Far be it for me to comment on the speech defending the residential school system, given by Ontario Senator Lynn Beyak this week. People with far greater authority and much more knowledge than I have already done that. But there is something that Beyak said that sparked my interest, and that was her acknowledgement of the people who actually worked in the schools with those children. “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,” she said.
This is an opportunity to consider those who worked on the frontlines. For one moment, let’s set aside the obvioiusly mentally ill and evil people who lurked there and assume that there were good, competent people who served in that system. I wonder what kind of trauma they suffered from working in some of those schools? Certainly, it won’t compare with the trauma suffered by the children, but I am sure that many people were scarred by what they saw and experienced.
John Milloy, in his book A National Crime, outlines what happened to some of them, and how their complaints and concerns were handled by Duncan Campbell Scott. It is important to remember the big picture here – this was an underfunded system, and these schools were often caught in a bureaucratic dance between the federal government and the churches. Milloy says the impact of these two factors can be seen at the level of the teachers, principals and administrators who ran those schools.
For many staff the schools were not peaceful, rewarding places to work; they were not havens of civilization. Rather they were sites of struggle against poverty, the result of underfunding, and, of course, against cultural difference and, therefore against the children themselves. Locked away in an establishment often distant from non-Aboriginal settlements, always impenetrable to the gaze of almost everyone in Canada, they carried on this struggle against the children and their culture within an atmosphere of considerable stress, fatigue, and anxiety. The conditions may well have dulled the staffs’ sensitivity to the children’s hunger, ill-kept look and illness, and often perhaps inevitably, pushed the application of discipline over the line into physical abuse and transformed what was to be a culture of care into one of violence.
Milloy’s best example of a competent man thrown into a dysfunctional system is the Reverend Lett, who along with his wife and baby arrived at St. George’s school in 1923. The building was falling apart, the farm and orchards were neglected and the children were starving. The family lived in the main school building, primarily in one bedroom. The living and dining rooms were public and shared with the other members of the staff, with whom they also shared a bath and toilet. On one side of their living quarters was the students’ dining room; on the floor above were the dormitories, and below were the play rooms. They got little to no peace or privacy, and the time and effort required to run the school brought Mrs. Lett to the point of breakdown. Reverend Lett wrote to Duncan Campbell Scott about the situation to no avail and it would be another four years before the Department of Indian Affairs would do anything about his calls for a new and better facility.
Milloy also recounts how Scott dealt with other letters of complaint from staff and school administrators and even other departmental officials. W. H. Graham, an inspector in the western provinces wrote to Scott about the poor conditions at Round Lake over a number of years. Finally Scott answered him and denounced his most detailed report because it was based on complaints from a teacher named Miss Affleck. In Scott’s mind, Affleck was a malcontent to be ignored because she had reported on the incompetence of her principal (who fired her upon learning of the complaint). We are lucky to have at least this one account – most of the complaints submitted by staff at the schools were not even put on file.
The residential school system never paid well enough to attract trained teachers, so the people who worked in those schools often had no experience or qualification. Some came from the churches, where residential school work was considered “mission” service. For many poor people who couldn’t afford to go to college, working in a residential school was the only way to become a teacher. I can just imagine the shock of being a young person, just away from home, going to work in a remote residential school where the children were uncared-for and unloved, where there was no pretense of teaching them anything, and where the strap was the only method of control. I can also imagine their horror in those schools where the abuse was sexual as well as physical.
So perhaps Senator Beyak is right – perhaps it’s time to hear the stories of those who worked at those schools. Let’s hear from the descendants of people like Reverend Lett, W.H. Graham, and Miss Affleck, and the many others who went to work in those schools. Tell the family stories, and bear witness to this part of our history. But be prepared – the evidence indicates those stories will not likely recount the remarkable works and good deeds imagined by the Senator.
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