Were Indian Residential Schools Cauldrons of Abuse?
Allegations of Widespread Abuse in the Residential Schools were Relatively Uncommon Over Most of the 113-year Residential School Period
By Pim Wiebel (an anonymous researcher and former Indian Residential School teacher)
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Physical and sexual abuse often rise to the top of the list of harms alleged to have been perpetrated at Canada's Indian Residential Schools. It may come as a surprise that the empirical evidence shows that the level of abuse in those institutions was of a much smaller magnitude than in the overall First Nation and Canadian child and youth populations.
Donna Feir, a researcher at the University of Victoria, conducted a detailed analysis of the extent of abuse in residential schools. Feir found that the “vast majority of [residential] schools in most decades have five or fewer cases of abuse”. She concluded (Table 8) that the proportion of students abused in the schools was about 3 percent. (Feir does not disaggregate physical abuse from sexual abuse.)
Feir’s findings may in fact overstate the actual proportion of abuse. Her research is based on Department of Indian Affairs data on residential school enrollment and the number of approved abuse claims made via the Independent Assessment Process (IAP), an extra-judicial, non-adversarial, claimant-centered class action lawsuit initiated in 2007 to receive testimony of alleged abuse from former residential school students and determine compensatory awards.
The Independent Assessment Process – A Recipe for Overstating Abuse at Residential Schools
The Independent Assessment Process (IAP), along with the Common Experience Payment (which resulted in a total of nearly $2 billion in financial awards given to all living former residential school students merely for having attended a residential school) and the $72 million Truth and Reconciliation Commission (discussed later), was a component of Canada’s 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). The stated purpose of the IRSSA was to bring a “fair and lasting resolution to the legacy of Indian Residential Schools.” The IRSSA was thus predicated on the notion that the residential schools had brought serious harm to First Nations people.
As an extra-judicial process, the IAP fell far short of the standard of proof required in regular judicial proceedings. It was neither designed, nor intended, to prove with surety whether claims of abuse were valid. The laxity of the process is shown in these statements of protocol from the IAP Adjudication Secretariat:
“The standard track is used for dealing with claims of abuse. Most IAP claims are dealt with in this track. Claims under the standard track are less complex because claimants must prove their claims solely on a balance of probabilities. That means the adjudicator makes a decision based on whether it is more likely than not that the abuse happened.”
“For most residential school abuse claims, the only evidence of what happened is the testimony of the claimant. There are rarely any witnesses or other evidence available to help claimants prove their abuse claims.”
Thousands of approvals for compensation were thus made on the basis of a shoddy foundation of what “more likely than not” happened. Cheques in the amount of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars were cut to claimants. The IAP pay-outs ultimately totaled $3.28 billion. This was in addition to untold millions of dollars spent in administering the process.
Most of the IAP claimants contracted with lawyers to help with their cases. Lawyers had hefty stakes in the outcomes. They could charge up to 30 percent of the settlement award. The government added up to 15 percent of the award amount to help the claimant pay for lawyer fees.
(As an aside, the IAP ran concurrently with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, to which former students were invited to testify about their experiences. It is entirely logical to assume that the students’ testimonies to the Commission would have been conditioned by what was at stake for them in the IAP proceedings.)
The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples – Antecedent of the IRSSA
Phil Fontaine, a prominent First Nation figure who was elected chief of the Sagkeeng First Nation in 1973 and later became chief of the national Assembly of First Nations, made a widely reported allegation in a 1990 CBC interview of rampant abuse at the Fort Alexander Residential School he attended in the 1950s. Fontaine’s assertions gave impetus to the establishment in 1991 of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), which was co-chaired by Indigenous activist Georges Erasmus and First Nations advisor Renée Dupuis.
The RCAP was created by the government of Canada in part to “investigate and document the origins and effects of residential school policies and practices respecting all Aboriginal peoples, with particular attention to the nature and extent of effects on subsequent generations of individuals and families, and on communities and Aboriginal societies…[and to] recommend remedial action by governments and the responsible churches deemed necessary by the inquiry to relieve conditions created by the residential school experience.” Thus, the RCAP, like the IRSSA, was established on the premise that the residential schools were harmful and had long-lasting negative impacts on the students and First Nation communities.
Although there had been only sporadic allegations of abuse against students at residential schools before the RCAP was established, the subject became a primary focus of the Commission. Demands for compensation for purported wrongdoing on the part of the residential schools took centre stage at the Commission’s hearings held across Canada. The following exchange that took place at the Fort Alexander hearing in 1992 encapsulates the calls for reparations:
Moderator Gerald Courchene: “Very briefly, Gilbert.”
Gilbert Abraham [an elder of Fort Alexander First Nation]: “Farmers are compensated, fire and flood victims, hurricane victims, or whoever has compensation. I figure there is a solution, of course, to every problem. I will not speak on how I suffered in the residential school. However, a little solution here, I figure, is to fight and challenge for acceptance without prejudice and racism, with honesty, respect, in a frame of hope because we have had enough of suppression and depression. The other solution, I figure, is to compensate us with a nice fat, chunky piece of money that you have in your reserve banks. I know you have a reserve bank, Canada, that we can feel comfortable with, again without prejudice, segregation and exploitation. We shall not let you off the hook with demands. Thank you.”
Gerald Courchene: “Meegwitch, Gilbert. Chief Fontaine.”
Chief Jerry Fontaine: “Meegwitch. I, too, hope that the Canadian government will give me some of that fat, chunky kind of money that Gilbert is talking about.”
The RCAP set the stage for a rash of civil lawsuits against the government and the churches that managed the residential schools. These actions for the most part ceased when, in 2007, the IAP was instituted as a nation-wide class action settlement scheme.
Allegations of Widespread Abuse in the Residential Schools were Relatively Uncommon Over Most of the 113-year Residential School Period
As indicated earlier, there was little discussion in Canada of abuse in the residential schools before Phil Fontaine made his abuse allegations in the CBC interview and lawyers began scouring the landscape for alleged cases. It is telling that two comprehensive reports on the residential schools conducted in the 1960s – the Caldwell report and the Hawthorne report – made no mention of abuse, although both reports were based lengthy interviews with students, parents, school staff and government officials. Other inquiries discussed matters such as poor food or lax safety measures, but made scant mention of abuse.
Phil Fontaine’s precedent-setting interview with the CBC left many more questions than answers. His statements about abuses at the Fort Alexander Residential School were unspecific and equivocal. Regarding the wrong he said had happened to him, he did not offer anything other than the general allegation. He did not state who perpetrated it or even the person’s position at the school. He made the charge that every boy in one of his classes was sexually abused “in some aspect”, without further elaboration. Was he perhaps referring to student-on-student abuse, which comprised much of the abuse alleged in the IAP? When the CBC interviewer pointed out that it was common practice in Canadian schools at the time to administer punishments such as rapping disobedient students on the knuckles with yardsticks, Fontaine responded, without offering detail, that the punishments in the residential schools were more “intensive”.
Fontaine’s claims beg the question, “Why, when he held positions of leadership in First Nation communities and organizations over several decades, did Fontaine not bring the alleged perpetrators to the attention of the authorities?” Over the course of residential school history, there have been cases in which students, parents, and school staff, have done so. If Fontaine’s allegations were indeed accurate, his unwillingness to disclose the abusers was an egregious dereliction of his civic responsibility.
It is implausible that if abuse was prevalent in the residential schools, it would not have come to public attention. From the schools’ early years, there was substantial interaction among the students, parents, the reserves, and the broader community. Many of the schools were located on reserve, and many employed Indigenous teachers and caregivers. Substantial numbers of the students were “day scholars” who went home at the end of the school day. After the government initiated a policy of integrating Indian students into provincial schools in the 1950s, many of the students living at the residences attended nearby provincial schools. By 1969, half of the approximately 8,000 students Indian Affairs reported as residential school pupils attended provincial schools during the day.
It is a little known fact that substantial numbers of non-status Indian children attended the residential schools, particularly in the early decades. In 1910, for example, half of the students at the Onion Lake Residential School were “half-breeds or white. Living in close quarters with the other students, the white students would not have been unaware of abuses and would have discussed that information with their parents. White parents would not have been reluctant to report abuse to the authorities in the same way Indian parents may have been.
Parents and bands often gave their wholehearted endorsement to residential schools, and sometimes protested vehemently when the government proposed to close them. This attests to the fact that the schools were often perceived as safe environments.
After the Phil Fontaine interview in 1990, the mainstream media began feverishly publishing stories of abuse at residential schools. The stories became part of the residential school narrative and were ensconced in the Canadian consciousness. This remains the case to this day.
The Sordid Beginnings of the IAP
Among the parties to the above-mentioned Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) and its component IAP, were the government of Canada, the Assembly of First Nations, the Churches that had managed the residential schools, and the Merchant Law Group, a firm that had a long history of representing former students in civil lawsuits.
A side agreement between the government and the Merchant Law Group guaranteed the company no less than $25 million and up to $40 million for its work on the development of the IRSSA. The Group ultimately earned much more through its representation of thousands of former students in the IAP.
Canada was thus positioned as the defendant in a settlement that presupposed its guilt and that guaranteed billions of (taxpayer) dollars in compensatory payments to plaintiffs (former students), as well as tens of millions of dollars to law firms, including one (Merchant’s) that was a foundational party to the IRSSA.
It is perplexing that Tony Merchant, the principal in the Merchant Law Group (and husband of the then-Liberal Senator Pana Merchant), was given a key role in creating the IRSSA. Merchant had previously earned a less than honourable reputation for his role in encouraging civil lawsuits brought by former residential school students. His tactics in recruiting former students to make claims of abuse were considered so unscrupulous and heavy-handed, that in 2000 the Law Society of Saskatchewan levelled charges against him for his improprieties. Although those charges were later overturned in the courts, the government should have considered that Merchant had engaged in other dubious practices, including storing nearly $2 million in secretive tax havens in the South Pacific and Caribbean. The question must be asked, why would the government of Canada see fit to give Tony Merchant a major role in the formation of the IRSSA and IAP, arrangements from which his firm would ultimately gain income from the taxpayers totaling tens of millions of dollars.
Residential Schools as Refuges from Abuse in the Reserves
Abuse against children has long been a troubling feature of life in First Nation communities, and one that has been well documented. According to the 2018 Survey of Safety in Public and Private Spaces, “more than four in ten First Nations (42%)... women experienced physical or sexual assault by an adult during childhood [i.e. before age 15].” The proportion of girls experiencing sexual abuse by an adult during childhood was 22%. These rates are many times greater than the general abuse rate Donna Feir found for the residential schools.
It is often claimed that the astounding level of physical and sexual abuse in First Nations communities today is the result of behaviours and traumas that occurred in residential schools and were passed on intergenerationally. That assertion is patently absurd in light of the relatively low incidence of abuse in the residential schools. Further undermining the claim is the fact that only a relatively small minority of First Nation children attended residential schools. Enrollment peaked at about a third of the First nation child population from the 1930s through the 1950s and was far lower in the earlier and later periods.
Anecdotal accounts of cases in which students described their experience in a residential school as a respite from an abusive situation in the reserves cannot prove or disprove the assertion that abuse was less widespread in the residential schools than in the reserves – the research presented above accomplishes that. But the following story related by Sister Laurette Belanger at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearing with Oblates in Saint Mary, Alberta in 2011 is a poignant illustration of how one residential school served as a safe haven from the perils of reserve life:
Sister Belanger: “Another example I have is about four, three or four years ago, I was called to visit with a lady that I did not know. She knew my name was Sister Lucien then, and she had come to the … house at the Providence centre to see if there was a Sister Lucien there, but my name now is Sister Laurette Belanger. So, this lady started, when she saw me coming down the hallway, she ran to me and hugged me, and I didn’t know who she was. She said, “When you left Assumption [Residential School], I cried and cried, and I was so lonely.” Now, she says that one thing I have against the residential schools is when summer holidays came and Christmastime came, sometimes the big girls would say, “Oh, I’m gonna stay at the mission.” And we’d say, “No, no, you go home, the others are all going home, and you have to go home.” She said, “But Sisters did not know, when we went home, very soon after we were home we were sometimes abused by our grandfather, a big brother, an uncle, and we didn’t want to go home. We felt protected if we could stay at the school.” Now, I said, “Well, why didn’t you say why you wanted to stay?” Well, she said, “We were shy to say it.”
A large proportion of the allegations of abuse received by the IAP were made by students against students. TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson acknowledged at the Oblates hearing that such abuse was prevalent at the residential schools in the North:
“But the other thing that I think caught everyone off guard, and, and, and this is where I’m leading back to what I, what we’ve heard in the north, is the amount of student on student abuse. And I think no one was prepared for, everyone knew there was some, but no one knew to what degree.”
Neither Sister Belanger nor Commissioner Wilson’s statements found their way into the TRC reports.
Abuse Less Prevalent in Residential Schools than in the General Canadian Population
It will be surprising to many Canadians that the level of abuse in the residential schools was much lower than in the general Canadian society. According to Statistics Canada, “Slightly more than one-quarter (27%) of Canadians [male and female] reported being victims of either physical or sexual assault, or both, by an adult at least once before the age of 15.”
Much of the child abuse reported in Canada is perpetrated by school personnel against students. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection issued a report on school sexual abuse covering the five year period 2017 to 2021. It states, “Collectively, a search of disciplinary records, media sources, and criminal case law yielded a total of 252 current or former school personnel working in Canadian K-12 schools that committed or were accused of committing offences of a sexual nature against a minimum of 548 children between 2017 and 2021 inclusively. In addition to this, over the same timeframe, we identified another 38 current or former school personnel who were criminally charged for stand-alone child pornography-related offences. Therefore, in total, 290 school personnel were identified as part of this study.”
The study found, further, that these numbers represented significant undercounts: “As noted, many provinces and territories do not publicly report on school personnel discipline. As such, our report is limited to the available records and therefore underestimates the prevalence of school personnel that committed or were accused of committing offences against children…The number of students abused is also undercounted…In several cases, the exact number of victims was not available, however it was known that a group of students of an unknown size had been victimized. In these cases, it could be logically inferred that at least one victim was victimized. These minimum numbers form part of the report’s total reported number of victims. This means the true number of victims is greater than what is reported in this study.”
This underreporting is of even greater magnitude than suggested in the Centre for Child Protection study because, as is well known, victims of sexual abuse in the majority of cases do not come forward with claims because of the stigmas surrounding the issue and the fear of being caught up in public proceedings. Furthermore, abused persons in the general Canadian population do not have a system of financial compensation as an incentive to come forward with claims.
Idealization of Aboriginal Life in Pre-colonial Canada
Among Indigenous leaders and in many academic circles, life in pre-contact Aboriginal societies is portrayed as idyllic – peaceful and free of abuse and violence. Author and educator Jeannette Armstrong, a member of a Penticton, British Columbia band, writes, “Let me tell you that upon European contact…prostitution, rape, mental illness, suicide, homicide, child sexual abuse, and family violence were all unheard of.” A corollary of this notion is that all of the ills in First Nation communities today stems from colonialism and its adjuncts, including residential schools.
Because there was no written language in pre-contact North America, relatively little is known about the magnitude of social ills such as child abuse among aboriginal people before Europeans arrived. It is certain, however, that abuse did exist. A number of ancient Inuit legends that speak of sexual assault within families have been passed down through the generations. According to Cree-Metis Native Studies professor Emma LaRocque, “Many early European observations as well as original Indian legends (e.g., Cree Wehsehkehcha stories I [LaRocque] grew up with) point to pre-contact existence of male violence and sexism against women.”
Customs that were considered abusive by the newcomers to Canada were socially acceptable in Native tribes. Among the Blackfoot, for example, girls as young as 10 were taken as wives into polygamous arrangements. Indian Affairs objected vehemently to the practice of severe bodily mutilation of young men in the sun dance rituals. Chief Crowfoot of the Blackfoot Confederacy strongly opposed the practice and intervened personally to put an end to it.
These intra-tribal abuses certainly would have paled in comparison with the abuses suffered by victims of inter-tribal warfare, including those captured as slaves. It was common for the owners to kill their slaves as displays of the disposal of property in potlatch ceremonies.
There is no absolute moral high ground with respect to the abuse of fellow human beings, including children, in any society or in any historical period. As Emma Larocque writes, “Sexual violence is global and universal.”
Prominent First Nation Canadians have Lauded their Experience as Students at the Residential Schools
The now almost axiomatic contention in Canada that residential schools were instruments of genocide is contradicted by first-hand accounts of prominent and highly-respected Indigenous Canadians who attended them. Former member of Parliament and cabinet minister, Leonard Marchand, attended the Kamloops Residential School in the late 1940s. He writes in his autobiography, Breaking Trail:
“...the staff did put a definite priority on giving us an education. The classrooms were big, well-lit rooms, with desks as modern as any you could have found on the west side of Vancouver in 1949…And the teachers were just as good.” Marchand suggests the spark for his illustrious career came from his experience at the residential school: “...another motivation took root in the back of my mind: that somehow, by getting educated, I would be able to do something to help my people. I don’t remember the first time that idea came to me, but it probably sprouted sometime during the year that I spent at Kamloops Indian Residential School.”
TRC Commissioner Wilton Littlechild attended Catholic residential schools in Alberta. He told the Oblates present at the TRC hearing held in Saint Mary, Alberta in 2011:
“I just want to express my own personal gratitude to all of you for the, what is it? Six hundred and twelve [total] years you’ve dedicated to us. Cause I’ve said many times that for me, I probably would have been found on Skid row somewhere dead years ago had it not been for, had it not been for residential school.”
Acclaimed First Nation author and musician Tomson Highway stated in a CBC Books interview in 2021,
“My stroke of luck…was the level of education that I have, which is extraordinary. I went to a religious school run by nuns and priests. I went to a Jesuit school. They’re known for their level of teaching.” In an earlier interview with the Huffington Post, Highway said, “Nine of the happiest years of my life I spent at that school.”
It is inconceivable that had the residential schools been instruments of genocide rife with physical and sexual abuse, these and many other illustrious alumni who gave accounts of their time at residential school would have described their experience in such effusive terms.
The Half Truths (At Best) of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
“A half truth, like half a brick, is always more forcible as an argument than a whole one. It carries better.” (Stephen Leacock)
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established in 2007 as a component of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). The TRC had the same built-in biases that prejudiced the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the IAP. The TRCs orientation can be seen in its original mandate statement: “The truth telling and reconciliation process as part of an overall holistic and comprehensive response to the Indian Residential School legacy is a sincere indication and acknowledgement of the injustices and harm experienced by Aboriginal people.” Participedia, a research group based at McMaster University and funded in part by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, conducted an official case study of the TRC. It characterized the TRC mandate this way: “The TRC was established specifically to collect testimony from survivors of the IRS (Indian Residential School) system and to educate Canadians on the experiences of such victims of state-sponsored violence.”
Former students shared their experiences with the TRC Commissioners at over 70 public hearings held across Canada from 2009 to 2012, as well as in private settings and in writing. Quotes from over 700 of the statements were selected for inclusion in the TRC report, “The Survivors Speak”. Only about a dozen of the quotes were positive. This was to be expected, given the biases inherent in the TRCs mandate and the concurrence of the TRC hearings with those of the IAP.
Former students with positive stories to tell were inhibited from speaking out because of the overwhelming negativity of the narrative surrounding the residential schools. This was acknowledged by one of the TRC Commissioners at the aforementioned TRC hearing with the Oblates in Alberta. Commissioner Wilton Littlechild stated to those present,
“And we’ve always said at the beginning that we need a balanced story. Sometimes those who have had a good experience in residential school stay back, because they’re intimidated by the level of negative stories.”
Tomson Highway, who was a student at Guy Hill Residential School in northern Manitoba for nine years, recognized the problem as well. In his 2015 interview with the Huffington Post Canada, he said,
“You may have heard stories from 7,000 witnesses in the process that were negative…but what you haven’t heard are the 7,000 reports that were positive stories. There are many very successful people today that went to those schools and have brilliant careers and are very functional people, very happy people like myself. I have a thriving international career, and it wouldn’t have happened without that school.”
For its part, the mainstream media, having become uncritical champions of the anti-residential school viewpoint, ignore the many positive accounts told by former students. In 2008, as the TRC was beginning its work, J.R. Miller, Canada research chair in Native Newcomer Relations at the University of Saskatchewan, told the Globe and Mail,
“Those who had positive experiences are willing to talk, but the news media haven't been listening. From very early days in the 1990s, the story got framed as a story of abuse. Pure and simple. I can understand how that would happen, but it's had an effect of oversimplifying the story.”
The TRC acknowledged only a handful of former students who attributed their success in life to their experience in residential school. Statements such as those made by the distinguished politicians, authors, and professors noted above did not find their way into the TRC reports. It is a grave injustice perpetrated against all Canadians – Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike – that Commissioner Littlechild’s promise of a balanced story was never kept.
Abuse at the hands of residential school employees and students unquestionably occurred at residential schools. Over the schools’ 113 year history, a small number of employees, about 25, including Indigenous, have been prosecuted. The number who in fact committed abuse is certainly larger. The factors that result in undercounts of abusers and victims in the general Canadian society today were likely in play in the residential school system.
Every act of physical or sexual abuse against a child results in profound and lasting emotional scars. Persons proven through a process meeting Canada’s high standards of justice to have committed abuses in residential schools deserved (and in the case of such living persons, deserve) to be made to account.
While it cannot be denied that abuse happened in residential schools, it must be acknowledged that the denigration of the schools as incubators of extraordinary levels of violence against children has no basis in fact. And further, the contention that the horrific levels of abuse and general social malaise in First Nations communities is in large part the result of traumas experienced in the residential schools is, as the evidence shows, misplaced. A more plausible explanation for the problems is the soul-searing dependence and economic deprivation that is the inevitable outcome of an apartheid system of over 600 mostly small and isolated reserves scattered across a vast expanse of territory.
Focusing on phantom causes such as the “evils” of residential schools not only holds back the search for real solutions, but it fosters a stultifying sense of victimization and hopelessness. As Tomson Highway has suggested, “To be bitter and angry is a very unhealthy place to be. It'll make you sick. And it shows on certain people's faces, you know? Your lips start to develop these, these wrinkles or whatever.” Might Mr. Highway have been alluding to the likes of the ever-scowling Murray Sinclair, or the sullen Tanya Talaga at the Globe and Mail?
Returning to the question posed in the title of this piece, “Were the residential schools cauldrons of abuse?,” it can be concluded unequivocally that they were not. Rather, the evidence is that they were refuges from abuse.
Thanks for reading. For more from this author read Is the Osoyoos Indian Band really a financial success?
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