New “Indian Residential School Records” Website Is Born

1619 Project Canada Corrective History Indian Residential Schools

By Hymie Rubenstein 


ANYONE INTERESTED IN the history and operation of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools (IRS) needs to consult the new carefully organized and meticulously documented WordPress website called Indian Residential School Records. It is now freely available for both casual observers and professional researchers to peruse, learn from, and cite.

The website augments, even replaces, much of the haphazardly organized, incomplete, and biased material found on the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) site based on the deliberations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) charged with reporting on the history, operation, and legacy of Canada’s indigenous boarding schools.

The Final Summary Report of the TRC released with much anticipation on December 15, 2015 was heavy on anti-government rhetoric and light on the effects of its half-hearted applications. The result was a study replete with half-truths, innuendo, exaggerations, and selective reporting about the mission and workings of the schools.

The most incendiary and least credible of these was the assertion by the Commission’s chair, Murray Sinclair, that the 150,000 children who attended these mainly Church-run schools between 1849 and 1996 were considered “sub-human,” a claim belied by their very raison-d’être: to give aboriginal children the chance to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to fully benefit from membership in the new country of Canada.

Was this an ethnocentric goal? Absolutely. So was the goal of educating the children of the millions of disadvantaged immigrants who came from all over the world during the same period, resulting in the same ordinary enculturation, spuriously vilified as “cultural genocide,” that has occurred around the world since the origin of human beings.

If the goal was physical genocide — as a unanimous 2022 declaration from the Canadian House of Commons suggests — the results do not show it: not one authenticated murder of a child at any IRS has ever been reported. Moreover, aboriginal peoples in Canada now number over 1.5 million or nearly five per cent of the national population, a three-fold increase since first contact. 

Some genocide.


IT IS ALSO important to qualify and contextualize the harsh treatment said to have taken place at these boarding schools in other ways as well. Up to the late 1960s, it was quite common for children and adolescents of various ethnicities to be sent to languish in large institutions — general hospitals, sanatoria, orphanages, reform schools, homes for unwed mothers, mental institutions, and boarding schools for long periods of time and to be treated in ways that seem inhumane by today’s standards. For youngsters in these institutions, the experience of living with many other children, conforming to the supervision of adult strangers, and being away from their families for long periods was very traumatic.

The report has estimated that perhaps 6,000 students died while attending residential schools. This figure is meaningless unless compared to the rates and causes of mortality during the same period among children of whatever ethnicity who attended public schools, most of whom rarely died on school property because they were sent home or to a nearby hospital when they became ill. Because residential schools were often very far from any urban hospital, many would have died in the school’s infirmary before they could be transferred elsewhere for better treatment.

When we call all aboriginal children educated in residential schools “Survivors,” a term always capitalized, this erroneously implies that they are equivalent to Holocaust survivors. This libel against the millions of Jewish and other victims of the Nazis also denigrates the sacrifices made by the many caring Christian teachers, religious leaders, and other school personnel who devoted years of service trying to enhance the life chances of their young charges, thousands of whom have benefited from their residential school experience to become productive and influential figures in Canadian society and role models for their people.

That few of these successful “survivors” chose to give testimony before Judge Sinclair should come as no surprise.

The mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to “reveal to Canadians the complex truth about the history and the ongoing legacy of the church-run residential schools, in a manner that fully documents the individual and collective harms perpetuated against Aboriginal peoples.

By non-Enlightenment indigenous cultural standards of evidence gathering and truth telling, perhaps it did. By contemporary Western juridical and objective social science standards, however, the report is badly flawed, notably in its indifference to robust evidence gathering, comparative or contextual data, and cause-effect relationships. The result is that it tells a skewed and partial story of what occurred at the residential schools and how this affected its students.

Among the summary report’s many shortcomings are: implying without evidence that most of the children who attended the schools were grievously damaged by the experience; asserting as self-evident that the legacy of the residential schools consists of a host of negative post-traumatic consequences transmitted like some genetic disorder from one generation to the next; conflating so-called “Survivors” (always applied to every former student regardless of their experience) with the over 70% of aboriginals who never attended these schools, thereby exaggerating the cumulative harm they caused; ignoring the residential school studies done by generations of competent and compassionate anthropologists; arguing that “cultural genocide” was fostered by these schools while claiming that aboriginal cultures are alive and well; refusing to cast a wide net to capture the school experience of a random sample of attendees, despite a $72 million budget, which would have allowed the commission to do so; accepting at face value the stories of a self-selected group of some 7,000 former students — who appeared before the commission without cross-examination, corroboration or substantiation — as representing the overall school experience of its 150,000 students.

The report also disingenuously implies that unlike all other people on Earth, indigenous Canadians never prevaricate, exaggerate or accept money for testifying at formal hearings, as occurred under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which awarded $4.6 billion to tens of thousands of self-proclaimed “Survivors.” The report’s reconciliation recommendations ask for billions more.

In its eagerness to portray the native residential schools in the worst possible light and present aboriginals as weak and helpless victims of fate, perhaps the most egregious shortcoming of the Report is the way it defames the tens of thousands of strong, independent, and resilient aboriginal Canadians who would look at its findings and never see themselves.



Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners.

 

From an aboriginal story-telling perspective, the report is truly heartbreaking; from a traditional dispassionate social science perspective, it is bad research. This discordance is called a clash of paradigms which, if not bridged, will never lead to reconciliation. 

 

MANY OF THESE shortcomings were carefully documented by Rodney Clifton and Mark DeWolf in their 2021 edited collection of original articles titled From Truth Comes Reconciliation [reviewed by Barry Kirkham, KC, in The Dorchester Review Autumn-Winter 2022, Vol. 12, No. 2 print edition]. Both authors had first-hand experience with the IRSs while they were still operating and reported on their experiences in meticulous detail in two of the books’ essays.

 

This has now been supplemented, perhaps even supplanted, by the Dec. 19 launching of a groundbreaking online WordPress archive by meticulous independent researcher Nina Green called the Indian Residential School Records.

With this new research tool, Green has created a place where her prolific archival research on many carefully hidden aspects of the IRS system is freely available for public consumption. This is a major development for researchers seeking accurate information about the IRS system during the time operated, not decades late, as are the testimonies of all the “survivors” in the TRC Report.

The most important feature of the website is that it contains a mountain of original historical material collected while the boarding schools were still in active operation, not decades later.

As Green wrote in her introduction to the Indian Residential School Records:


“Have you ever wondered why the story of residential schools has been told only by those who attended during the system’s final years? Do no documents survive from the more than a century of the residential school system’s existence to add to that limited perspective? Yes, thousands of documents do survive. They tell a fascinating story.” — Nina Green


Many of these primary documents going back to the origin of these boarding schools were either never consulted or brushed aside by the TRC.   

The site contains numerous files, technically called pages, some dedicated to administrative records such as school applications, students, medical and death records, student reunions, and student activities. There is a separate page devoted to the controversial Kamloops IRS that is not only richly detailed and comprehensive but fundamentally contradicts the established but groundless narrative that this boarding school was a horror house of adversity and abuse.

The Roman Catholic Sisters who lovingly taught and nurtured the indigenous children at residential schools kept detailed records of daily events which were periodically forwarded to the mother houses of their religious orders.

Similar records, called codices, were kept by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate at their missions across Canada, many of which had residential schools.

Most of these chronicles were sent to the TRC years ago in response to its requests for records from religious orders across Canada, but the NCTR, the lavishly funded body that is continuing the work of the TRC, has not digitized them for its archives, and they are thus not available to the general public.

Fortunately, the chronicles of the Sisters of Providence at Cluny, Alberta, the Sisters of Charity (Grey Nuns) at Cardston, and the Sisters of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin at Delmas, Hobbema, and Onion Lake, and the codices of the Oblates at these missions were deposited by the Oblates at the Provincial Archives of Alberta where extensive excerpts were recently transcribed and translated by Eloi DeGrace and are now available by clicking on the links on Green’s site.

The staff chronicles of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Evron Mission St-Raphael - La Goff, Alberta, for example, contains entries like the following ones:


“June 4, 1916 -- The next day, Sunday, June 4, all the Indians came to attend High Mass; the church was full. All sang at the services; they pronounced Latin quite well, recited the Rosary in Montagnais; the hymns were also mostly in that language.”


Montagnais was the Indigenous language spoken by most residential students at La Goff. This is just one of many instances that demonstrate that a blanket prohibition on indigenous languages across the IRS system is simply not true. 


“July 30, 1916 - pages 13-14 On July 30, the school was closed; typhoid fever had already claimed 10 victims among the children. The Sisters, during the whole time that the epidemic lasted, made numerous visits to the sick scattered on the reserve. Their rounds were sometimes quite long. It was during these excursions that they got to know the faith, the good spirit, the confidence in the priest or the Sisters of their dear Montagnais, their sensitivity to signs of affection and devotion. But also, they were more than once able to observe the uncleanliness, the disorder of their grown-up children of the woods, their carelessness and little care for their sick. The little authority that the parents exercise over their children in general.”


Repeatedly, the pages reveal that IRS students were permitted, even encouraged, to speak their native languages.

The many detailed accounts of those who ran the residential schools were not deemed important enough to be documented in the TRC Report or in the reports now being produced by the NCTR.


On the “student activities” page, there is historical information that totally debunks the IRS genocide narrative. We are told of many field trips of former IRS students, like those in a dance troupe that traveled to Mexico City to compete in 1964 or of groups of IRS students who attended  Expo 67 in Montreal:


“Students from several schools, including Kuper Island and Marieval, travelled to Expo ’67.

Many schools had bands and choirs, and some offered individual music lessons. A number of radio programs were recorded featuring the children singing in both English and Cree.

“In the early years, schools bought radios and phonographs for the students’ entertainment during the long winter evenings. In later years there were games, movie nights, dances and parties.”

 

One page is dedicated to “School Reunions,” including the one held in 1977 to commemorate the now notorious IRS at Kamloops, British Columbia.



School Reunion newspaper clipping from 1977.


Over 280 former students and staff attended the reunion from towns and cities all across British Columbia. Among them were Canada’s first status Indian Member of Parliament and former Kamloops Indian Residential School student, the Hon. Len Marchand; the Reverend Adam Exner, Bishop of Kamloops; Kamloops physician Dr. Ivan Smillie; Chief Victor Adolph of the Fountain Band and Chief Harvey McLeod of the Upper Nicola Band.

Many former staff also attended — former Oblate principals Bishop Fergus O’Grady, Father Gerald Dunlop, Father Allan Noonan, and indigenous administrators Nathan Matthew and Ken Manuel; several members of the Sisters of St. Ann, and other former teachers and staff members, both indigenous and non-indigenous, including indigenous teacher Benjamin Paul, Arnold Poelzer, and Brother Murphy.

According to the Merritt Herald, the reunion was held at the school on the weekend of May 21 and 22.  

Events included Indian dancing with Ernie Philip; slides of the “good old school days” presented by Father Noonan “where many of the students will recognize themselves”; more slides presented by former Indigenous teacher Benny Paul; “Bone Games” and a salmon barbecue and dance.




Signature of the Hon. Len Marchand of Kamloops in the reunion guest book

 

The guest book, filled with more than 280 signatures, was prefaced it with this inscription:


This simple booklet will contain the names of people who chose to come together out of sentiment to meet with each other, to reminisce, and perhaps to mark the near-end of an institution which represented a significant historical era in the lives of Native Indian People….


Today, the Kamloops IRS is seen as a place where 215 children were tossed into a mass grave after being murdered by its priests and nuns. 

How credible is that?

The enormous body of historical evidence in Green’s website also reveals no evidence of any missing, neglected, or murdered children. More particularly, it fundamentally contradicts the currently fashionable but totally false genocide trope: how is it possible that an educational system freely embraced by most indigenous people could be called genocidal when it offered field trips, phonographs, dance troupes, sports clubs, native languages and customs, ice rinks, swimming pools, all exclusively for its students?

Much of the TRC material is based on interpretations and recollection gathered decades after the last schools closed from a highly selective cohort of former students with an axe to grind or pockets to line.

Which is more credible?


Dr. Hymie Rubenstein is a retired professor of anthropology, University of Manitoba, and editor of The REAL Indigenous Issues Newsletter.


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  • WILLIAM WILHELM on

    Many thanks to Nina Green for all the work and effort in producing this remarkable web site and to Dr. Hymie Rubenstein for keeping us all so well informed on updates regarding this troubling national hoax.
    It sadly appears that the loss of common sense we so acutely suffer from today, may be collateral damage from the recent COVID pandemic. If so, it may be a blessing in disguise for there are those that say, “common sense is not a gift, its a punishment because you have to deal with every one who doesn’t have it”..UNKNOWN.


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