Tomson Highway's account of residential school 'not the whole story,' says brother

After they were discovered on posters found at the University of New Brunswick, Daniel Highway says his brother Tomson's words about the 'benefits' of Indian Residential Schools are being "cherry picked" by racists and they don't tell the whole story.

Daniel Highway attended same school, says any 'rare' successes came with tragic cost

A quote from Tomson Highway's 'positive' account of his time at Indian Residential Schools, was used in posters put up at the University of New Brunswick this week. Sen. Lynn Beyak posted the same quote on her senate website. (CBC)

Daniel Highway says his brother Tomson's words about the "benefits" of Indian Residential Schools are being "cherry picked" by racists and they don't tell the whole story.

Daniel Highway, 70, went to Guy Hill Residential School in The Pas, Man., four years ahead of his brother Tomson. While their experiences were similar, Highway says, they talk about them in very different ways. 

"He doesn't tell the whole story," Daniel Highway says, adding that he cannot speak to his brother's opinion on the matter.

Tomson Highway was not available for comment. 

"The positive stuff that my brother talks about would never outweigh all the abuse, the sexual abuse, of all those kids separated from their family ... all the bullying, the sexual abuse between the students."

The whole story

Tomson Highway, now an acclaimed author and playwright, recounted his experiences at Guy Hill in a 2015 article for Huffington Post. 

"You may have heard stories from 7,000 witnesses in the process that were negative," Tomson Highway says in the article.

"But what you haven't heard are the 7,000 reports that were positive stories." 

Posters discovered at UNB, quoting Cree author Tomson Highway, are the result of 'ripple effects' of Lynn Beyak's position on residential schools, says a Dakota Sioux student at the school. (Submitted by Matthew Sears)

Tomson Highway's words were quoted in posters found at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in Fredericton this week, which are being investigated by Fredericton police. 

The posters, claimed by a group calling itself the "National Socialist Canadian Labour Revival Party," refer to Tomson Highway's words as being part of a "narrative" in which "Native Americans are beneficiaries, and not victims, of the society built by Europeans." 

A report by the university's student newspaper links the group to anti-semitic and discriminatory language.

'They're using people'

Apart from the poster quoting Tomson Highway, two other versions have been discovered. Seemingly in response to the others being removed, more were found at UNB Friday morning.

"People kind of cherry-pick what [Tomson] says," Highway said.

"I think a lot of people are tired of hearing of about [residential schools], so they're trying to find ways to keep the noise down. They're using people like Tomson to try to do that. 

"If Tomson were ever to tell the whole story, things would change pretty quick." 

Daniel Highway admits there were elements of his residential school experience that he enjoyed. For instance, he says, he learned to play hockey there, and could have "been a contender" as a professional hockey player.

But, he says, the education he received was "moderate at best" and didn't prepare him for university, which stopped his hockey career short.

Daniel Highway, third from left, learned to play hockey at Guy Hill Indian Residential School, but says he has few 'positive' memories of his time there. (Submitted by Lynda Highway)

Overall, Daniel Highway says he and his brother were "lucky."

"I went to school with [children], in the same classroom, who are now living on the street. They're absolutely hooked on drugs and alcohol … and neglecting their kids. Twelve hundred kids in [Child and Family Services] care in Manitoba. That's all related to residential school. 

"Tell me again that residential schools benefited us."

Beyak's position

Senator Lynn Beyak faced harsh criticism, and was ultimately removed from the Conservative caucus, for posting and refusing to remove up to 100 letters in response to her position on residential schools. 

Beyak has referred to the schools as being "well-intentioned" and has said she was "disappointed" in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report because it "didn't focus on the good." One of the her website's posts included the 2015 article from which Tomson Highway was quoted. 

The Senator's son, Nick Beyak, a city councillor in Dryden, Ont., was admonished by a fellow councillor after he defended his mother claiming that the majority of Canadians shared her opinions.

UNB master's student Amanda Rogers says the posters are the result of a 'ripple effect' from Beyak's position on Indian Residential Schools. (Submitted by Amanda Rogers)

Daniel Highway says he's been following the Beyak controversy "very closely."

He says he's wary of the effects her opinion on residential schools may have and says, despite Beyak's acknowledgement of "the atrocities" of the schools, that "she has no place" in discussing the merit of what they stood for. 

"That's not for her to decide."

'They've spun history'

Daniel Highway's sentiment is echoed by Dakota Sioux woman Amanda Rogers, a master's student at UNB. She says the posters found at her school are "manipulative," and are tangible evidence of the "ripple effects" that Beyak's stance on residential school has caused.  

"[The posters] make value-laden judgments that were not based in fact at all," says Rogers.

"They've spun the history to promote whatever agenda they may be trying to push." 

Dryden City Council is distancing itself from Nick Beyak, according to reports. (Dryden GM website)

Rogers, whose own grandmother is a residential school survivor, is focusing her master's thesis on the intergenerational effects on the survivors and their descendants.

Rogers says she's read the "scientific, qualitative" evidence available to "outweigh" any positive reflections of the schools. She adds that the testimonials of survivors, gathered as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, are now evidential fact.

Rogers says she sees Beyak's opinion on the matter as "cherry-picking" and that by promoting it, the Senator is "stifling" Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations by "providing an avenue for continued racist opinions." She says she hopes Beyak apologizes.

"It's no longer a matter of opinion," Rogers says. 

"It was a system implemented to kill the Indian in the child. It's pretty clear."

Rogers says she thinks those "with a responsibility" to improve multicultural relations, like politicians and universities, should be doing more to educate about treaties and the histories of Indigenous peoples. 

"In my observation, racism is almost becoming a socially acceptable thing. [More] exposure to the realities of Indigenous Peoples can convince people not to espouse these racist ideologies." 

About the Author

Nic Meloney

Videojournalist

Nic Meloney is a Wolastoqew video journalist raised on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia/Mi'kma'ki. Email him at nic.meloney@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter @nicmeloney.