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The Legacy of Indian Residential Schools

Author: Tanis Fiss 2006/04/23
Last week, Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Jim Prentice stated a final compensation package for Indian residential school survivors was only days away. But rather than rushing through a deal brokered by the previous government, Prentice should re-consider the "common experience payments".

Last year the previous federal government announced they signed an agreement with the Assembly of First Nations to negotiate a $1.9-billion lump sum payout to all - approximately 86,000 - living former students of Indian residential schools. The "common experience payment" of $10,000 would be paid all former students. By signing the agreement, the federal government signals that all residential schools were bad and no student ever benefited from attending them.

The idea of residential schools being systematically horrendous can be heard in the words of aboriginal leader and professor Phil Lane. In 2001, at a forum for former residential school students in Edmonton, Lane said, "We must assume that all who attended these institutions were harmed and deserve compensation in any government or church program."

But is this really the case

The federal government thought aboriginal kids, like other kids, should attend school. With that in mind, they began to develop and administer residential schools in 1874 to meet legal obligations under the Indian Act. The schools were located in every province and territory, except Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Most residential schools were closed by the mid-70s, however the last federally-run residential school closed in 1996.

Given small and scattered Indian populations, residential schools were a practical way to educate Indian children for many years. As well, educational bureaucrats wanted to emulate the best schools of the era in both Canada and Britain, and they were live-in institutions.

Listening to some media reports, one might conclude that every native Canadian attended residential school. In fact, less than one in six natives attended a residential school - or about 150,000. For example, in 1960 there were 40,637 natives enrolled in government schools across Canada. Only 9,109 were in residential schools compared with 22,049 in federal day schools and another 9,479 in regular, provincial public schools.

Although less reported, it is not uncommon to hear positive stories from former students. Rufus Goodstriker attended St. Paul's Residential School near Lethbridge in the 1940s. In a 1998 interview conducted by the Alberta Report Magazine, Mr. Goodstriker recalled, "It was good teaching for survival in society. We learned reading, writing, history, science, as well as how to operate machinery and farm chores. I really appreciated being able to learn all that."

Even aboriginal support for the system persisted long into the 20th century. When Indian Affairs wanted to close a residential school near Calgary in 1962, the Stoney Nation hired a lawyer to oppose the closure. Regrettably, more often than not, positive stories are overshadowed by claims of abuse.

Were Indian residential schools perfect Of course not. But what was the alternative Should the federal government not have provided any schooling for aboriginal children

If crimes were committed in the schools - and some were - the victims of the crimes have the same right as any other citizen to seek redress through the courts. And, so they should. But compensation to all, grounded in politics and fueled by guilt should be reconsidered by the new Minister.