Last month, Senator Lynn Beyak harshly criticized the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on the impacts of the residential schools on Indigenous people in Canada. Senator Beyak said that the benevolent intentions, good deeds and positive stories were unacknowledged by the TRC’s findings.
Having actually started reading the TRC’s reports, I found that Senator Beyak’s claims are nonsense. The summary of the TRC’s findings, Honouring The Truth, Reconciling For The Future, acknowledged the positive motivations of some teachers, as well as the impressive skills and background some of those teachers brought to the schools. Honouring The Truth also acknowledged the role sports and physical education played in helping many students.
But Senator Beyak is the one presenting a distorted picture of the residential schools, not the TRC. As Honouring The Truth shows, the federal government chronically underfunded the schools and expected them to be self-sustaining. As a result, students often spent more time doing grunt work to keep the schools running, rather than actually getting any studying done. The schools often lacked proper heating and plumbing. It was very difficult to recruit qualified teachers, leading to a lot of incompetence and turnover among the staff. This is shown not just in the testimony of former students, but in the federal government’s own archival materials and the writings and requests of school administrators. These administrators themselves would write about the hassles they had in trying to run the schools.
Why would the school administrators and federal bureaucrats lie about these issues?
Besides distorting the facts about residential schools, Senator Beyak also neglects to mention the sheer amount of government coercion involved in the residential school system. When children ran away from the schools and parents refused to enroll them, citing the schools’ serious problems, the federal government would forcibly drag kids off to the schools, ignoring parents’ requests for day schools or input into the running of the schools. Government agents would go even farther, trying to force students to stay at the schools after they were old enough to leave, or even trying to control who they would marry.
One of the core principles of modern conservatism is an opposition to excessive state control of people’s lives. Bizarrely, this doesn’t seem to bother Senator Beyak, a member of the Conservative caucus.
Finally, Senator Beyak doesn’t mention the insidious reasoning behind the residential schools. Honouring The Truth is full of quotes from politicians and government officials depicting Indigenous people as savages who were too stupid to live in the modern world without being properly taught how to live. The residential schools were the ways in which Indigenous children, taken from their homes and families, would be properly “educated”. In practice, this meant that Indigenous children were taught to be ashamed of their cultures and who they were.
In short, Honouring The Truth shows how Indigenous residential school students were deprived many of the things we take for granted in schools today.
Funny how Senator Beyak doesn’t mention that.
Jared Milne is a St. Albert resident with a passion for Canadian history and politics.