Recently Senator Lynn Beyak a member of the Canadian Senate made a favourable statement about First Nation Residential Schools. She was castigated by her fellow Senators and the Media. The Residential Schools have been a point of criticism for a long time and by many people and not without good reason.
Indeed the Federal Government had deep social problems on its hands. In order to take a calm look at Residential Schools then we need to take a look at Canada in the early 1960s. The last execution in Canada took place in Dec. 11th 1962., the man was hung and there were big protests. Homosexuality was not decriminalized until 1969 and women in Quebec did not get to vote until 1961. Children in all schools were subject to corporal punishment and in some cases excessively; residential schools were not the exception. Since the end of the second world war the western world has travelled through considerable social change, some more than others.
One problem was that it took Canadian political leadership a long time to recognize that aboriginal people have special and legitimate rights to culture, traditional lands, education, development assistance to name a few. The second serious mistake was that the government shoveled off a lot of its responsibilities to the First Nations people to the Christian Churches, predominately the Church of Rome. The churches received large grants to run the schools that educated the First Nations children. Unfortunately it really seemed that the churches saw it as an opportunity to shape minds with their religious brand and to make money. Some others however had a more pejorative view of matters. One Cree/English dictionary published by the Jesuits put it the way; “Oh Lord Give Us The Strength to Christianize These Poor Savages”.
Sounds really grim, it was. But let’s go back to the title “Then and Now”. Much of the northern parts of the Prairie Provinces were tree covered sprinkled generously with lakes, rivers and marshes. The area was almost pristine except for a few mining operations and towns like Flin Flon. On the Indian Reserves the only people who had electricity, sewer and water were the Nursing Station, the Hudson Bay Store and the Church and its school. Housing, electricity, sewer and water were almost nonresistant for First Nations people. Most of the people lived in log cabins and the logs were jointed with moss which was not very durable. The most common stove for heating a cabin was what is still referred to as a “Tin Space Heater”. They are a stove for burning wood and it is made of thin sheet steel and often they will get red hot in places, hardly a safe device for home heating.
The First Nations people were in transition they were moving from the hunter gathers where the whole family used to go out on the land and make a living by hunting, fishing and trapping. In 1931 the Manitoba Government legislated that the Aboriginal People had the right to hunt, fish and trap on all unalienated lands. John Diefenbaker Prime Minister of Canada from June 1957 to April 1963 made some land mark decisions for Aboriginal people. One was that Aboriginal children had to attend school, two that Aboriginal people had the right to vote and three the Aboriginal men could drink in Beer Parlors. Prior to this time the First Nations People did not have those rights.
Ruling that children had to go to school changed matters considerably. It virtually destroyed a traditional way of life. Going out hunting, trapping and living off the land was a family tradition. When the children had to go to school it was not the same. Going out all by one’s self was not attractive. There was nobody to cook, to skin and deflesh the animals and put the pelts on stretch boards and there was no one to cuddle with on the cold, cold nights. Transition was awful and the people suffered through the change. People whose children were sent to residential schools suffered very serious emotional stress. The schools now seem to be something like a criminal mistake. At the time and the way things were the schools seemed to be a way to hasten transition from hunter gather to modern living. Some of the people in the school system were criminal but some were good people trying to help. It could not happen now, we are much more educated, the First Nations understand more, they too are more educated and the rest of the Canadian population understand more.
Life in the fifties and sixties was very different than it is now. We all should be very cautious about putting contemporary judgements on things that happened in the past. The past had very different values, it’s not like you may think it was.