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.
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.”
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.