When name-calling substitutes for facts
By Rodney A. Clifton
MANITOBA'S FORMER Progressive Conservative Justice Minister, James C. McCrae, has been slandered as “a residential school denier” because he holds dissenting views that contradict the accepted narrative on Indian Residential Schools, at least according to Tom Brodbeck, an editorial writer for the Winnipeg Free Press (“No room for residential school denial in government,” May 27, 2023, A2).
I am a colleague of Jim McCrae, and I also publish policy articles with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, an institution that Brodbeck calls “a right-wing ‘think tank’ that promotes writing critical of Canada’s reconciliation efforts with indigenous people.”
Unlike Brodbeck, I have had personal experience in a couple of Indian Residential Schools, so let me tell you about my life in two Anglican schools/hostels.
In the spring of 1966, I was an education student at the University of Alberta (U of A), and I had joined a new program called “Cross-Cultural Education,” for which a summer internship was required. I was assigned to the Blackfoot Reserve (Siksika First Nation), 100 kms east of Calgary. I arrived at the Agency office at the beginning of May, and I was assigned a room in the teachers’ wing of Old Sun, the Anglican Residential School, named after the famous Siksika chief who signed Treaty 7. Old Sun was my home base for the next 4 months.
My job was to be a “go-for-it" at the Agency office so that I would learn about Indigenous culture, language, and people. My personal aim, of course, was to finish my education degree and find a teaching position on a First Nation or a Metis colony.
During that summer, I helped in the office, greeting people when they came for services, answering the telephone, and helping farmers and ranchers brand calves and bale hay. I also met a young Siksika woman, Elaine Ayoungman, who was working for Rev. Brown, the Anglican priest for both the school and the parish, while she was finishing her high school program at the public school in Strathmore. We started dating, taking part in BBQs with her large extended family, riding horses, taking children to the circus in Calgary, going to the Calgary Stampede, helping set up teepees for the Sun Dance, and going to movies. Two years later, we were married and have been together for almost 55 years.
Let me also note that Elaine had been a student in Old Sun Indian Residential School for 10 years. When we were young and people asked if she attended a residential school, she would reply “No, I went to a private Anglican school.” Her parents attended Old Sun for eight years, and one of her grandparents was a student there too.
Indian Affairs was slow in paying the stipend they promised me for the internship. (I eventually got the money, but not till October.) The young men who would soon become my brothers-in-law, teased me that I was learning why the Siksika were not keen on Indian Affairs: “The ‘Nabigowan’ (White people, including me) in the Office are fair, but terribly slow in getting things done.” Their words included the notion, not directly said of course, that the Blackfoot work on “Indian time,” which is also terribly slow. That was a typical Siksika joke that young Blackfoot, particularly men, used to tease each other. When I got the hang of the self-deprecating mocks, I could tease them as they had teased me, all of us laughing at the one-up-manship. Occasionally, they would include Siksika words, so I continued learning the Blackfoot language as well.
Even so, towards the beginning of August I still did not have the money I needed to return to the U of A. So, I applied for a position as Senior Boys’ Supervisor in Stringer Hall in Inuvik, NWT, which was the Anglican residence for Sir Alexander Mackenzie School. Children came from remote locations across the north, and they boarded at either the Anglican hostel (Stringer Hall) or the Roman Catholic hostel (Grollier Hall). Parents sent their children to one of these hostels because of their religious affiliation. Some students who were expected to arrive never showed up at the residences because they were needed at home or on the traplines.
At that time, it was impossible to find the children if their parents did not want them to be found. Families travelled by dog sled during the winter, and they could easily disappear on the tundra or in the bush along the rivers. Of course, the Indigenous people themselves would know where they were, but government authorities would be unable to find them. For this reason, the RCMP did not try to find these children and force them to attend school.
I spent the 1966-67 school year as a Residential School Supervisor, looking after 85 students between the ages of 12 and 22 in three dorm rooms. During the year, I kept detailed notes, records, and photos of the children, parents, staff, and administrators in the hostel. Fortunately, John and Irma Honigmann, two cultural anthropologists from North Carolina, were in Inuvik studying the integration of Eskimo (Inuit) into the community. I worked with them in examining the integration of the Inuit, Dene, Metis, and White students into the hostel and school. A few years later, they published Arctic Townsmen: Ethnic Backgrounds and Modernization (Ottawa, ON: Canadian Research Centre for Anthropology, Saint Paul University, 1970).
With this background information, which just touches on a few of the interesting and positive things that happened during that year, let me respond to the criticisms made by Tom Brodbeck.
Brodbeck claims that “the schools were not schools, but instruments of the state and church to eradicate Indigenous culture, language and way of life.”
If people read Appendix 1.1 and 1.2 in volume 4 of the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) Report, they will see the names of the schools and hostels. Approximately 35 percent of the 159 institutions had, at one time or another, Indigenous names. Surprisingly, more schools and hostels had Indigenous names than had saints’ names. Why would the churches call these institutions by Indigenous names if they were trying to “eradicate Indigenous culture, language and way of life” as Brodbeck claims?
The first Church of England priest on the Siksika First Nation, Rev. J.W. Tims, published a Grammar and Dictionary of the Blackfoot Language in 1889, a mere 12 years after the signing of Treaty 7. When I lived in Old Sun, the children spoke Blackfoot in the playrooms and on the playground. They also spoke Blackfoot when their parents came to pick them up to take them home for the weekends. The students also went to Indian Days and dance competitions during school holidays.
In Stringer Hall, there were two young Inuit women supervising the junior boys and girls and they spoke Inuktitut to the children when ever needed. At the beginning of the school year, the grade 1 Inuit students spoke little English, but within a couple of months, they were able to communicate in English with the non-Inuktitut-speaking students (Dene, Metis, and White students) and with hostel employees. In both Old Sun and Stringer Hall, about half of the employees were Indigenous, and they often spoke to each other and with the children in their mother tongues.
As with modern immersion language programs, the intent was to help children develop their language proficiency by speaking English as much as possible. As a results, all employees, including me, encouraged students to speak English, but I never saw any students being punished for speaking their mother tongue.
However, I often saw a couple of junior girls walking down the hall speaking Inuktitut. I would point my finger at them in a playful scolding, and they would giggle, their black eyes dancing with excitement, hold tight to each other’s arms, turn around and walk the opposite direction continuing to talk in Inuktitut. After a couple of steps, they would often look back at me with big grins on their faces. No disrespect was intended; this was a “cat and mouse” game that they loved as much as I did.
On Saturday afternoons I had two hours off from my supervisory duties, and a gaggle of junior boys and girls would often come to get me and our nursing sister, Ms. Mallock, to take us for walks either up the hill to slide down on carboard or out on the frozen Mackenzie River. On these walks, the children would teach me Inuktitut expressions. The words they taught me were those that no adult was supposed to say, and related to how unclean a person was. After they taught me these words, every time the children came to see me, they would say “Say it Mr. Clifton. Say it!” The children would stand around waiting in anticipation, and I would say the expression, and the children would practically fall over laughing because of my poor pronunciation and because of the naughty words I was saying. By Christmas, the Inuit children could all communicate in English, and all I could say in Inuktitut was a few naughty words.
In Stringer Hall, there were murals painted on the walls of the dining room, stairwells, and dorms. These murals were of Inuit people, dog teams, seal hunts, and caribou. Most interesting, in the chapel, there was a large mural of Jesus and his disciples feeding the multitude. All the people in the mural, including Christ, were depicted as Inuit.
At that time, the Inuit used specific facial expressions to show agreement or disagreement with a speaker. All the hostel employees, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, used these facial expressions no matter the language they were speaking. No one thought that this was strange just like no one though that Indigenous students wearing jeans and western shirts or speaking English was strange.
Jim McCrae suggested that residential schools were “designed to provide Indigenous children with an education to prepare them for the modern world.” I agree with Jim McCrae as you can tell from the episodes recounted above. Tom Brodbeck, however, rejects this claim with an unflattering condemnation of “residential school deniers continuing to peddle falsehoods about them.”
It seems clear to me that Brodbeck has not read John and Irma Honigmann’s careful study reporting considerable evidence in support of McCrae’s view. At least in Inuvik, Sir Alexander Mackenzie School was preparing students for the modern world. According to my wife, Old Sun was doing the same. Her grade 4 teacher, Miss King, drilled the Siksika students in English spelling and usage every week. For over 20 years, Elaine and I played thousands of games of scrabble, and she won over 60 percent of the games. Miss King would have been immensely proud of Elaine’s English ability.
"Indigenous languages and cultures were not being eradicated. In fact, they were being supported and encouraged, at least during the time I was there."
A related point comes from about 30 years ago when my parents-in-law attended the Anglican Church apology. They flew to Winnipeg from Calgary and were bussed to Kenora. Elaine and I went out to attend the conference for one day, and there were Indigenous Anglicans from across Canada, who, not surprisingly, communicated in English, which was their common language.
On the drive back to Winnipeg, my mother-in-law, Nora, asked rhetorically “why were people crying over spilt milk?” She was wondering about the sadness she heard from the other Anglicans who were complaining about their experiences in residential schools. So, I asked her “What did you learn in Old Sun?” Without missing a beat, she replied “I’m talking to you, aren’t I?” It was true, she learned to speak, read, and write in English because she had gone to school. That learning helped her manage her family and farm/ranch responsibilities, and her residential school education in Old Sun helped her become a productive member of Canadian society.
Can we say that my experiences in Old Sun and Stringer Hall are true of all 159 schools and hostels that existed from 1883 when the Federal government began paying for the students’ education, to 1996 when the last one closed for good?
No, we cannot.
But we can say that in these two schools, Indigenous languages and cultures were not being eradicated. In fact, they were being supported and encouraged, at least during the time I was there.
We can also say that the claims Jim McCrae made in his published articles are consistent with my experience which should at least open the minds of some Canadians that there were considerable differences between schools/hostels, and what was true for some was not necessarily true for all.
Unfortunately, if readers agree with this argument and evidence, they are likely to be called “deniers” like Jim McCrae and me. Nevertheless, newspapers, especially editorial writers, need to engage in a more rigorous analyses of the claims and counterclaims that are being made about Indian Residential Schools. Without doing this intellectually demanding work, they are not serving the needs of their readers or the taxpayers who financially support their publications. For these reasons, they must do much more than make ad hominem attacks on honourable people like Jim McCrae and independent-minded think tanks like the Frontier Centre.
Rodney A. Clifton is a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. His most recent book, with Mark DeWolf, is From Truth Comes Reconciliation: An Assessment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report (Winnipeg, Frontier Centre for Public Policy, 2021), available from the Frontier Centre or on Amazon.