Indian Residential Schools: Another Picture by Eric Bays is designed to introduce an alternative reading of the residential school story.
The author cites two earlier seminal works, A National Crime by historian John Milloy and Shingwauk’s Vision by historian James Miller, and acknowledges that these earlier works recognize the residential school experience cannot be told in black and white terms. Nevertheless, he persists in his project to present the “positive side” of residential schools.
The author’s counter-point is problematic in that his work and those he attempts to “refute” are not in the same genre.
The earlier volumes are peer-reviewed by recognized historians. They are works tested by the standards of critical historical scholarship. By comparison, Eric Bays’ book, published by the author himself, has undergone no peer review process of any kind. As a result, it does not adhere in any way to the standards of accepted historical discourse.
If the results of the work were not so inflammatory, one could, perhaps, more easily overlook the genealogy of the book. However, by insisting on throwing this work into the public arena as a refutation of accepted interpretation, the work must be held accountable to the standards of historical writing.
This book functions as a form of proof-texting; isolated examples of comments and events are strung together at random with the purpose of demonstrating that the schools were not all bad-a point already conceded by earlier authors. However, by placing anecdotal material in a loose arrangement as an alternative historical view, the author is conducting an exercise in revisionist history.
Orthodox Rabbi Irving Greenberg, writing about historical interpretation in light of the horror of the 20th century, wrote, “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” Such a thing might be said as we approach the question of how to tell the story of residential schools. The author notes that rumours of harm are greatly exaggerated, that only about 100,000 children were drawn into the residential school experiment (p.13). How can it be that we think that harm done to even a single child is insufficient to raise alarm about the meaning of the residential school experience, let alone 100,000? Were the lives and well-being of 100,000 of our children dispensable?
The author compares the residential school experience to Robertson Davies’ experience as a student at Upper Canada College, on of Canada’s premier educational institutions (p. 79).
Residential school deniers often make the argument that it was just like boarding school. The meticulous work of historians such as Milloy leaves us with no doubt that these schools were not elite establishments of privilege. They were chronically under-funded institutions from which the vast majority of students left (note: left, not graduated) alienated from their own cultures and illiterate in English culture, totally unprepared to face the world which met them. This of course refers to those who survived the experience. It does not take account the many, still not fully documented thousands of students who died in the schools. I wonder, what was the death rate among students at Upper Canada College in a comparable period?
The author’s inclination to re-write the story of the residential school experience is of course understandable. As a church leader, the author presided over a diocese with just such a school. Who among us wants to face the full horror of that in which we as a people have participated?
The dilemma is that the benevolent paternalism which reaches to re-write the story in such an anecdotal fashion (“the staff members I contacted were not racist”, p.135) is reminiscent of the benevolent paternalism which made these schools possible in the first place. An uncritical desire to make things right will not make it so. To insist that we weight the so-called “positive side” of the residential school experience as equal with its horror re-victimizes those already harmed and prevents the enlightenment necessary for true reconciliation.
Wendy Fletcher, PhD, is principal and dean, as well as professor of History of Christianity at Vancouver School of Theology.