Indigenous

'Myths' of residential schools author stands by article despite controversial radio ad, criticism

The man who wrote the commentary on which a controversial radio ad claiming to debunk the "myths" of residential schools was based says he attended one himself and he stands by his opinions.

Mark DeWolf, a Frontier Centre for Public Policy research associate, says he attended a residential school

A fellow residential school survivor comforts Lorna Standingready during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission closing ceremony at Rideau Hall in 2015. Mark DeWolf says he remains open to 'any credible evidence' that residential school enrolment harmed Indigenous families more than enrolment in other kinds of schooling, or no schooling. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The man who wrote the commentary on which a controversial radio ad claiming to debunk the "myths" of residential schools was based says he attended one himself and he stands by his opinions. 

The radio ad labelled commonly accepted narratives on the traumatic impacts of residential schools as "myths." Both the ad and the written commentary were produced by the Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy (FCPP).

Audio of the ad was removed from the FCPP's Soundcloud nine days after it was published, but a transcript summarizing it concludes with a link to a five-page article titled "Myth vs. Evidence: Your Choice," by FCPP research associate Mark DeWolf, from August 2018.

DeWolf, described in the article as a retired English teacher, writer and musician living in Halifax, told CBC News in an emailed statement that he attended St. Paul's Indian Residential School on the Kainai reserve near Cardston, Alta., for six years. He said his father was the principal and that his mother sometimes taught at the school. 

DeWolf said that while he wasn't aware his article was being made into a radio commentary, he stood by its message.

"I confess I was shaken and rather upset to see how the ads — which I knew nothing about — had been perceived by some individuals," DeWolf said in the statement. 

"But while that ad necessarily boiled things down to a few simple statements, it doesn't misrepresent the main points of what I originally wrote." 

"I remain open to any credible evidence that [residential school] enrolment harmed Indigenous families more than enrolment in a day school, enrolment in a white public school, or no education at all," DeWolf said in the statement.

15-year-old study cited

The radio ad claimed "there is little evidence that abuse that was suffered by a grandparent had any effect on the academic success of the generations that followed" and that "former students of residential schools are nearly twice as likely to have retained more of their language and traditional culture than those who did not attend an IRS institution, and are more likely to provide leadership in preserving that culture, than those who did not attend."

In a footnote for these claims, DeWolf's article cites a 2002/2003 health survey done by the First Nations Information Governance Centre (FNIGC), a non-profit research firm based in Akwesasne, Ont.  

Murray Sinclair, Chief Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation commission. DeWolf's article claims that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has 'helped spread erroneous information' about residential schools. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

DeWolf's article also suggests that media reporting on residential school survivors is largely exaggerated or incomplete and that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has spread some "erroneous" information. 

The article says that efforts "made to place the IRS system's significance in its proper context provoke outrage and attract fierce condemnation by those who suspect a racist or political motivation."

DeWolf wrote in his statement to CBC "When I used the word 'myth' in my essay, I was thinking very much of the way Canadians almost to a man (and woman) thought of German soldiers in WWI as baby-bayonetting Huns, and the way some Canadians who didn't get caught up in that thinking were shamed.

"That useful propaganda campaign may have achieved its short-term purpose (recruitment of the young men who died by the thousands in Europe), but it did not hasten good and trusting relationships between the Canadian public and the average German citizen."

​DeWolf told CBC he's trying to find "harmony" between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, and that while he may be wrong, his article was thoroughly researched for a "non-professional." 

'Misquoted and misinterpreted'

In an email statement to CBC, FNIGC's executive director Jonathan Dewar responded to DeWolf's article.

"While FNIGC encourages the use and interpretation of our data to foster a conversation about issues facing First Nations communities, in this case our data was misquoted and misinterpreted," he said.

Jonathan Dewar, executive director of First Nations Information Governance Centre, says DeWolf 'misquoted and misinterpreted' the research firm's data. (Submitted by FNIGC)

Dewar said whereas DeWolf used a report from over a decade ago, he was "ignoring" data from 2012 and 2018 that "substantiate the prevalent psychological, physical, social, and economic consequences that the Residential School System had on survivors, their families, and communities." 

Dewar points to a March 2018 report that found nearly 75 per cent of First Nations adults reported being directly or inter-generationally affected by residential schools.

Amy Bombay, an Anishinaabe assistant professor of psychiatry at Dalhousie University in Halifax, from Rainy River First Nations in Ontario, said DeWolf's article is "not considering the larger academic literature and he's really picking a few findings and not contextualizing them."

Amy Bombay, who's been researching intergenerational trauma and residential schools for the last decade, worked for the FNIGC researching and authoring articles on data from the same body of work, including a report that followed up the one cited by DeWolf. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

​Bombay, who's been researching intergenerational trauma and residential schools for the last decade, worked for the FNIGC researching and authoring articles on data from the same body of work, including a report that followed up the one cited by DeWolf.

A matter of interpretation

She questions his interpretation of the 2002/2003 finding that residential school survivors were more likely to understand a First Nations language. Bombay said residential school survivors are more at risk for things like psychological distress and substance abuse, and the data shows most have actively been seeking out cultural practice as way of healing.

"He's suggesting that they were able to retain [their culture]," she said.

"I think a lot of people lost it, and went back to it. We know that there's been such a resurgence of going back to traditional healing and traditional knowledge systems. So that's what we're seeing." 

Bombay said she agrees there's some value in pointing out that the residential school system isn't the only aspect negatively affecting Indigenous communities.

She said issues like underfunding of Indigenous-aimed education and health programs, items also examined in DeWolf's article, are evident in her area of research, but that "nothing can be learned from examining that data in isolation.

"You can't often separate residential schools from the impact of the Sixties Scoop, the impacts of ongoing child welfare and equities, it's all been [the same] process," she said.

"In that way [DeWolf] is right, but he's not right in denying that we can show that residential schools themselves had really strong effects on Indigenous Peoples in Canada."

The parent company of the radio stations that broadcast the ad stemming from DeWolf's work, Golden West Radio, told CBC News that it has suspended any activity with the FCPP until officials can review its business relationship in the future. 

Peter Holle, president of the FCPP, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nic Meloney

Videojournalist

Nic Meloney is a mixed heritage Wolastoqi 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.

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