A BEGRUDGING DEFENCE OF THE RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL SYSTEM

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.



Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask

13 replies

  1. “Indigenous student housing opens at the College of New Caledonia,” Prince George, B.C., News Release, Advanced Education and Skills Training, September 17, 2021,

    https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2021AEST0057-001808

    And, discuss.

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    • What does culturally safe accommodation mean? (Honest, I don’t know.) And two bedrooms for the elder, in a complex that houses 12 students? Who’s paying for him/her? Room and board? Salary too? I guess it’s not polite to ask.
      I think it was Pam who expressed doubt here some months ago that young people off to university would want an old person cramping their style. I suppose the arrangement guarantees that no settler students will be demanding to live in these nice digs.

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      • I don’t know what culturally safe accommodation means, either. Unless what is meant is that the residence is a little back-home-pod to retreat to while in the city.

        Since I grew up in a remote village, I am sympathetic to the challenges (noted in the article) some have adapting to big schools and city life. I was one such. I believe that being unable —geographically and economically — to participate in band, sports, and other extracurricular activities hobbled me, and some of my village-mates, both socially and academically.

        By the time I reached high school, my friends and I spent three hours a day on a yellow school bus just to attend. Some years prior (1947 – 1960s?), high school students from outlying villages, including mine, stayed in dormitories. The dropout rate was high for those of us who bussed, I’m not sure about those who stayed in the dorms.

        Anyway. I just wanted to acknowledge that a little community support for making a big life change might be in a student’s best interest. But maybe not. I suppose the difference might lie between being anchored IN community and being anchored TO community. Does the community have my back or does it hold me back? I think a little of this tension resides in any and every community. But what of every culture (whatever it is that culture refers to, e.g. rape culture – culturally safe rape-house anyone?, drug culture, culture wars, culturally—as opposed to religiously — Catholic, etc.)?

        Is a culturally safe residence meant to keep a culture ‘safe’ from the influence of other cultures, or is it meant to keep a student safe in the arms of those who supposedly share her ‘culture’?

        I had friends who went to Chinese school after public school, just as Viminitz went to Hebrew school. From this small survey, I can only report that I know a few people who begrudged these attempts at cultural preservation. But others might cherish them. Some Chinese- and some Hebrew- school students join respective community associations, advocacy groups, and religious organizations. Others will become ‘Canadianized,’ by which is meant living in Canada and eschewing many, if not most, of their families’ languages, traditions, and expectations. But if one were to say these apostates assimilated (self- or otherwise -) into Canadian culture, I’d wonder which Canadian culture; e.g. Newfoundland; rural Quebec; Metro Toronto; Czar, Alberta; the Gulf Islands; Little Italy; etc. Or, does one listen to country or hip hop, attend Mormon Temple or tune-in with healing crystals, drive a Hummer or a Smart Car, etc.? (Note that some children of so-called Canadianized people attempt to go-back to their roots. Sometimes this desire is passing, other times not.)

        Anyway. Culture is ambiguous. And culturally safe is not a well-formed formula since it requires an indexical, i.e. safe from ‘what’? (Safe implies a danger.) Safe from non-indigenous cultures, or maybe safe from other-indigenous plus non-indigenous cultures? I doubt these students want to be safe from smart phones and tampons, or safe from literacy and technical education. Although on these latter points, students might want to be safe from evaluation. Or maybe it’s rather their mentors who want to be safe from evaluation.

        Whatever the case, maybe the phrase culturally safe is just unfortunate nomenclature applied by well-intentioned people trying to give a leg up to a disadvantaged group. But it appears to be part of a bigger project of re-segregation.

        It might be the case that at the level of individual students, a designated dormitory will afford students a quiet study space, happy memories, and a life of social flourishing. But it might also be the case that the larger project of re-segregation renders these students, and their children, worse of. How, I don’t know. But the level of moral myopia required to deflect asking whether and how this segregation MIGHT negatively affect students and their respective communities, particularly by means of colonized-mind- and racist- talk, worries me. And I hope it worries the students.

        See also, https://paulosophicalvimplications.org/2021/12/28/on-the-resegregation-movement/

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  2. I suppose MacDonald could have decided not to settle the West at all, as a way to avoid messing with Indigenous culture. No acquisition of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson Bay Company, no Pacific Railway, no suppression of the American whiskey trade. The Natives starving with the decline of the bison? Not my problem, not my country, he could have said. Of course then B.C. would have joined the U.S. on its own initiative and the Americans would have annexed at least the southern prairies north to the Bow and the South Saskatchewan Rivers for sure, maybe a lot more, as reparations over the Alabama Affair. So yes, he had choices, of a sort. But would he have been able to retain the confidence of the House had he made such a choice?

    I am currently reading From Truth Comes Reconciliation, Clifton and DeWolf, eds., Frontier Centre of Public Policy 2021. It is a closer examination of the entire seven volumes of the TRIC Report and paints a different picture from the self-servingly biased and cherry-picked accounts that found their way into the Summary and Legacy volumes. Without meaning to undercut the general validity of anything you said, particularly on the ethics of choices, I will point out that pupils were not universally forced to speak English at the schools. Just as students taking French immersion are strongly discouraged from speaking English and encouraged instead to find the correct French expression through trial and corrected error, the language of instruction was “enforced” in class as English. A teacher can hardly have a pupil answering her back in a language that she doesn’t understand, after all. School principals varied as to how strict they were with speaking Native languages at recess, at meals, and in dorms. Some gave up and tolerated more than they thought was wise. And so on.

    The thesis of the book is that since attending a residential school was not a universally horrifying and soul-destroying experience, although it undoubtedly was for some, it is a politically convenient but unevidenced leap to lay the damaged societies of today so confidently wholesale at the doorsteps of the residential schools. Learned helplessness benefits no one.

    I agree certainly with your pointing out that you can’t condemn actions in the past without knowing what choices were available at the time to decision-makers….and the resources they had to carry out the various competing choices. They made the best decision they could, and they did a better job at it than they are given credit for in the Standard Narrative from TRIC’s Summary and Legacy volumes.

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    • Coincidentally enough, in the wake of the Kamloops non-story I was the facilitator for an online colloquium involving Clifton; so I’m at least somewhat familiar with the cherry-picking in the TRC’s summary report. But I’d like to shift our discussion, if I may, to the current drift towards resegregation. As Pam points out in her comment on this post – see below – some Canadian colleges have begun to designate indigenous-only on-campus housing. I’m loath to conjecture out loud whether this will ameliorate or exacerbate the isolation of indigenous students, so for once I’ll keep my unqualified view to myself.

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      • This post from Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True speaks to both the Widdowson case and to your thoughtful and thorough response to my question about culturally safe accommodation. For those who don’t know, Prof.Coyne is emeritus at The University of Chicago, a university that figures prominently (and almost alone in the U.S. these days) as a beacon of academic freedom.

        https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2022/01/16/one-again-diversity-training-doesnt-work-ditto-with-microaggression-training-implicit-bias-training-or-any-mandatory-dei-training/
        (The title of the post should be “Once again . ..” but I’ve left it uncorrected to make sure the URL works.)
        He cites Real Clear Science and I recommend the whole post for the references.

        Particularly, Coyne recommends (direct quotation between ***’s):

        ***
        My own way of phrasing the relevant [DEI] question is “How do we reduce the divisiveness and mutual antipathy between groups?”

        I am no expert here, but suggest a few things:

        a.) DO NOT create and enforce speech codes, and DO NOT, for the reasons stated above, enforce bias training. For bias training all too often turns out to be ideological brainwashing, setting group against group.

        b.) DO create discussions about the First Amendment for entering students to take. (And push for a Kalven-like amendment in your school.)
        [Note from L.M — The U of Chicago’s “Kalven” goes beyond academic freedom. It enjoins the university and its divisions from taking official positions on public issues that don’t have a direct relationship to the university’s mission. So no “We stand with Black Lives Matter” or “We call upon the Government of Canada to enshrine UNDRIP into Canadian law.” Very few universities can resist these performative pronouncements and they are chilling to faculty and students who don’t share those particular political views. It might even turn them into closet Republicans.]

        c.) DO NOT separate groups by creating “affinity housing” or any such segregated institution (graduations included) that is gender- or race-specific. In fact, try to bring people together, but not to discuss their differences or to air grievances. It may be my kumbayah attitude, but I feel that the more experience people have with each other, the more they apprehend and appreciate their common humanity. As the old song from “South Pacific” goes “You have to be carefully taught.” DEI training is a form of careful teaching that sets group against group. [Bolding mine.]

        d.) DO NOT racialize everything. It is divisive and does not serve to create a community of supportive people.

        e.) Create a supportive network for individuals based on their personal issues. One way is therapy, and there is a case to be made to have gender- or race-sensitive therapists on tap.
        ***
        .

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      • Thank you, Leslie. When I get home I’ll add an excerpt from Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” that sounds very much like (c.).

        Succinctly, I’d refuse to live in a campus building designated “white specific housing” (whites only). Can you imagine running an announcement about its opening in the local paper?

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      • Hi again, Leslie,

        Having had some lunch and a chat with my dear hubby, I’ve thought about my response that follows your post with the Jerry Coyne excerpt.

        I said I would refuse to live in a white-specific campus building. This assertion is too quick. If there were only indigenous and white specific housing available and my whiteness excluded me from the indigenous housing, then I’d have no choice but to live in the white-specific residence. Assuming I didn’t have the means to live off-campus, that is. And that I had no other pick of school.

        I think one thing that is bothering me here is that [indigenous or fill-in-the-blank] specific housing is on campus. I have no issue with [indigenous or fill-in-the-blank] accommodation off-campus. I think I’m right about this intuition, but I have to think about why. Men’s and women’s change rooms are segregated, so why not allow
        segregated housing? There are separate family housing units on many campuses, but I suppose these units accommodate the needs of a family versus a single person. Family units might be built into a dorm that houses single students, but then some single students will complain about kids crying while trying to study, and those with kids will complain about loud weekends keeping their kids awake.

        I’m trying to imagine a campus full of culturally safe accommodation for international students, or first or second generation immigrant students. Well, I suppose campus would be a World Fair. In the broader community, these divisions happen, as neighbourhoods, ghettos, community associations. But it seems to me campus does something different than the broader community.

        It’s notoriously difficult to exchange ideas between different ghettos, in fact some ghettos war. Just as it’s notoriously difficult for some university departments to exchange ideas, some departments war. But the students don’t. A student in philosophy brings an idea to bear on a concept in anthropology, and a student in the sciences fleshes out a sociological concept. A liberal education depends on mobile students being exposed to ideas, and exposing not only their profs in other departments to these ideas but also other students they meet. I think whatever I’m tapping out here is at the root of my worry about segregated (culturally safe) campus housing.

        This worry is exacerbated by the hierarchies in the sciences and among other disciplines. (See, Physicists at the Gate: Collaboration and Tribalism in Science, Undark Magazine, https://undark.org/2016/03/28/collaboration-and-tribalism-in-science/)

        What if those living in culturally safe accommodation take only corresponding culturally safe courses? Will they be marginalised and elevated or just marginalised? One move has been to indigenise the university, but we’ll see whether that move exacerbates or mitigates the marginalisation. If I can’t criticise your arguments, you might be my superior or inferior — but you’re certainly not my equal.

        (I’ll post my promised Haidt quote separately.)

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      • It’s bad enough when the physicists try to take over. Watch what happens when you parachute some physicians into a multi-disciplinary task force. This actually happened early in The Pandemic when the medical doctors talked right past a renowned aerosol physicist and caused us to think, incorrectly, that particles in the 30-micron range couldn’t aerosolize just because the ones that cause tuberculosis are down at 2-5 microns. This led to months of pointless pandemic theatre (disinfecting groceries) and not enough attention to ventilation. I think this was reported in Wired; I’ll try to find it.

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