Winnipeg Free Press
Senator Lynn Beyak caused a furor when she dared question the fairness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report. There were calls for her resignation (she was removed from the Senate’s committee on Aboriginal Peoples Wednesday), and harsh language was used to describe her and her comments. I had a similar experience when I wrote similarly in the Winnipeg Free Press (Still looking for truth, Feb. 9, 2016).
Let’s look first at what Beyak said:
She said the good done by residential schools should be recognized. This is difficult for people to listen to, because it is a fact many aboriginal people had their lives virtually ruined by their experiences at residential school. And yet, it must be remembered many others did not, and received education that would otherwise have been denied to them. In fact, most of the aboriginal leaders of the past few generations were residential school graduates. This does not excuse the bad things that went on in the schools, or the shockingly stupid idea of trying to erase the children’s aboriginal culture.
And it must be said that residential schools of some kind had to be built. Simply, aboriginal children on reserves were not receiving meaningful education in those early years. Building schools on isolated reserves was not a realistic possibility and all reserves were isolated until modern vehicles and highway construction made them more accessible.
It should also be remembered Canada was not the wealthy country it is today. School budgets were tiny and this remained the case well into the 20th century. My parents were teachers then, and I remember my mother telling me that as late as 1940 the yearly budget for her one-room school was $100, and her salary was $40 per month.
It was the progressives of the time who advocated for the construction of the schools and progressive aboriginal leaders were among them. It was not the bigots who wanted the schools built. The bigots didn’t care.
If history could be rewritten, the schools would respect aboriginal culture, teach aboriginal languages as well as English and French, and treat the children properly. We can’t rewrite history, but it does not do justice to the memories of the people who established and ran the schools to paint them all as evil racists and perverts.
Beyak also says the TRC report is not a balanced report. She was thoroughly scolded for having the temerity to say that. Newspaper editorials said she was ill-informed and that her remarks revealed a deep lack of understanding. There were calls for her resignation and comparisons to “Holocaust deniers and Nazi sympathizers.”
But Beyak is correct. The TRC report is a political document that is not balanced.
Here are a few examples:
1. Perhaps the figure trumpeted most loudly by TRC spokespeople in countless media interviews was that 6,000 children died while attending residential schools. But little attempt was made to put this figure in context. First, this is the number of children who died from 1800 to 1972, which means that an average of less than 40 died each year. Importantly, it was seldom mentioned that most of these children died from disease. Tuberculosis alone was a major killer, and the settlement of aboriginal people on reserves in poor, crowded and unsanitary homes accelerated the deaths exponentially. On some reserves, one in four — even one in two — children died.
2. The other figure the TRC report uses without a proper explanation is 150,000, the total number of children who attended the schools from 1800 to 1972. These children were drawn from the status Indian, non-status Indian, Métis and Inuit populations. The total number of people in those groups who lived during the years 1800 to 1972 is in the millions. Yet, the average Canadian could be forgiven for wrongly believing that most aboriginal children attended the schools.
3. How many of that small percentage who attended the schools were abused? Beyak says the great majority of the people who taught at the schools were decent people. She was vilified for making this statement. But is there anyone who seriously suggests that any but a fraction of the teachers were pedophiles? Surely, the vast majority of the teachers were decent people who do not deserve to be lumped in with the bad ones.
The history of residential schools is now being taught in our schools. It is our obligation to ensure children are learning history, not propaganda.
There is not sufficient space here to detail all the defects of the TRC report. I will end with this:
There is not one mention in this massive report about the real villain here: the Indian Act and its corrupt and enervating reserve system. That apartheid system is the main reason why aboriginal children were — and still are — so far behind. Instead, the report advocates the continuation of the status quo, only with even more billions to be spent to ensure that the reserve system will continue forever. It is a political document.
I don’t know Beyak, but if a person in this country can receive the treatment she did for asking questions and raising valid concerns, then we are in real trouble. An issue as important as this must be open to discussion — whether in the pages of a newspaper, among citizens in the community, or on the floor of the Senate.
Brian Giesbrecht was a Manitoba provincial court judge from 1976 until 2007. He is now retired.