Friday, July 16, 2021

We should be more careful what we claim about residential schools

Manitoba's new Indigenous Relations Minister, Alan Lagimodiere, is off to a rocky start in his new job, as he has to apologize for apparently defending residential schools

Mr. Lagimodiere, who is M├ętis, took over from Eileen Clark, who resigned recently under a bit of a cloud, following Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister's own comments about residential schools.

Lagimodiere was chastised for saying that the people responsible for the residential school system believed they were doing the right thing at the time. He took particular flak from (Indigenous) opposition leader Wab Kinew, and was forced to admit later that he "misspoke". Such attempts to reach back in time and try to understand the context and thinking of the era are not considered publicly acceptable these days.

But here's the thing: what Mr. Lagimodiere said is actually right, politically correct or not. This in no way excuses the residential school system, which everyone understands was iniquitous and inexcusable, in its effects and even in its intentions. But to say that the system's architects - both politicians and Church officials - did not think that what they were doing was the right thing to do is clearly incorrect (or revisionism, or even censorship, depending on how you look at it). 

There were some more enlightened individuals who objected to the idea, even back in the day. But the evidence suggests that most people thought - rightly or wrongly - that educating and assimilating "the Indian" was the best thing white Canada could do for the Indigenous population. This was the prevailing colonial settler mentality of the times, similar to what was happening in the United States, Australia and elsewhere. And yes, this applies even to some of the (now) most reviled politicians of the period, like then-Chief Superintendant of Education Egerton Ryerson (who, by the way, learned to speak Ojibwe, developed close friends among the Mississauga people, and who consistently campaigned against corporal punishment in residential and other schools).

Yes, they were wrong-headed by the standards of modern ethics, arguably even by the standards of the time. Yes, the system continued way longer than it should have. But a large proportion of the population, and their political representatives at the time the residential school system was established, would have seen little or nothing wrong in the ideas behind it, even thought it commendable. This does not excuse it, but that is the reality, and to claim otherwise is to call black white.

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