promises, the Department of Indian Affairs required the First Nations to obtain a pass from the Indian agent if they wanted to leave their reserves, especially after 1885. The Liberal Opposition fully endorsed this regulation.” But “Bad John” rode in the same horse and buggy as most every other political elite in the nascent Canadian state. They were on the same road and traveling to the same destination.

Macdonald, a kind of political Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was, in Smith’s words, “both very complex and very large.” His Indian policies were contradictory: he used harsh measures to quell Indian rebellion the Riel Rebellion in 1885—when his administration “ruled the North-West territories as a police state.” Smith castigates Macdonald’s treatment of the Plains Cree a “colossal error.” It surely was. Sadly, his government even withheld food rations to pressure uncooperative Plains First Nations to settle on reserves.

But in 1885 Macdonald offered the federal franchise to adult male Indians in Central and Eastern Canada, if they “met the property requirement –without obliging them to lose their Indian status. He wanted them to become involved and have some influence on the laws and policies that affected them.” Consulting with Indians was not exactly at the top of Canadian politician’s must-do list. In fact, during the Confederation debates the Indians seemed not to exist. Both political and judicial branches of government for indigenous peoples had little or no respect for their right to govern themselves. Macdonald—as Smith painstakingly documents—had Indian friends like the famed Christian leader Peter Jones and had congenial relationships with Plains Indian chiefs. As a young Kingston-based lawyer, he defended several native clients. Even these personal affiliations could not shift his orientation away from the assimilationist model.

Historian Bill Waiser does not think that Macdonald thought that Indians were a “hopelessly doomed people.” If he believed so, he would not have wasted any time dealing with them. Smith concurs: “Canada’s first prime minister believed the First Nations were culturally, not biologically inferior, and that Christianity and a European education would eliminate the cultural inferiority. His political contemporaries shared the same desire to see the First Nations enter the mainstream society, not to see them remain a separate people.”

Two things need to be said: first, that though from our vantage-point, it is depressing that Canada in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, “assimilation, or ‘civilization’ as it was termed at the time, was the universally accepted approach. Macdonald and his non-Indigenous political contemporaries did not understand that the First Nations had different cultures that they were determined to retain. Their ancestors had lived in what is now Canada for five hundred or so generations at the moment of the Europeans’ arrival, and despite the newcomers’ intense pressures, the Indigenous peoples had not desire to disappear.”

The second point is more difficult to articulate for historians: this has to do with whether Canadian society could have taken a different direction at a decisive moment in our evolution to becoming a just and equitable society. White colonial society embraced the assimilationist paradigm, but most Indians did not. Their desire and struggles to defend their cultural separateness was evident in Macdonald’s day. The Canadian colonial elite (politicians, educators, government officials) did not listen to the voices that were telling them what kind of schooling they desired and their adamant and fierce desire to retain their cultures. There were options – that could have been worked out between whites and Indians. But they were not. The assimilationist project just crashed on recklessly well into the twentieth-century. Almost miraculously, the reality is, however, that contemporary native life and culture has recovered many of its sacred traditions and dazzling architectural and artistic forms. Canada has not ended up as a single, homogenous and boring Euro-centric society. We are fortunate. The Indians have not disappeared. Their drumming echoes throughout the land.

Rather than topple and kick poor old John Macdonald, I believe that another Commission ought to be established. We need more serious and sustained research and philosophical thought on how the “mental maps” that judge non-Europeans as “inferior” can get created in the first place, and how these racist notions are reproduced in our music, architecture, literature and popular press, universities, public schools, churches and associational life. How did it happen that the assimilationist model locked itself around our leading thinkers of the day? How did this crystallize? Let’s stop blaming Sir John A. Macdonald for the residential schools. All Canadians are to blame.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.