Lesson learned, now for the next step

Peter Jackson
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The sordid legacy of residential schools has left a lasting scar on the relationship between native populations and the rest of us who — fairly or not — have inherited the sins of European settlers.

It is difficult to even broach the subject of native education without unwittingly fashioning a stick for your back.

But a Senate committee has been doing exactly that, and its conclusions and recommendations — released in December, but overshadowed by the crisis at Ontario’s Attawapiskat reserve — point towards a fundamental shift in the way native populations in this country will be schooled.

It’s a new approach that appears to be supported — at least in principle — by Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo, and by a wide swath of band councils across Canada.

To get an idea how far things have come, one need only look at the attitude of Confederation-era administrators.

Much of this history is spelled out in the exhaustive 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

Long history

Residential schools were already in existence in the 1890s, but the implementation of a nationwide system run by the churches was already in the works.

The purpose of these schools was best summed up in the words of a federal bureaucrat named Hayter Reed. Teachers and staff, he said, were expected to employ “every effort … against anything calculated to keep fresh in the memories of the children habits and associations which it is one of the main objects of industrial education to obliterate.”

A recipe, of course, for disaster.

The 1900s were a costly century for natives, who lost much of their dignity and cultural heritage through the policy of assimilation. It was also costly for modern church-goers, who were forced to shell out millions in compensation for events that largely pre-dated them by decades.

In the ashes of the residential school system, native education has fallen into a hodgepodge of loose arrangements, with varying degrees of independence from provincial school boards, and federal funding that has failed to keep up with rising costs.

The thrust of last month’s Senate committee report — led by Conservative Sen. Gerry St. Germain — is to not only put native education into native hands, but to ensure the firm support of Ottawa in its delivery.

“Witnesses argued, and we concur, that the federal role is not merely to fund First Nations educational services,” the report said. “It is to work, hand in glove, with First Nations to help build their educational capacity and institutions so that they are able to deliver an effective educational program to their students, comparable to provincial and territorial offerings.”

Adds impetus

As John Ibbitson pointed out in Monday’s Globe and Mail, the Senate report may add momentum to a summit later this month between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and native leaders.

“The thinking is that the summit … and the growing co-operation between the chiefs and the Conservatives — on the education issue, if nothing else — could provide sufficient impetus for a First Nations Education Act that most chiefs would support,” Ibbitson wrote.

“If all goes well, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan could present the bill to the House during the fall session.”

The Senate committee recommends that any new act be composed of broad strokes and principles. The intention would be to work out the inevitable sticking points after the fact.

But Harper appears, at least, to be open to offering greater federal support for a native education regime that aspires to a solid degree of structure and oversight.

So, there you have it: from assimilation to an independent education system.

And it only took a century.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor.

Email: pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Senate committee, Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo, Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.Long First Nations Globe and Mail Conservatives

Geographic location: Ontario

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Recent comments

  • Herb Morrison
    January 12, 2012 - 08:58

    Well said Ms. Smith. When the French and English came to the New World, they dealt with the people they found here in the same way they would deal with another Country such as Spain ior france. That's where the term First Nations originated. France and England made treaties with the First Nations people in the same manner in which they made treaties with other Nations. Unfortunatly succeeding Canadian Giovernments have chosen not to honor the treaties made years ago. Hence we hacve the land claims disputes today which exist between the Federal Government and the First Nations. I remember sitting in a Political Science class listenion to a Professor outline the history of the land claims dispute between the First Nations and the federal Government. Ms. Smith, your people were here first, the treaties should be honoured. Both the land claims dispute, and the sordid saga of the residential Schools should not have happened and should not be happening.

  • Annie Smith St-Georges Algonquin Elder
    January 11, 2012 - 17:16

    WE know what has happened, and WE know what has to be done. What We also know is that the proper measures will not be taken by the responsible people. But by US without interferences, by OURSELVES, and nobody else. WE are the sole owner of this land called Canada and We know, deep in our soul that it only belongs to US. WE have accepted to welcome everyone living now as canadians, We expect recognition for it. For GOD (Kijé Manito's) sakes, WE are not immigrants in our own country. Think about that for a minute or two or three and reflect on your ancestors and their decisions,,,

  • Herb Morrison
    January 11, 2012 - 09:15

    I would suggest that perhaps the reason it takes institutions such as Churches so long to right the wrongs is the fact that they have to be faced woth indisputable eviidence of wrondoing before they will even acknowlege that wrongs were committed. Then the Churches involved need to figure out a way to both apologize for the wrongs committed, while at the same time saving face. I studied the history of what iooccurred in the Residential Schools while in Seminary. One of the reasons that motived the Churches involved in the Residential School to both acknowlege that wrongs had occurred and to apologize, thereby facilitating reconciliation was the fact that a high profile member of the First Nations, namely former Chief Phil Fontaine, revealed that he had been a victim of abuse in a Residential School. It took time for the Churches involved to figure out a way they could apologize while at the same time saving face.