Indigenous Reconciliation

“Genocide”? Canada’s Government Wanted to Close Every Indian Residential School in the 1940s

Greg Piasetzki
February 26, 2024
An avalanche of propaganda today urges Canadians to believe their country perpetrated a genocide against Indigenous people with its residential school system. Some proponents even want to criminalize statements disagreeing with such claims. But doing so will make the search for truth impossible. Digging deep into federal archives, Greg Piasetzki uncovers the complicated and perhaps surprising history of the now-reviled schools. Piasetzki’s careful research reveals not only the deep regard many federal officials had for the wellbeing of Canada’s native children, but also how they actively sought to shut down the entire system as early as the 1940s.
Indigenous Reconciliation

“Genocide”? Canada’s Government Wanted to Close Every Indian Residential School in the 1940s

Greg Piasetzki
February 26, 2024
An avalanche of propaganda today urges Canadians to believe their country perpetrated a genocide against Indigenous people with its residential school system. Some proponents even want to criminalize statements disagreeing with such claims. But doing so will make the search for truth impossible. Digging deep into federal archives, Greg Piasetzki uncovers the complicated and perhaps surprising history of the now-reviled schools. Piasetzki’s careful research reveals not only the deep regard many federal officials had for the wellbeing of Canada’s native children, but also how they actively sought to shut down the entire system as early as the 1940s.
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In what might be considered an act of heroic optimism, in March 1942 Canada’s House of Commons convened a special committee to “study and report upon the general problems of reconstruction and re-establishment which may arise at the termination of the present war.” This was a particularly grim time for the Allies in the Second World War. Most of Europe was under Axis control, German general Erwin Rommel was rampaging across North Africa and the German army was near the outskirts of Leningrad and Moscow. In the Pacific theatre, Japan had recently captured Singapore and Burma, and the crucial Battle of Midway was still three months away. Nevertheless, a committee of Canadian politicians was tasked with imagining what the country would look like after the war.

By February 1944, the Reconstruction and Re-Establishment Committee turned its attention to Canada’s Indian Residential School system which, for the most part, educated native students from remote reserves in dormitory-style schools. At the time Ottawa funded 75 residential schools with 8,729 students, primarily in western Canada, in addition to another 258 “day” schools serving 7,858 children who lived at home with their parents.

“I do not like residential schools at all”: In 1944 the House of Commons’ Reconstruction and Re-Establishment Committee considered the future of the federal government’s Indian Residential School system; Saskatchewan MP Dorise Nielsen (left) was unequivocal in her dislike for the schools while Robert Hoey (right), superintendent of Welfare and Training for Indian Affairs, agreed it would be better to shift native students to day schools. (Sources of photos: (left) Yousuf Karsh/House of Commons; (right) Manitoba Historical Society Archives)

Appearing before the committee to discuss Canada’s now-demonized residential schools was Robert Hoey, superintendent of Welfare and Training at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Summarizing the attitude in Ottawa, Hoey said most of his fellow bureaucrats “can dismiss the matter just in a sentence – that the residential schools are no good. But,” he added, “they use language considerably more forceful than that.”

Hoey explained that his own opinion was not quite so pointed; he was in favour of offering an education to as many “Indians” as possible, regardless of the venue. He did admit, however, that his department was closing residential schools at the rate of about one per year. “I think we are outgrowing our Indian residential schools,” Hoey noted. Asked how he would direct future budgets, he replied, “Establish day schools.”

Committee member and Saskatchewan MP Dorise Nielsen strongly agreed with this sentiment. “I am very much in favour of the day school in preference to the residential school,” she stated during the proceedings. “I do not like residential schools at all. They segregate children and lose a great deal of the value of the education. I do not think they are half as good.”

Such rubbishing of residential schools was neither new nor novel. In 1942, deputy superintendent-general of Indian Affairs Harold McGill wrote to his deputy minister explaining that, “I hold, and have long held the opinion that the educational requirements of the great majority of Indians could be met by day schools to the decided benefit of the Indians and the financial benefit of the taxpayer.” The deputy minister replied in the margins of McGill’s memo, “As soon as war regulations regarding building materials permit, the building of day schools and the closing of residential schools should be proceeded with.”

An official dislike for segregating native students in remote residential schools was again evident in the 1948 report of a joint House of Commons and Senate committee reviewing the Indian Act. The report’s central recommendation was that “wherever and whenever possible Indian children should be educated in association with other children.” (See page 188 of document.) Some committee member expressed interest in “having Indian children sent to municipal or provincial day schools” rather than continuing with the existing federal system at all. (See page 47.) Following these recommendations, Ottawa essentially froze enrolment in residential schools in anticipation of eventually shutting them down.

Damning accusation: NDP MP Leah Gazan’s motion declaring Canada’s Indian Residential Schools to have been a “genocide” was passed with unanimous consent by the House of Commons on October 27, 2022. Unmentioned was the fact the federal government actively sought to shut down the entire system as early as the 1940s. (Source of photo: The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

It was thus the express desire of Canada’s federal government to rid itself of residential schools as early as the 1940s – five decades before the last school finally closed its doors in 1996. So why didn’t the federal government close them all in 1948? Not only would such a move have saved Ottawa considerable money and effort, it would also have avoided later accusations that the operation of these schools constituted a “genocide”, as a unanimous House of Commons motion claimed in 2022. The answer: because the government was not prepared to abandon vulnerable Indigenous children.

As painful as it may be to admit today, the vast majority of native children attending residential schools during the post-war period suffered from social ills, family hardships and health concerns that were far more serious than those faced by most other children in Canada. In particular, the devastating inter-generational effects of alcoholism and parental dysfunction on reserves had turned residential schools into a de facto native child welfare system. Had the government shut these schools down in the 1940s, as it very much wanted to, those children would have been left at grave risk of injury or death. There was, quite simply, no other place for them to go.

And so, regardless of the well-documented problems of ill-health and abuse at some residential schools, keeping them open long past their due date was a decision made with the best interests of Indigenous children at heart. Considering this, claims of genocide are not just wrong, but outrageously wrong.

The Origins of Canada’s Residential Schools

In the late 1800s the new country of Canada was faced with the perplexing problem of how to help an estimated 120,000 Indigenous people habituated to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle cope with the sudden demands of a modern society based on agriculture, resource extraction, permanent towns and expanding industries. The populist reform movement sweeping across North America seemed to offer a ready answer: public education. Publicly-provided, compulsory schooling was widely hailed as the solution to poverty and social disharmony throughout Canada. In 1871, for example, the province of Ontario required all children aged 7-12 to attend school for at least four months a year; in 1891 the minimum age for leaving school was raised to 14 years.

The solution to society’s ills: Beginning in the late 1800s publicly-provided compulsory education became widely seen as the key to creating social harmony and economic progress throughout Canada. Shown, students at the Capilano Public School in North Vancouver, circa 1920s. (Source of photo: Archives of North Vancouver, Image 6490)

Indigenous leaders were well aware of the over-arching importance of education; church-run residential schools had been operating in Canada as charitable missionary endeavours as early as the 1600s. When Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minster, began signing treaties with the inhabitants of what had been Rupert’s Land (now most of western Canada) in the 1870s, the issue of education was a key area of negotiation. All of the “numbered” treaties signed between the federal government and the various tribes required Ottawa to build and run schools “whenever the Indians of the reserve shall desire it,” as Treaty 6 states. Schools were thus a contractual obligation for the Government of Canada. For native parents, the schools were to be the means by which their children could enter a world they were struggling to comprehend.

Macdonald had first-hand knowledge of the myriad benefits brought by education for native Canadians through his friendship with Oronhyatekha, also known as Burning Sky and Peter Martin. Oronhyatekha was a graduate of the Mohawk Institute residential school near Brantford, Ontario – and of the University of Toronto and Oxford University in England. In 1866 he became only the second native Canadian to receive a medical degree, and later went on to head the International Order of Foresters, then one of the largest fraternal/financial institutions in Canada.

In line with its treaty promises, the federal government began funding a church-run Indian Residential School system (as well as a day school system) shortly after Confederation so as to provide native children with basic language and other skills required to function in Canadian society. This was to be a voluntary acculturation process, at least during Macdonald’s time. As Indian Affairs’ annual report for 1898 stated, “The Department’s policy is as long as possible to refrain from compulsory measures and try the effect of moral suasion and an appeal to self-interest.”

Canada’s first prime minster, Sir John A. Macdonald (left), fully understood how education could improve the lives of Indigenous Canadians thanks to his friendship with Oronhyatekha, aka Burning Sky or Peter Martin (right), who graduated from a residential school in Brantford, Ontario, attended Oxford University and later became Supreme Chief Ranger of the International Order of Foresters. (Source of left photo: Library and Archives Canada, C-009267)

Not until the 1920s did federal legislation extend compulsory education to native children, although this policy was rarely enforced. Most Indigenous children attended school for only a few years, with more than half of the attendees of both day and residential schools dropping out after Grade 1. Such schools were clearly not prison camps, as is often alleged.

The relative size of the residential and day school systems fluctuated over the years, although day schools educated the majority of Indigenous schoolkids over the entire period the two systems operated. The residential system peaked in 1931 with 80 schools, but the arrival of the Great Depression caused a swift reversal. Serious financial problems occurred as Ottawa retrenched and many of the church-run buildings fell into disrepair. Given the remote locations and poor pay, it also became difficult to find suitable teachers. As a result, the quality of instruction and care at some schools declined precipitously.

By the 1940s, the federal bureaucracy concluded that on-reserve day schools were vastly superior to residential schools for both pedagogical and budgetary reasons. In 1941, for example, it cost the government $47 per year to educate a child in a day school versus $159, plus capital expenses, in a residential school. In addition to shifting the focus to building more day schools, plans were also afoot to educate native children in the same fashion as children in the rest of Canada – by eventually integrating them into provincially-run public schools. The 1948 Indian Act hearings were told that B.C. provided a viable model for such a plan, since the province had successfully integrated ethnic Japanese children into its public school system after the Second World War.

Cheaper and better: By the 1940s the federal bureaucrats running Canada’s residential schools wished to shut them down in favour of day schools, which were less expensive to run and allowed students to live with their parents. Shown, students at play on the grounds of the new Cote Indian Day School near Kamsack, Saskatchewan, 1958. (Source of photo: Library and Archives Canada)

That said, the wholesale transfer of Indigenous children from federal to provincial responsibility nationwide faced numerous obstacles, including transportation, housing and complicated inter-government negotiations. The most intractable problem, however, proved to be alcohol abuse and family dysfunction on reserves.

Alcohol and the Indigenous Experience

The disastrous effects of alcohol on native communities shows itself very early in Canadian history. In 1713, for example, the Hudson’s Bay Company sent the following instructions to its post at Fort Albany on Hudson Bay: “Trade as little brandy as possible to the Indians, we being informed it has destroyed several of them.”

In the pre-Confederation era between 1828 and 1853, several colonial government commissions of inquiry made note of the demoralizing and debilitating effects of excessive alcohol consumption within native communities. The Macaulay Report of 1839, for example, claimed the main obstacles to progress for Canada’s Indigenous population were “alcoholism, poor health, and the lack of food and shelter.”

The dangers of drink: Throughout Canada’s history, governments have attempted to stem the devastating impact of alcohol on native communities. Curbing the U.S. whiskey trade was a driving force behind the creation of the North-West Mounted Police, shown at right. (Source of right photo: Library and Archives Canada, PA-202188)

There is no evidence that Indigenous Canadians are genetically more susceptible to the ill effects of alcohol than anyone else. The Temperance movement of the early 20th century attests to grave concerns in the rest of Canada regarding the social implications of widespread alcohol abuse. That said, the feast-and-famine cycle of the hunter-gatherer and fur-trapper lifestyle may have facilitated binge-drinking on reserves. Pre-Confederation colonial statutes and the Indian Act of 1876 attempted to address these negative effects by enforcing strict rules against the sale of alcohol to Indigenous Canadians, with penalties including not just fines but also imprisonment with “hard labour”. Indian Affairs’ annual reports from this era include regular updates on the efforts made to control the local abuse of alcohol.

“I can’t stay silent any longer”: Indigenous writer and former Crown prosecutor Harold Johnson wrote in his powerful 2016 book Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing my People (and Yours) that half of the native people he knew from his reserve died of alcohol abuse. (Source of photo: Picasa)

Protecting native communities from alcoholism’s debilitating effects was also one of the driving forces behind creation of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) in 1873. The Mounties were tasked with stemming the illicit trade in whiskey flowing across the border from the United States. Their efforts were gratefully recognized by Chief Isapo-Muxika at the signing of Treaty 7 in 1877. “If the [NWMP] police had not come to this country, where would we all be now? Bad men and whiskey were killing us so fast that few of us would have been alive today. The Police have protected us as the feathers of the bird protect it from the frosts of winter.” The stirring tale of how the NWMP saved the Blackfoot and other tribes is detailed in this C2C article.

The modern impact of alcohol on native Canadians has been dealt with by several noted Indigenous writers, including Calvin Helin and Harold Johnson. In his powerful 2016 book Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing my People (and Yours), Johnson, a former Saskatchewan Crown prosecutor who died in 2022, makes the provocative claim that half the Indigenous people known to him locally died, either directly or indirectly, from alcohol abuse.

“I can’t stay silent any longer. I cannot with good conscience bury another relative,” Johnson writes in Firewater. “I cannot watch any longer as a constant stream of our relatives come into the justice system because of the horrible things they have done to each other while they were drunk. The suffering caused by alcohol, the kids with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), the violence, the poverty, the abandoned children, the mental wards and the emergency rooms, the injuries and the illnesses and the loss of hope and the suicides have all piled up within me to the point that I must speak.”

The Unmentioned Demon

FASD deserves special attention in any discussion of residential schools. It was only formally identified as a medical condition in the 1970s, but its impact likely goes back centuries. It is caused when a woman consumes alcohol while pregnant, damaging the developing fetus within her. FASD can impair the victim’s health in numerous ways including physical abnormalities as well as problems with memory, cognition, communication and abstract reasoning. Children with FASD typically have serious difficulties in school, both academically and in interacting with others. Tragically, these problems inevitably follow them into adult life, revealed by high rates of violence (including spousal and sexual abuse), suicide and addiction.

FASD can repeat in an endless cycle as women with FASD are prone to drinking during pregnancy, resulting in another generation of FASD children. And while this pathology can occur within any race or culture, it is particularly virulent on Canadian reserves. Scientific studies suggest FASD occurs among Indigenous children on and off reserves at rates between 10 and 100 times greater than in the rest of Canada. Nearly two-thirds of Inuit women in Arctic Quebec, for example, drink during pregnancy, putting their children at great risk of FASD. A recent academic study identified five key demographics in which FASD is most prevalent worldwide; Canadian Indigenous children under the care of welfare agencies lie at the intersection of several of these categories.

Ample scientific evidence attests to the devastating effect of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) on Indigenous populations. According to one study, FASD is present on reserves at a rate nearly 100 times higher than in the Canadian population.

Despite the enormous shadow cast by FASD and alcoholism in native communities, the issue is rarely discussed in official circles. The 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), for example, barely mentions the topic. And just two of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action (#33 and #34) make any reference to FASD – one of which demands the court system treat those with FASD in a more lenient fashion, a proposal that can lead to further trauma on reserves. FASD is the unmentioned demon that haunts the native experience throughout Canada.

Schools Become Welfare Institutions

As Ottawa sought to extricate itself from the residential school system in the post-war period, it was confronted by a great surge in the number of Indigenous schoolkids, fuelled by a native baby boom every bit as profound as the post-war baby boom in the rest of Canada. Between 1943 and 1954, the number of Indigenous students doubled from 16,000 to 32,500. And within this boom was a rapidly growing share of students described as “neglected children”, “orphans and part-orphans” or children from “broken and problem homes”. This was almost certainly the result of alcoholism and undiagnosed FASD on reserves. Whatever the terminology, government officials felt they couldn’t just leave these children at home with their parents. And the only place they could send them was residential schools.

In 1996 Trent University historian John S. Milloy produced a lengthy report on the history of Canada’s residential schools for the RCAP entitled Suffer the Little Children: The Aboriginal Residential School System 1830-1992 (later revised and republished as A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System 1879-1986). In his earlier RCAP report, Milloy examined why Ottawa failed to carry through with its stated intention to shut down the residential school system in the 1940s and concluded it was due to “the emergence of a new role for the schools, that of social welfare institutions.” As Milloy explained in more detail:

“In the years after the war, the ‘primary role’ of many residential schools changed ‘from one of providing opportunities for academic learning to that of a child caring institution.’ This constituted a serious and stubbornly persistent impediment in the Department’s education strategy, a bottle-neck in the process of reducing enrolments towards closure. Senior officials recognized that some parents would not be able to ‘assume the responsibility for the care of their children’ upon which the integration/closure policy depended because of ‘such things as alcoholism in the home, lack of supervision, [and] serious immaturity.’ Their children would continue to need Departmental supervision of some kind. And there were, in the Department’s estimation, many such children ‘whose family situations were precarious.’”

This shift in focus was not entirely new. During the aforementioned Reconstruction and Re-Establishment Committee hearings in 1944, superintendent Hoey candidly admitted that while his department was shutting down residential schools, they remained necessary for the care of “orphans and children from disrupted homes.” The same message can be found in the 1948 Indian Act joint committee recommendations, which said residential schools were required for children “who come from homes in which competent welfare workers decide that institutional care is needed.” What to do with child welfare cases on reserves was always a dilemma for federal officials, but in the post-war era it was growing much worse. And this created a major impediment to Ottawa’s planned exit from native education.

A change in purpose: According to Trent University historian John S. Milloy, the role of residential schools shifted in the 1940s from providing Indigenous students with an education to “that of social welfare institutions.” (Source of photo: CBC)

Evidence of this expanding complication can be found throughout the annual reports and other documents produced by Indian Affairs. Typically, a child required an application form to attend a residential school. Where a child could otherwise reasonably attend a day school, the application had to be supported by an additional explanation for why residential school was necessary, chosen from one of six categories. Category 3 covered cases of “serious neglect.” By 1954, Milloy reported, Category 3 welfare cases were given “first priority in admission.” Milloy says he found “many thousands” of such applications. Among representative samples taken from his book and elsewhere in departmental archives are the following examples.

“Both parents excessive drinkers – now separated. Child kept by grandmother who is 64 years of age and finds she can no longer care for this child.”

“Parents not compatible and live together sporadically. The father is a veteran and has some difficulty controlling his appetite for liquor… The children lack adequate care. Both parents are agreeable to placing the children in the Institute.” (Mohawk Institute archives, page 22.)

“Father shiftless – parents drink excessively, and child would not attend Prov. school regularly. Three other children now in Residential school.”

“Two other children are now in Residential School. A very large family, father in jail, mother unable to support children. Very poor home.”

“Since her father has remarried, the girl has been boarded out among relatives. The child is of a nervous disposition and has developed and (sic) impediment in her speech. It is considered the child will receive proper care and attention to overcome this condition at the School.” (Mohawk Institute archives, page 75.)

In all cases, a residential school placement appeared to be the only recourse available to protect or help the child in question.

A federal census taken in 1953 found that 43 percent of the 10,112 Indigenous children in residential schools nationwide were listed as neglected or living in homes that were unfit because of parental indifference or over-crowding. A similar study eight years later in B.C. put the figure at 50 percent and included the observation that a similar percentage would likely apply to the rest of the country as well. By 1960, N.J. McLeod, the regional supervisor for Indian Affairs in Saskatchewan, observed that increased government support was helping with issues of housing and nutrition on reserves but worried that the “social and moral ills of broken homes, parental indifference and negligence, etc.…would appear to be on the upswing.”

As the supply of such cases increased, Canada’s Indian Residential Schools were forced to transform themselves from mainly educational institutions to “a sort of foster home which endeavour[s] to cater to the social and emotional needs of the child,” as a 1966 departmental report cited by Milloy puts it. In that year, an astounding 75 percent of 9,778 residential students were welfare cases. At Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie Residential School, federal regional director Francis B. McKinnon noted in 1967 that, “Practically all the children now in residence have been placed there mainly for reasons other than to facilitate school attendance.” A church official replied that his school had essentially become “a welfare institution.”

“Orphans and children from disrupted homes”: Throughout the 1950s and beyond, the vast majority of students at residential schools were there for child welfare reasons. Shown on left, Gordon’s Residential School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan; on right, St. Anne’s Convent in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia. (Sources of photos: (left) ACC Grace Reed Fonds/M2008-10-P17; (right) National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation)

As time went on and Ottawa pushed its policy of opening day schools and closing residential schools, the share of difficult cases in the remaining residential schools went up even further. By 1975, children from “broken or immoral homes” constituted nearly the entire student population at three Saskatchewan residential schools: Gordon’s Residential School (83 percent), Muscowequan Residential School (64 percent) and Cowessess Residential School (80 percent).

Hand-off to the provinces: The 1964 Federal-Provincial Conference on Indian Affairs paved the way for the transfer of responsibility for educating Indigenous children from the federal government to provincial school boards. Similar agreements around this time also transferred responsibility for child welfare to the provinces.

The End of Residential Schools

There were, of course, serious drawbacks to using schools as de facto welfare homes. Regional director McKinnon observed that many children at the Shubenacadie school in Nova Scotia “were exhibiting serious psycho-social problems which require treatment” that his school could not provide, as it was “an educational facility and not a child caring institution.” Milloy’s report also quotes an unnamed federal bureaucrat from B.C. who worried the schools under his responsibility had “few resources available to identify the problems or to provide remedial services…[for the] relatively high proportion of the residential school population [who] are disturbed children who require specialized attention.”

The near-complete takeover of these schools by high-needs children, many of them likely suffering from undiagnosed FASD or other health problems, would have made the experience for all students extremely difficult, especially the minority who were attending only because there was no day school near their home reserve. This may help explain why so many witnesses to the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission expressed such negative memories of their time at residential school which, in turn, led to accusations of genocide.

As the problems of forcing church-run residential schools to become child welfare institutions multiplied, Ottawa finally found a way out of its conundrum. In 1964 the Federal-Provincial Conference on Indian Affairs came to an agreement on “the terms under which Indian children may be accepted in provincial schools.” A separate series of federal-provincial agreements around the same time also transferred the care of native children in need to provincial child welfare agencies. But even with these agreements, the shutdown of residential schools still took decades. By the mid-1980s the transfer was largely complete, even if the last school – Gordon’s Indian Residential School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan – remained open until 1996.

What Now?

While provincialization lifted the immediate problem of what to do with Indigenous child welfare cases off Ottawa’s shoulders, it did not address the underlying and unresolved issue of FASD and family dysfunction on reserves. In fact, devolution might have made things worse for many children, as there was now nowhere they could be sent as a refuge from a problematic home. Provincial welfare agencies struggled to figure out how best to care for their new charges. As former Manitoba judge Brian Giesbrecht explained in this 2020 C2C Journal article:

“Provincial child welfare workers were often appalled by the conditions they encountered on reserves [as a result of]…the high rate of chronic alcohol dependence among Indigenous parents. Faced with what they considered a pressing need to rescue children from problematic situations, provincial child welfare agencies encouraged the large-scale adoption of native children by non-native families, what is now called ‘The Sixties Scoop’.”

Given the circumstances on reserves, having white families foster vulnerable native children was considered by many child welfare experts to be the best available option. The Sixties Scoop was driven by the same intractable conditions that turned residential schools into welfare institutions several decades earlier: in the absence of any other viable alternatives, it was considered the only way to help desperate children in need. Today, this policy is widely referred to as an “abduction of First Nations children” and yet another stain on Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people. It has also been duly apologized for and generous compensation has been paid. Amid all this breast-beating, however, one might also spare a sympathetic thought for the thousands of loving parents whose act of compassion in adopting impoverished and distressed native children is now regarded as yet another form of genocide.

“A child is waiting”: Faced with devastating social conditions on many reserves, provincial child welfare agencies in the 1960s sought to protect vulnerable Indigenous children by moving them off-reserve. At top, newspaper ads from the time encourage Canadian families to adopt Indigenous children. Today this policy is referred to as the “Sixties Scoop” and is widely condemned. (Source of bottom photo: Crystal Luxmore, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Following the transfer of native child welfare to the provinces in the 1960s, responsibility was further devolved to Indigenous agencies. This process culminated in 2019 with federal legislation intended to completely “Indigenize” native child welfare by allowing every First Nation in the country to create and deliver its own care standards. The new law also makes it nearly impossible to apprehend native children from dysfunctional homes, as such cases will now be subject to a “cultural continuity” test.

This law was challenged and judged partially unconstitutional by Quebec courts in 2022 as an overstep into provincial jurisdiction. Earlier this month, however, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled it to be wholly constitutional, with Indigenous leaders hailing the decision as an “historic moment” in “advancing reconciliation”. Can this latest change in jurisdiction really make a difference in improving the lives of vulnerable Indigenous children? It seems unlikely.

Where’s the improvement? Despite the eventual closing of residential schools and the devolution of child welfare to native agencies, Indigenous children are still struggling. According to the 2021 Census, Indigenous children under 14 account for 53.8 percent of children in foster care, while representing less than 8 percent of all Canadian children. (Source of photo: The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette)

Despite the closure of the entire residential school system, several decades of devolution and the rapidly ascendant role of Indigenous-controlled child welfare agencies, the foundational problems have never gone away. In Manitoba, 91 percent of children under the care of a family services agency are Indigenous. Nationwide, according to the 2021 Census, native children under 14 account for 53.8 percent of children in care, despite representing less than 8 percent of children that age in Canada. Meanwhile, Indigenous youth continue to struggle with alcohol and drug use, unemployment, low educational attainment and mental health problems at rates substantially above the rest of the country. The most obvious conclusion regarding the intractable persistence of these social issues is that jurisdiction is irrelevant. The residential school system was never the cause, but one of many attempted solutions.

The Question Answered

Should Canada’s residential school system be characterized as a genocide? It has lately become impossible to discuss the history of residential schools without confronting this damning allegation. The 2022 House of Commons motion claims the answer is self-evident. So too the 2019 report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (Although the latter came with a “cultural genocide” qualifier.) More recently, some proponents have even demanded any opinions to the contrary be criminalized.

What sort of “genocide” is this? From the federal government archives, a 1949 application on behalf of a young girl to attend the Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School in Brantford, Ontario in the hope that the school might cure her speech impediment.

A careful review of the facts belies these hysterical allegations. While conditions in some schools were less than ideal – perhaps even abusive – due to budget shortfalls and poor staffing, the schools existed to fill a necessary and irreplaceable role. In the beginning, this role was to provide Indigenous children with the language skills and other Western knowledge essential for their successful participation in Canadian society. As time went on, however, the schools transformed to fill an even more vital role. They became a de facto child welfare system for vulnerable children from dysfunctional homes brought on by centuries of alcohol abuse within Indigenous communities.

By the 1940s, federal bureaucrats knew there were better options for educating native students, but as much as they would have preferred to shut down residential schools, they couldn’t. Doing so would have abandoned the many individual welfare cases these schools protected. Without acknowledging this difficult truth, it is impossible to comprehend the full story of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools.

To conclusively answer the question of whether the residential school system was a genocide, consider again the final Category 3 application form from the Mohawk Institute residential school listed above. “Since her father has remarried, the girl has been boarded out among relatives. The child is of a nervous disposition and has developed and (sic) impediment in her speech. It is considered the child will receive proper care and attention to overcome this condition at the School.”

What sort of genocide frets about a young girl’s speech impediment?

Greg Piasetzki is a Toronto-based intellectual property lawyer with an interest in Canadian history, and a citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario.

Source of main image: James Gabbert/Shutterstock.

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Academics, politicians and the media have reduced Canadian history to a series of regrettable events requiring abject apology and compensation. In doing so they downplay, ignore or deny the many admirable aspects of our past that remain worthy of celebration and respect. But what of those events that truly are lamentable today? Greg Piasetzki looks at Canada’s Chinese head tax and the role played by Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, commonly considered the racist villain of this policy. Piasetzki’s careful scholarship reveals in full what Macdonald actually said and did on this issue, and recounts his efforts to protect minority rights in Canada a century before the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Everybody’s Favourite Dead White Male: The Mysterious Resurrection and Celebration of Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce

If Canada’s past is not to become a pure tool of politics and ideology, we must insist that the facts still matter, including if not especially in controversial areas like Indigenous history. In a meticulously documented essay containing original archival research, Greg Piasetzki chronicles the remarkable career of a late 19th – early 20th century Canadian who embodied many of his era’s signature characteristics – enlightenment rationality, belief in progress, idealism and commitment as well as vanity, opportunism and jarring prejudice. The facts, Piasetzki finds, make for a fascinating though decidedly mixed and at times disturbing story. So why, he asks, do this complicated man’s present-day Indigenous supporters insist on elevating him to near-sainthood?

Portrait black and white shot of Sir John A. Macdonald.

Sir John A. Macdonald Saved More Native Lives Than Any Other Prime Minister

Were he alive today, Sir John A. Macdonald would make short work of his many present-day critics through his legendarily quick wit, disarming personality and mastery of the facts. Unfortunately, he isn’t around to defend himself against horrifying claims he committed genocide against Canada’s Indigenous people. To take on this calumny, Greg Piasetzki goes back to the source. Using Macdonald’s own words and other contemporary voices, Piasetzki brings alive our Founding Father’s determination to save native lives and protect their interests throughout his time in office.

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