Faced with the evidence of thousands of Aboriginals suing the churches and federal government, some people have asked, was the Indian residential school system really all bad? Were there no redeeming features? Didn’t some Aboriginals graduate and go on to lead good, productive lives?
Even among Natives, there is debate over the legacy of the schools and the appropriate response today.
In Prof. Roland Chrisjohn’s view, residential schools were an instrument of genocide, as defined under the United Nations Genocide Convention, and the policy of eliminating aboriginal identity continues unabated, despite the closing of the schools.
Taking children from one group and putting them under the control of another group is an act of genocide, Prof. Chrisjohn, a 52-year-old Oneida, said in an interview from the University of St. Thomas in Fredericton, where he heads the Native Studies department.
“Even if they were taking children away from their parents, putting them in feather beds and giving them turkey suppers three times a day, that didn’t make it less a genocide.”
Married to an Anglican, he is not impressed with the churches’ and federal government’s actions.
“As far as I can see, the churches have reacted the way Ford did around the Pinto or Dow Corning did around the breast implant difficulties,” he said. “They moved to limit their liability and they spent a great deal of time fighting ?
“The church and the government want to put a spin on it that (only) some people were abused in the residential schools and they may have a case of some sort. The problem is that genocide affects everybody, whether or not you were exposed.”
For Dorothy Bonspille Cunningham, a 72-year-old Mohawk from Kanesatake, Que., the residential school experience did great damage to her family but she also believes she received a reasonable education under some caring staff. An Anglican, she has no intention of suing and is heartsick at the possibility of bankruptcy for the national church.
“I’m not a vindictive person,” she said. “I don’t think you can make people in the church today pay for the wrongdoings perpetrated by people who worked in the church then.”
Prof. Chrisjohn said his father was determined his children would not have to suffer through residential school as he had, so he moved the family around the country to ensure they would never be taken away to school.
He doesn’t believe Natives will find justice through the courts. Nor does he support the idea of alternative dispute resolution, calling it a sham that trivializes the issue. Natives want justice, not resolution of a so-called dispute, he said.
The churches and government have pathologized the victims, he added, by suggesting they need psychological treatment to recover from the experience. “You might make a person feel better for having done that but have you made any step towards a reconstruction of a First Nations way of life?”
Some Natives suing the churches and government agree with Prof. Chrisjohn’s analysis as outlined in his book The Circle Game, co-authored with Sherri L. Young.
Gilbert Oskaboose, in his late 50s, is part of a four-year old lawsuit against the government and the Jesuits over a school in northern Ontario.
“First we get used and abused by white professionals – a perverted clergy,” the Ojibway man writes on his Web site. “Then we have to spend years in therapy with other white professionals – high priced shrinks and therapists. Then we have to have our lives and pain validated by yet more white professionals – old ex-judges hired to determine if we are lying or not. Then we have to leave ourselves in the hands of white lawyers who can only work with legal precedents that have been set by white judges already.”
Talk of healing is ridiculous, he believes. “We will never heal or recover from this experience. The best we can ever do is survive.”
But many Natives oppose the lawsuit route. Jody Porter is the editor of Wawatay News in Sioux Lookout, Ont. The Natives she has interviewed are split on whether to join an alternative dispute resolution pilot project involving a former Roman Catholic Oblates school there or a class-action lawsuit, she said.
Ms. Cunningham, now of Bath, Ont., has no qualms about shunning the lawsuit route, although she had both positive and negative experiences in residential school. Her three elder sisters were sent to Shingwauk Indian Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., hundreds of kilometres from their home in Kanesatake. They left at the ages of nine, six and four. “They spent a grieving, miserable childhood, believing that their parents gave them away,” she said.
She and her younger brother went to Shingwauk in the early 1940s to go to high school, after attending elementary school on the reserve. There were no high schools in Quebec for Native children. She lived at Shingwauk for six years, never once seeing her parents.
She remembers her first job in the laundry where she would start work at 6:30 a.m., scrubbing the boys’ socks, which they wore for seven days between baths. Ms. Cunningham also recalls the poor food and the complete absence of any books or toys.
But she blames lack of government money for the austere way the school was run and ignorance among the teachers of how to raise children of another culture. Receiving no affection or nurturing as a girl, Ms. Cunningham raised her sons with the same strict discipline.
By the time she graduated she was alienated from her parents and so ashamed of her Indian roots that for years she was embarrassed to admit that she was a Mohawk who had attended a residential school.
But she also remembers a kind principal whose children she remains in contact with until this day. And she believes she got a good education at Shingwauk, which helped her take further training and go on to a career in banking and administration.
Today, Ms. Cunningham is an active member of the Children of Shingwauk Alumni. Shortly after the residential school closed in 1970, Algoma University College moved in to the building. A non-Native professor there, Don Jackson, instigated the first reunion in 1981 of Shingwauk alumni.
The group is now working on changing the name and adjusting the mandate of the school to Shingwauk University to be a place of learning for both Natives and non-Natives. A research, heritage and resource centre is part of the plan.
“My healing will come out of seeing us achieve this whole movement, to have the reality of Shingwauk University,” Ms. Cunningham said. “I feel we will be leaving something for our children. It will not leave a sad legacy. It will leave a happy ending.”
Prof. Jackson has worked closely with the Shingwauk alumni. They don’t want lawyers driving the process but wish to choose their own way of addressing what they went through, he said.
“It’s not that they want to forget. The question is what is the best way of remembering.”