I claim no conversance, let alone any expertise, in the residential school question, but I do know enough ethics to note that it’s feckless to condemn what was done in fact without offering what could have been done instead. From the little I have read, I surmise that the standard concession is that these kids couldn’t have been just left to their own devices. That would have produced an apartheid even the Afrikaners and Israelis couldn’t have stomached. So these kids had to be provided the wherewithal to participate, even if only as second-class citizens, in so-called ‘settler’ society.
So what’s the standard alternative suggestion? It’s that instead of being ripped from their own communities – with all the damage that could have been anticipated that would inflict – schoolhouses could have been built in, and teachers sent into, these communities, the supposition being that “If you build it they will come.” The paradigm case, it’s been argued, is the modern-day Canadian Hutterite colony. Hutterite parents know that the (albeit minimal) education that will empower their kids to leave the community is also the (albeit minimal) eduction they’d need to stay and serve it. Neither then – or so the argument goes – should truancy be a problem for Indigenous on-reserve education.
The counter-consideration, of course, at least historically, is economy of scale. Given the size of these communities – and how geographically widespread they were and still are – there neither were then, nor are there now, enough teachers to go around. So it was logistically necessary that the kids be brought to these schools rather than these school to them.
Perhaps. But couldn’t settler culture have been offered these kids without “killing the Indian in them”? After all, one can learn a second language without losing one’s mother tongue. And certainly without losing one’s mother!
But did these (largely ignorant) missionary nuns have the moral sophistication and pedagogic wherewithal to teach SSL (settler-as-a-second-language) as SSL only? Apparently not. And so we’re left with what they left us. A largely damaged people, true, but probably no more damaged than most conquered people, people who, like Apartheid-era Blacks and Palestinians today, have yet to be assimilated by the conqueror.
Unlike in South Africa prior to 1989, and unlike in Palestine today, there is, in Canada – and perhaps in America as well – a genuine desire to repair even the least of these two then-available evils – paternalism over apartheid – our settler ancestors chose in dealing with the ‘Indian Question’. Some people, both white and red, think we should rethink that choice. I shudder to think of what our country would be like if we did.