Canadian Indigenous Residential Schools – Counter-Narratives

Disclaimer: my references to the writings of other people–both indigenous and non-indigenous–do not in any way imply that they share my views on this matter.  The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of my family, friends or associates.

Note: my definition of counter-narrative is a point of view that challenges what many believe to be true.  I contend that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) final report executive summary, which was released June 2, 2015, almost invariably promotes the narrative that “aboriginals are always right, and non-aboriginals are always wrong.”  But even though this view is widely held by many apologists in Canadian society, I believe it is a fabrication that needs to be questioned.  This post is my counter-narrative to this fabrication.

A.        Background Information

About a third of Canadian indigenous children attended government-funded and church-run residential schools from the mid-19th century to 1996.  Since the early 1990s, the Canadian public has become increasingly aware of the negative effects these schools had on many of these children.  On June 2, 2015, public awareness was heightened yet again by the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) final report executive summary.  My September 7, 2015 post is a critique of this summary.

As I explained in my critique, I am very much aware of the harm that resulted from numerous aspects of the residential schools, due to my late parents’ and my interactions with quite a few survivors.  However, I contend that TRC summary overemphasizes the negative and under-reports the positive.  There are aboriginals who graduated from these schools, who went on to lead productive and successful lives, but their stories frequently do not get the attention they deserve in the summary.  Most of the accounts mentioned in section B were not included in the summary.

In addition, the media has concentrated on relaying the damaging aspects of the schools.  This has reinforced in the minds of the general public that it was an entirely hurtful experience for all the children, even though this was not the case.  Yes, it is true that a lot of the material listed below appeared in the media, but these positive or counter-narrative accounts make up a very small percentage of what is disseminated by the press.

There are many non-aboriginal and aboriginal people who worked at the schools, who did the best they could under the circumstances, and who know they are not responsible for any abuses.  My compilation includes their stories as well.

I hope that what I have provided serves as a warning to non-aboriginal apologists who think that caving in to every indigenous demand is the way to go.  Hundreds of people devoted a great deal of their lives to doing the best they could for the aboriginal children in their care.  Despite this, a great percentage of them are being scapegoated.

Until the late 1980s, I was in many respects an apologist for the aboriginal “cause.”  But then I was falsely accused of having views that I did not.  As a result of this devastating experience, I concluded it is better to be honest with indigenous people about the positive and the negative, rather than going along with whatever they want.  If one gives in too easily, then he or she could easily get scapegoated, like what happened to me.

Even though I had nothing directly to do with the schools, I understand the frustration being experienced by those who have found their positive accounts are not being given enough attention.

Someone recently told me that he thought emotions were too high to deal with the positive aspects now, and that we would have to endure the “over-heated rhetoric and anger for at least a generation.”  I disagree with him.  The general public has been hearing about the negative aspects of the schools for more than 25 years, yet the rhetoric and anger have not abated very much.  I believe this is likely because, as some commentators have pointed out, there is more money to be made from complaining about the residential schools than not.

Have assembled below what I consider to be significant articles that have appeared in the news from 1996 until recently, but it is far from an exhaustive list.  Counter-narrative material that is included in my September 7, 2015 post, or in other posts on this blog, is not repeated here.

B.        Counter-Narrative Compilation

B.1      1996, December 5.  Field, J. Fraser, “The Other Side of the Residential School Question,” Catholic Education:  Originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun on the same date.

– Field presents a lot of compelling arguments why people should not generalize about the residential schools era.

B.2      1997, February 24.  British Columbia Report, “So sorry for abuse, but so reluctant to see success: the Indian industry capitalizes on residential school problems while ignoring achievements,” British Columbia Report, 8, 10.  Retrieved from ProQuest.

-“[S]ome British Columbians” acknowledge there were abuses at the schools, but contend that “Indians are over-stating the abuse issue in order to further their land-claim demands.”

B.3      1998, November 2.  McFeely, T., “The great white guilt trip: Fontaine seeks national forum and papal apology to boost residential school abuse payouts,” British Columbia Report, 9, 17.  Retrieved from ProQuest.

– Roman Catholic priest recognizes there were abuses at the schools, but said the “silent majority” of aboriginals “had positive experiences.”

B.4      2006, November.  Krotz, Larry, “Who’s sorry now? inside the culture of apology,” United Church Observer:

– [A] “substantial number of. . .people view institutionalized and national apologies with skepticism.”

B.5      2007, February 19.  Krotz, Larry, “Separate and Unequal,” The Walrus:

– “Money for crimes committed at residential schools may be forthcoming, but problems with the reserve system remain.”

B.6      2007, December 13.  Greenberg, L., “Residential school cheques fuel envy, acrimony on Alberta reserve,” CanWest News.  Retrieved from ProQuest.

– “. . .the sudden influx of cash payments to former residential school students has prompted a wave of bitterness and recrimination.”

B.7      2008, May 7.  Wagamese, Richard, “The value of residential schools,” Ottawa Citizen.  Retrieved from

– Wagamese recognizes the “horrendous experiences” at the residential schools “need to see the light of day,” so there can be “nationwide healing.”  But he wants the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada to also relate the positive stories.

B.8      2008, June 11.  de Souza, Father Raymond J., “Two sides to the story,” National Post:

– “To recognize what was wrong does not require ignoring what was right.”

B.9      2008, June 11.  Sandberg, Don, “Residential Schools Propaganda?” Frontier Centre for Public Policy:

– “. . .even those who did not actually attend residential schools blame all of their social ills on the aboriginal residential school era.”

B.10     2009.  Sutton, Peter, The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus.  Victoria, Australia: Melbourne University Press.  New edition published in 2011.

– Since 1969, Sutton has worked as an anthropologist and linguist with Australian Aborigines.  I share many of the concerns he raises in this book.  In his chapter entitled, “On Feeling Reconciled,” he questions the value of “formal, legal, bureaucratized Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.”  He thinks that reconciliation is more effective when it is a “personal and interpretive journey.”

B.11     2009.  Gibson, Gordon, A New Look at Canadian Indian Policy: Respect the Collective–Promote the Individual.  Fraser Institute.

– On pages 145-147 of this book, Gibson critiques many of the articles in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) final report executive summary promotes the implementation of UNDRIP, but I share many of the concerns that Gibson raises about it.

B.12     2009, March 3.  Winnipeg Free Press, “Residential school survivor hikes mission donation to $50,000,”

– William Woodford donated $50,000 of his residential school settlement money to the Siloam Mission, a Winnipeg homeless shelter.

B.13     2009, June 17.  White, Patrick, “Healing comes full circle,” Globe and Mail:

– Residential school survivor, Edward Gamblin, thanked his Grade 3 residential school teacher, Florence Kaefer.  He said her class was “place of refuge” and that “[s]he was a good teacher.”

– This positive account is included in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) final report executive summary.

B.14     2009, October 1.  Hill, Angela, “Remembering and healing,” Prince Albert Daily Herald:

– Mental-health expert, Austin Tootoosis, feels survivors need to let go of their anger and work for the benefit of the “community at large.”

B.15     2010, July 9.  Sandberg, Don, “It’s Time to Focus on Healing,” Frontier Centre for Public Policy:  This article also appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on the same date.

– “Promotion of the negative through the past 20-some years has led many aboriginals to blame the residential schools for all of life’s hardships and miseries. . .but we are responsible for who we ultimately become.”

B.16     2010, November.  Narine, Shari, “TRC takes criticism on the chin,” Windspeaker:  Retrieved from ProQuest.

– Conservative Senator Carolyn Stewart-Olsen said an “international approach” was not included in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) mandate, so the TRC should be spending less time on that and more on “this particular initiative.”

B.17     2010, December 21.  Williams, Garrett, “Woman honoured for positive impact on residential school,” Kenora Daily Miner and News:

– Rena Martinson and her reverend husband John were in charge of an Anglican residential school in Fort George, Quebec, for six years in the 1950s.  Martinson “left a positive and lasting impression” on the community.

B.18     2011, May 19.  Clifton, Rodney, “Some Other Truths about Indian Residential Schools,” C2C Journal:

– Clifton worked at a residential school, and his Blackfoot wife attended one for 10 years.  “[N]either she nor her parents lost their language. . .”

B.19     2011, July 14.  Sison, Marites N.  “Mixed experiences at Indian residential school,” Anglican Journal: anglicanjournalcom.

– Anglican Bishop Lydia Mamakwa, attended the Poplar Hill School in northwestern Ontario, where she had “more good than bad” experiences.

B.20     2012, June 21.  Sims, Jane, “Sharing a sombre legacy,” London Free Press:

– Article includes statements by eight residential school students who attended Mount Elgin School, in southwestern Ontario.  Four of the eight reported having more positive than negative memories.

B.21     2013.  Wagamese, Richard, “Returning to Harmony,”

– Wagamese describes himself as “an intergenerational victim” whose immediate and extended family all attended residential schools.  In his 2008 Ottawa Citizen article, he wrote about his mother’s positive experiences.  However, in this essay, he said she still “carried wounds that she could not voice.”  In his 40s, Wagamese decided to stop blaming the schools for his addiction and anger.  For “many weeks,” he attended a United Church service, and “found peace with churches, and, in turn, residential schools, with Canada.”  He said he hoped the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada hears more stories like his.

B.22     2013, September 30.  DeLaurentiis Johnson, Julia, “In conversation with Tomson Highway,” Maclean’s:

– Highway said he was “part of the first wave of native writers” who had political correctness forced upon them.  But he thinks the “next wave of native playwrights should be afforded the freedom to let their imaginations fly.”  He contends that being politically incorrect is “essential for art.”  Although Highway was not addressing the residential schools issue directly in this quote, I think any creative person would be wise to heed his advice.

B.23     2014, January 11.  Russell, Paul, “Paul Russell: Could it be that residential schools weren’t all bad?” National Post:

– Russell said that most of the letters to the editor received by the National Post “argue that the schools have been unfairly portrayed in the media.”

B.24     2014, February 28.  Argan, Glen, “Oblates, TRC offer radically different views of history,” Western Catholic Reporter:

– In October 2013, Ronald Niezen published a book about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) entitled Truth and Indignation.  He said the TRC focussed on “emotional trauma,” which tended to draw attention away from “survivors’ stories which do not stir emotional responses.”  It also tended to exclude testimony from religious staff who worked at the schools.

B.25     2014, March 27.  Wittmeir, Brent, “Hearings to ‘lay bare the soul of the nation,’ truth and reconciliation chairman says,” Edmonton Journal:

Truth and Indignation author, Ron Niezen, worries that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada “will deepen the chasm between sufferer and perpetrator, accuser and accused, affirmed and excluded.”

B.26     2015, June 7.  McKay, Donald, “Unworkable demands,” [Letter to editor], Calgary Sun:

– McKay said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) summary “missed a great opportunity to make meaningful recommendations. . .”  He thinks the TRC should have recommended that aboriginals separate their governance structure into two organizations: one responsible for preserving the culture, and the other for operating institutions such as health and education.

B.27     2015, July 8.  Cooper, Barry, “Cooper: Residential school report won’t bring reconciliation,” Calgary Herald:

– Cooper complains that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) summary is “[b]adly deficient in terms of evidence, context and logic, riddled with cliches and factual errors, the result brims with half-truths.”

B.28     2015, July 10.  Meadows, Lea, “Honour the truth about schools,” [Letter to editor], Calgary Herald:

– This letter was in response to Cooper’s July 8, 2015 opinion piece listed above.  She said “I agree with Barry Cooper that the TRC report does not honour the truth because it does not reflect all residential school students’ experiences–like my mother’s and grandmother’s.”

 B.29     2015, November 1.  CBC Radio/Unreserved, “Tomson Highway finds inspiration in one woman’s musical laugh,”

– Highway talks about his autobiography, which is coming out in 15-year instalments.  His first 15 years is scheduled to be released first, and will discuss the beneficial aspects of his nine years at a residential school.

B.30     2015, November 5.  Globe and Mail [editorial], “A pitfall or two on the road to reconciliation with First Nations,”

– This editorial raises concerns about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) final report executive summary’s push to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).  I agree with this editorial that it would be problematic if the Canadian government allowed UNDRIP to become a legally binding document.