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Reclaiming the history of Canada’s indigenous population

Canada’s indigenous population
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Written by Hymie Rubenstein

In this retrospective analysis of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s report into Canada’s residential schools for indigenous children, the anthropologist Hymie Rubenstein explains the methodological failings and ideological biases of the investigation and offers an alternative view of the problems that beset Canada’s indigenous communities. It may be read alongside our recently published article by Stuart Adams, his personal memoir of his family’s dedication to the welfare of Canada’s native population.

Slowly but surely, the shaky foundations of the six-volume 2015 final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) charged with describing the history, operation, and legacy of Canadian Indian Residential Schools, are being undermined by one revelation after another, and also by the absence of proof for the extreme claims made by advocates for Canada’s indigenous peoples.(See https://historyreclaimed.co.uk/jawbones-gophers-and-tainted-milk-what-do-we-really-know-about-missing-children-at-canadas-residential-schools/ )

The mandate of the TRC was to ‘reveal to Canadians the complex truth about the history and the ongoing legacy of the church-run residential schools, in a manner that fully documents the individual and collective harms perpetuated against Aboriginal peoples.’

The final report’s basic principle was that current aboriginal adversities and pathologies have been directly caused by the forced attendance of children at boarding schools founded in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were so emotionally, physically, and sexually abused in these facilities that they, and everyone around them, whether family members or otherwise, will continue to be severely damaged by Indian Residential School attendance for generations to come.

The two central failings of the TRC were its blind acceptance of the unverified testimonies of self-selected indigenous witnesses as absolutely true, and its unwillingness to utilize or carefully interrogate historical material that would have painted a different picture of both the Indian Residential Schools and the root causes of indigenous adversity and pathology.

Exacerbating these two failings was the short shrift given to contrary testimonies by non-indigenous people intimately associated with life at the schools. History Reclaimed has recently published one moving testimonial from someone whose family was intimately connected with the education and welfare of indigenous children over several decades. https://historyreclaimed.co.uk/falsification-of-the-past-indigenous-canadians/

Most of the oral content of the final report was based on allegations of mental, physical, and sexual abuse from a non-random sample of 6,500 to 7,000 former students, representing some four percent of those who attended the schools between 1883 and 1996. They told their stories without cross-examination as part of the Commission’s deliberations.

Most of these witnesses attended an Indian Residential School during a period when students were enrolled mainly for reasons of social welfare, and hence were likely to have entered them having already suffered psychological damage. Nevertheless, their stories were accepted without question as truthful.

Many students were likely sent to these boarding schools to escape sexual predation at home, practices reportedly rampant on many Indian Reserves including the crime of incest. Meanwhile, despite many increasingly hysterical allegations, there is not a single proven case of an Indian Residential School student having been murdered by a staff member. Robert Tombs recently addressed this in The Spectator: https://historyreclaimed.co.uk/the-rise-of-conspiracy-history/

This is not to deny that sexual exploitation occurred in these schools. But if we accept the estimate that at least one in every five students suffered sexual abuse at the schools during their 113 years of government control and church administration, this is not out of line with the experience of the Canadian population as a whole. According to a 2018 Statistics Canada study, “Excluding incidents committed by intimate partners, 39 percent of women and 35 percent of men aged 15 years and older in Canada, or more than 11 million Canadians, reported experiencing at least one physical or sexual assault since age 15.” Of course, in the case of the residential schools, most of those assaulted would have been under the age of 15, making such assaults the more heinous, albeit less common.

The severe corporal punishment often routinely doled out at these schools also cannot be denied. However, as alien as its practice may seem by today’s standards, strapping and caning were the order of the day in most non-native parochial schools in Canada and other Commonwealth countries up to the 1960s. Corporal punishment in British state schools wasn’t made illegal until 1986.

Despite comparisons of this type, the dominant narrative that Indian Residential Schools were houses of horror marked by racism and genocide has taken root in Canadian society. Anyone challenging the supposed truths of child abuse is now called an Indian Residential School “denialist” by those eager to shut them up or even criminalize their utterances.

The Canadian Senate Standing Committee on Indigenous Peoples recently released a 30-page report entitled “Honouring the Children Who Never Came Home: Truth, Education and Reconciliation.” The study includes a recommendation “that the Government of Canada take every action necessary to combat the rise of residential school denialism.”

In addition, all former Indian Residential School students have been termed “Survivors” — a word habitually capitalized — including the thousands who would vehemently reject this term to describe their happy and productive school experience.

None of this should be taken to suggest current indigenous adversities such as chronic poverty, drug addiction, or criminal behaviour have been invented or distorted. But such hardships and pathologies are no less prevalent among those indigenous peoples in Canada with little or no boarding school experience. The legacy of the Indian Residential Schools —  “the significant educational, income, health, and social disparities between aboriginal people and other Canadians,” have been found to be no greater among those who attended Indian Residential Schools than among those who did not.

What needs to be challenged, then, is the true source of regrettable and disabling indigenous lifestyles. More particularly, were these destructive phenomena created by attendance at Indian Residential Schools, or did students enter such schools having already encountered them on their home aboriginal reserves?

The raison d’être for the boarding schools supports the latter suggestion. The schools were largely established to help vulnerable children escape hunger, violence, and other abuse on their home reserves following the colonial pacification of the indigenous people and the loss of traditional livelihood pursuits after the decimation of the bison populations on the prairies of Western Canada and the decline of income from trapping elsewhere. The schools were dedicated to teaching their students the new skills needed to succeed in a changing country: literacy, numeracy, industrial work habits, and technical skills.

Though the complete story of the boarding schools was never told by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, its 2012 interim report with the inflammatory and misguided title “They Came for the Children” admitted in a section called “It is a complicated story” that:

It would be wrong and foolish to say that no Aboriginal people benefited from the schools. Many have come forward to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to express their gratitude to the men and women who worked in the schools. Although the overall educational outcomes of the schools were limited, the system was not without its accomplishments. Human connections were made. Doors were opened, and opportunities created. People applied themselves, overcame tremendous barriers, and developed skills they were able to draw upon for the rest of their lives.

Regrettably, the Commission failed to investigate exactly how complicated this story really was. Implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement began in September 2007. Under it, even students who reported little or no school abuse were rewarded merely for their attendance: a Common Experience Payment of $1.6 billion was made to 103,203 applicants based solely on the number of years of their schooling.

A further $3.2 billion paid to 31,103 former students was based on how much abuse they said they were subjected to. None of these claimants faced the rigorous cross-examination about such accusations they would have experienced in ordinary legal proceedings dealing with similar ill-treatment.

The reversal of cause and effect in explaining the experiences of indigenous people in Canada’s Indian Residential School project has yielded large financial and other rewards in recent years, therefore. This reversal continues to be promoted by those who stand to benefit most from it.

The contention advanced by Canadian authorities that the causes of current socio-economic problems lie in the past, or outside indigenous communities and external to the lives of their residents, underpinned the TRC and has guided all subsequent policies. Canadians have thereby obscured the alternative view that the maladaptive norms and attitudes that prevail today in indigenous communities regarding such things as family life, self-reliance, personal agency, and community cohesion, are within the current competence of indigenous communities to set right for themselves. In supporting these narratives of victimhood, the Canadian governments and liberal opinion in general fail to support the real long-term interests of Canada’s indigenous population.

Hymie Rubenstein is a retired professor of anthropology, The University of Manitoba, and editor of REAL Indigenous Report.

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Hymie Rubenstein