Residential schools were ‘a sincere attempt’

Published January 1, 2001

Dear editor,

I WAS PLEASED to read Hymie Rubenstein’s letter in the November Journal in which he points out the singular anomaly of the church’s eagerness to repeatedly apologize for the alleged sins of our forefathers, but saying little about the whole question of the chauvinism of religious claims.

One gets the impression that an evil church with malice aforethought plucked innocent children from their idyllic surroundings on reserves for the specific purpose of abusing them. Nothing could be further from the truth. I worked on Indian reserves as a physician in the 50s and found conditions far from ideal and saw the residential schools as a sincere attempt to improve the future for native children. Furthermore I saw no sign of abuse and many smiling faces, and I note that the plethora of newspaper articles never give a balanced picture and even the Journal’s supplement failed to ask the most obvious question: “What percentage of residential school pupils found the experience helpful, unhelpful, dreadful or whatever?”

I also note how often, after an initial mention of possible physical abuse a complainant proceeds to talk with obvious emotion about “cultural genocide” and “being forbidden to speak their language” etc. revealing, in my opinion, that culture clash was the real issue. But the solution was far from obvious and is not obvious today.

So far the most promising approach to native despair is proving to be measures to restore cultural pride in their own rites and religion. Clearly the disastrous results from undermining a person’s cultural background were grossly underestimated in the past and the possibilities for giving a bright future to a child by taking him from his parents and educating him were grossly optimistic.

But, in my opinion, an honest effort was being made by people who cared.

Is there a lesson for the church in all this? It seems to me that in demonizing our ancestors, we miss the essential challenge, to recognize the harmful effects (and the doubtful basis) of claims for a monopoly of the truth and the desire to convert others to our way of thinking, instead of being content to demonstrate the Love of God as revealed to us in Christ.

John Newton



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