Unless you've gone yourself, residential schools should remain indefensible

While there are some who can extol the "good deeds" of Canada's residential school system, a non-Indigenous senator from Ontario simply isn't one of them.

Conservative senator's attempts to defend 'good deeds' at residential schools sparks condemnation

A group of female students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Man., in a February 1940 archive photo. The discovery of potentially hundreds of unmarked graves near former residential schools has prompted calls for the release of records. (Library and Archives Canada)

While there are some who can extol the "good deeds" of Canada's residential school system, a non-Indigenous senator from Ontario ​is finding out just how problematic that stand can be.

The recent attempts by Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak to paint the residential school system as "well-intentioned" have so far garnered only widespread condemnation and calls for her to resign.

"Mistakes were made at residential schools — in many instances, horrible mistakes that overshadowed some good things that also happened at those schools," Beyak said.

Not getting the message

It is perhaps not surprising that someone could hold these views, in a country where less than a year after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its mammoth final report, fewer than five percent of Canadians could remember any of its calls to action.

"It tells us that not everyone has gotten the message," Ry Moran, director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, told CBC's Power and Politics.

"We know now that this system was extremely harmful from its inception to its final wind-down, so there is no room in society for this."

So what excuse is there for someone in such a position of power? 

Especially a member of the Conservative party, whose government actually apologized in 2008 for the country's role in the administering the schools, where thousands of Indigenous children were physically and sexually abused and an estimated 6,000 died from disease and malnutrition.

'I learned some fine things at the school'

Certainly, there are those who look back on their time in the schools fondly. 

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its mammoth final report in 2015, it included a small section which details some of those positive stories.

"I learned some fine things at the school," Monique Papatie said in that section, "Warm memories," crediting her residential school experience with setting her on the path to becoming a teacher.

"That's why this morning you see me walking with a book, I'm still that way today, I'm still an educator."

In 2015, acclaimed Cree author and playwright Tomson Highway also spoke of "the joy" during his time attending the Guy Hill Indian Residential School in The Pas, Man.

Acclaimed Cree author, playwright Tomson Highway said he remembers 'the joy' of being in residential school for 12 years.
"Nine of the happiest years of my life I spent it at that school," he told the Huffington Post. "I learned your language, for God's sake. Have you learned my language? No, so who's the privileged one and who is underprivileged?"

While Highway's example shows that there are indeed success stories — he was a classically trained pianist by age 18 — it's important to remember they succeeded in spite of what the residential schools system did to so many others; the loss of language, culture and legacy of abuse that still haunts Indigenous communities across the country.

But many survivors have been emphatic on one point: it is their right — and their right alone — to find any good in it.


Tim Fontaine is a Winnipeg-based writer who has worked for APTN National News and CBC Indigenous. You can follow him on Twitter: @anishinaboy.