Senator Lynn Beyak is in trouble in the press and with her colleagues for rising in the Senate chamber and saying recently:
“I speak partly for the record, but mostly in memory of the kindly and well-intentioned men and women and their descendants — perhaps some of us here in this chamber — whose remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part.”
As a result, she has been asked to step down from the Aboriginal Affairs Committee. Her comments, Lillian Dyck, chair of that committee says, were “ill-informed and insensitive.”
“While I respect the right of all senators to express their own opinions, I am concerned that Senator Beyak's comments may have tarnished the good reputation of the [committee] and that her opinions may negatively impact the future work,” Dyck said in a statement.
“Aboriginal people must be able to feel that they can trust the members of the committee and that we respect them.”
This reaction is revolting, and tarnishes Canada’s reputation in a way the residential schools did not.
The majority of those who worked in the residential schools are not just guiltless, but unusually admirable people. They tended to be motivated by compassion and idealism—rather like the folks who volunteer for Habitat for Humanity today. They accepted a life of isolation, often of hardship, in order to help the native people.
And now they are reviled for it, and anyone even speaking in their behalf is reviled for it.
“In the 1960s, when I lived and worked in residential schools,” recalls one former staffer, “it was the evangelistic calling for committed Christians similar to rebuilding houses following disasters in South America. Most residential school employees worked for very little pay, less recognition, and many sleepless nights.”
Consider the hardships the first missionaries encountered to bring knowledge to the various First Nations groups. One might have heard of the slow torture of Jean de Brebeuf or Isaac Jogues? But even more recently,
“There are no more arduous mission fields in the world,” writes William Withrow in 1895, “than those among the native tribes of the great North-West.”
The devoted servant of the Cross goes forth to a region beyond the pale of civilization. He often suffers privation of the very necessaries of life. He is exposed to the rigour of an almost Arctic winter. He is cut off from human sympathy or congenial companionship. Communication with the great world is often maintained by infrequent and irregular mails, conveyed by long and tortuous canoe routes in summer or on dog-sleds in winter. The unvarnished tales of some of these missionaries lack no feature of heroic daring and apostolic zeal. But recently one, with his newly-wedded wife, a lady of much culture and refinement, travelled hundreds of miles by lake and river, often making toilsome portages, once in danger of their lives by the upsetting of their birch-bark canoe in an arrowy rapid. In midwinter the same intrepid missionary made a journey of several hundred miles in a dog-sled, sleeping in the snow with the thermometer forty, and even fifty, degrees below zero, in order to open a new mission among a pagan tribe.”
“With the conveniences which civilization has placed at the disposal of the modern wayfarer,” writes Adrien Morice in 1910, “it is impossible to form a correct idea of the perils and fatigues such a voyage [to a Northwest mission] involved.”
Barring the dangers due to the wild hordes of Indians, constantly clashing with one another and ever ready for robbery and pillage, the missionary had many a time to ford swollen rivers with the water up to his neck, or swim across streams while clinging to the mane of his horse. And then who will adequately picture to himself the weariness of a six-month ride under the deadly rays of the sun, tempered by no other shelter or shadow than that afforded by one’s horse, with improper food, numberless accidents and unmentionable hardships?
If it was difficult for some Indian children to be separated from their families for most of the year, how difficult was this for their first European teachers?
Once at the mission, things were little better, according to Morice.
The extent of the poverty common to all the northern posts was truly amazing. Even flour was then, and remained for many years afterwards, a veritable luxury in the north, many missionaries passing several years without tasting bread. If we consider that most of these hailed from France, where the daily diet is based on bread incomparably more than it is in America, we will better realize the intensity of their privations.
As a rule, two sacks of flour were sent yearly to each mission, one of which was for the priests themselves, and the other for their engage and his family. Nor should we forget that the missionaries were generally two, sometimes three, in a place. A few bags of pemmican, tough, stale and rancid from age, were added to this, and the fathers, in spite of their bodily exertions while building up their homes or appurtenances and toiling during their travels over several feet of snow, had to rely on the denizens of the lakes for their staple food.
This was fish, annually caught in large quantities for themselves and their sleigh dogs. After having been cut open, and spread out by means of wooden spits, this was left to dry hanging from poles laid on scaffoldings. As a result of this treatment, it lost all the flavour it might have originally possessed, when, in course of time, the stench it emitted and the “animation” of which it became the theatre did not render it absolutely repulsive to anything but a famishing stomach. Famine was indeed a familiar experience with all the missionaries in the north, who usually made light of it, and replaced a missed meal by tightening their belts, as they would good-humouredly put it.
If therefore we add these privations to the fatigues and discomfort of long voyages on foot, or, worse than all, on snowshoes (the inexpressible agony of which one must experience to properly appreciate it), we will understand why a publicist felt warranted in writing that “it is well known among all the religious Orders that the missions of Athabasca-Mackenzie are the most difficult and painful in the whole world, without excepting those of China, Corea and Japan.”
And would the children have been better off in the care of loving parents? It is not clear this was always an option.
“By 1960,” the Truth and Reconciliation Commission itself reports, “the federal government estimated that 50% of the children in residential schools were there for child-welfare reasons.” “Some children had to stay in the schools year-round because it was thought there was no safe home to which they could return.” Shubenacadie, the one residential school in the Maritimes, was always primarily an orphanage. “In 1977, Aboriginal children accounted for 44% of the children in care in Alberta, 51% of the children in care in Saskatchewan, and 60% of the children in care in Manitoba.” Today, although aboriginals are only 4% of the Canadian population, half the children in foster care are aboriginal.
This was an important reason for the original formation of the residential schools. “In February, 1884,” writes Andrew Brown,
the Rev. Hugh McKay was designated a missionary to the Indians of the North West... and, after some exploring, found an opening among the Crees in the Qu’Appelle valley at Round Lake. He began in a small way to take a few starving and half-naked Indian children into the little log house that served him for bachelor quarters. He fed them, clothed them and taught them, and from this modest beginning has grown the circle of eight boarding industrial schools under the care of the Presbyterian Church.
A Grey Nun writes from the Northwest in 1867,
I must give you a few instances to show you what is the depth of the moral misery which we are called on to relieve. What I tell you will shock you to hear, as it sickens me to tell. It was a rather general custom of the savages in these countries to kill, and sometimes to eat, the orphan children, especially the little girls. Religion has made a great change in this respect, but infanticide is still by no means rare.
A mother, looking with contempt on her newly-born daughter, will say, “Her father has deserted me; I am not going to feed her.” So she will wrap up the little one in the skin of an animal, smother her, and throw her into the rubbish heap. Another mother, as she makes her way through a snow-field, will say, “My child’s father is dead; who will now take care of it? I am hardly able to support myself.” Thereupon she makes a hole in the snow, buries her child there, and passes on. There was a case of an Indian father who, in a time of sickness, lost his wife, and two or three of his children. There remained to him one child still in arms. For two or three days he carried the little fellow, then he left him hanging on the branch of a tree, and went his way. I have said more than enough to grieve you. Now you will quite understand that all these wretched people would rather have given their children to us than have killed them, or let them die.
Father Duchaussois tells of two of the orphans taken in to the Grey Nuns’ school, Gabriel and Rosalie:
Gabriel … belonged to a pagan group of the Sekanais tribe, living near the Rocky Mountains, in the neighbourhood of Fort Nelson, in the northeast corner of British Columbia. He was about eight years of age when he saw his mother kill his father, and throw his little brother into the fire. He himself was saved from the same fate by his grandmother, who took him to a Sekanais named Barby, who had no children of his own. A few days later Barby’s wife sickened and died. Barby after some incantations, thought the Spirit told him that the adopted child was the cause of his wife’s death. Accordingly he left the boy alone, on the bank of the Nelson river, near his wife’s grave, and he removed his tent to the opposite bank. He left the little boy without food or fire, and almost naked, and watching him across the river, he took deliberate aim at him with his gun, whenever he saw the boy wandering around the grave, or coming to the water to drink, or pulling up roots to satisfy his hunger. At the end of ten days, a Trader of the Hudson Bay Company at Fort Nelson, Boniface Laferty, who had been one of the first pupils of the Nuns at Fort Providence, was passing northwards to Fort Liard. He heard of the case from the little boy’s grandmother. He told the two Indians whom he had with him to take the boy and hide him in a certain place, whilst he himself distracted the attention of the fierce Sekanais. The child, when found, was little more than a skeleton, on which vermin and mosquitoes had been trying to feast. He was left at Fort Liard, “for the Nuns,” by Mr. Laferty, and he was taken to Providence, 300 miles away, by Father Le Guen, O.M.I.
In the Orphanage there, Gabriel remained for two years, learning how to pray to the Great Spirit and His Divine Son. But Gabriel had brought lung disease from the Nelson river, and in spite of tender care, by day and by night, he died very young.
The story of Rosalie is different. .... Rosalie, when left an orphan at four years of age, went to live with her uncle. The Dog-Ribs are all Christians, so she was not killed. …
For a year Rosalie followed the camp, eating whatever she could find left over by others, and having for her only bed-clothes such odds and ends of peltry as were of no use to others. One night she felt she was getting frost-bitten, and she tried in vain to rekindle the dying embers in the hut. Next day, as she could not walk, she was taken away on a sledge, “for the Nuns.” At Fort Rae, on the North Arm of Great Slave Lake, the Company's officer, with his pocket knife, cut off both her feet, and so saved her life to be the baptized and educated.
How depraved have we become, that these are now the people and the acts that we condemn as unspeakable?