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April 26, 2001 Assimilation gives way to native self-government






by Sylvain Comeau

The last residential schools closed in the 1990s, but what happened to their students is not about to go away any time soon.

“Residential schools peaked as a social phenomenon after World War II,” said former MP David MacDonald in a School of Community and Public Affairs lecture on March 28, “but this is not just something from our past. This is happening now.”

One reason is the tremendous impact of a battery of lawsuits filed against the main churches and the government by natives who were victims of abuse in residential schools.

MacDonald, an SCPA professor and advisor to the United Church on the residential schools question, held up a recent National Post article with the headline “Lawsuits for abuse could hit $10 billion.” He said that there are between 7,000 and 8,000 abuse claims, a number that may balloon to 15,000 or 20,000.

The United, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Anglican Churches are all named in the lawsuits. Churches have already paid out millions of dollars to survivors of physical or sexual abuse in the residential school system.

MacDonald feels the abuse was compounded and facilitated at the time by cover-ups and a cavalier attitude toward natives’ rights.

“The attitude at the time was that ‘It’s only natives,’ which is unacceptable today. But the knowledge of cases of abuse was suppressed back then, despite the risk involved in isolated, understaffed schools that could have attracted pedophiles.”

The abuse cases, bad as they were, are only the tip of the iceberg, he added. “There was also a kind of cultural abuse, a loss of language and culture, as people were torn from their homes and communities.”

That is largely because the schools represented a deliberate attempt at assimilation. “Residential schools were designed to convince natives to give up being natives,” MacDonald said. “The philosophy was, Give us the children, and you have the parents. Churches were willing partners in an enterprise to ‘end the Indian problem.’”

Churches chose to collaborate with the government on this enterprise for essentially the same reason that missionaries were sent to the New World 200 years ago. “Even most progressive churches still had this notion that there had to be conversion from ‘paganism’ to Christianity before natives could be fully accepted.”

The churches bailed out of the schools in the 1960s, but they began to acknowledge their culpability only recently. “In 1986, the United Church started to look back on the residential school experience. They finally admitted that they had failed to respect the value of native spirituality.”

Speakers at an SCPA panel discussion later in the day echoed some of the same sentiments.
“After the Europeans came, there was a big debate about whether natives were human and had souls,” said David Newhouse, chair of Native Studies at Trent University. “They finally decided that we did have souls, and were therefore perfectable. That meant we were convertible; we have felt the impact of those attitudes ever since.”

However, Newhouse is an optimist who points to many examples of improvement in the lives of natives in this country. While they still have to wrestle with the issue of poverty, he points out that there are now 18,000 aboriginal businesses in Canada; 20 years ago, there were 169. In addition, today there are 30,000 aboriginal students in post-secondary education. “When I started in school,” he said, “there were 160.”

The debate over aboriginal self-government has take a radical shift “Now the question is not whether we have the right to govern ourselves, but what the best way to govern ourselves is. Today we have a generation of aboriginals who have seen the benefits of self-government, and they want more.”

Chief Clifford Moar, of the Montagnais Council Lac-Saint-Jean, expressed concern that aboriginal identity is under new kinds of attack in the information age and era of globalization.

“The status of our language — and the prospects for its survival — is very scary because you have TV, the Internet and the forces of globalization. It’s like a tidal wave. We have to make sure that aboriginal students get a curriculum that inspires them to look back and keep an eye on where they come from.”

“I don’t think globalization is a new phenomenon for us,” Newhouse responded. “We`ve been dealing with the forces of globalization for hundreds of years, and we`ve survived as a culture.”