Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

The Truth is Not Consoling

Jun 10, 2015

I am an admirer of the journalist/historian Richard Gwyn so I was disappointed to read his response to last week's Truth and Reconciliation report. Everyone knows, writes Gwyn, that Canadians are not the kind of people who engage in cultural genocide.

Really? That is exactly "the kind of people" we are, according to the TRC report and the evidence is overwhelming. Gwyn is no apologist for the residential schools but he is sort of an apologist for the people who created them. Mistakes were made but who doesn't make mistakes, seems to be the argument.

But really, I think the issue of intentions is beside the point. Why they were created is far less important than the fact that they were allowed to go on for so long in the face of clear evidence that they were doing harm, and I mean actual physical harm, not cultural genocide.

As early as 1907 the Indian Department's own medical inspector reported that 69 percent of all residential school students died as a result of their school experience. Tuberculosis, the "white plague," was wiping out an entire generation and it was well known that the schools were incubators. In 1915 at the school on Kuper Island here in BC run by the Catholic Church, 107 of the 264 students who had attended since it opened were dead. Saturday Night magazine in 1907 called it "a situation disgraceful to the country." So, hardly a secret. Yet it continued for another nine decades until the last school closed in 1996.

This is what is hardest, for me at least, to understand. Not that cultural supremacists like John A. Macdonald wanted to assimilate the Indians by indoctrinating their kids. He was working within the intellectual framework of his day. But that generations of Canadians after him continued to condone the schools long after they were proven to be death traps. That is much harder to explain, or forgive.