The Senate

Motion Pertaining to the Residential School System Adopted

September 29, 2022


Hon. Mary Coyle [ + ]

Honourable senators, as we gather here today in Canada’s upper chamber, on the lands of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people — on the eve of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — I rise to add my voice in support of Senator McCallum’s Motion No. 10 and to encourage us to vote in favour of this important motion today.

To remind us, the motion reads:

That the Senate of Canada:

(a)acknowledge that racism, in all its forms, was a cornerstone upon which the residential school system was created;

(b)acknowledge that racism, discrimination and abuse were rampant within the residential school system;

(c)acknowledge that the residential school system, created for the malevolent purpose of assimilation, has had profound and continuing negative impacts on Indigenous lives, cultures and languages; and

(d)apologize unreservedly for Canada’s role in the establishment of the residential school system, as well as its resulting adverse impacts, the effects of which are still seen and felt by countless Indigenous peoples and communities today.

Senator McCallum’s motion is asking us — my fellow senators — to admit, to acknowledge and to apologize.

Colleagues, the evidence is clear. In this very chamber, we have all heard Senator McCallum recount her own excruciatingly painful experiences of residential school. Colleagues, in her speech introducing this motion almost a year ago, Senator McCallum quoted James Minton, who said:

We must be acutely aware that the crimes of residential school systems cannot be reduced to the injuries [experienced] by surviving individuals—for residential schools systems were not aimed at individuals, but rather at peoples . . . .

Colleagues, in 1879 — just 12 years after our chamber was established — Nicholas Flood Davin was sent by the Canadian government to investigate Indian education in the U.S.

In their article “Genocidal carcerality and Indian residential schools in Canada,” Andrew Woolford and James Gacek state about Davin’s report:

Soon after his report, several government-sponsored boarding schools opened.

From this time, until the last Canadian residential school closed in 1996, 150,000 children passed through these schools, often spending ten months a year from as young as four or five years of age to as old as eighteen or nineteen. While in residence, they faced an assimilative education that taught them to despise their Indigenous identities . . . . The schools were administered by Christian denominations, namely Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, and Presbyterian. They were spaces of horrifying physical and sexual violence, where children spent half of their days in lessons and the other half working to offset the costs of their education . . . . Conditions at the schools were defined by poor nutrition, insufficient clothing, inadequate medical care, as well as crowding and poor ventilation. Thus, the schools were often deadly environments. The [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] of Canada —

— led by our former colleague the Honourable Murray Sinclair —

— estimates that at minimum 6000 children perished while attending residential schools. Many others left the schools with a feeling of detachment and loss, unable to fit into the white world into which they were supposed to be assimilated, but also unable to return to their home communities since they no longer felt connected to their cultures. Entire generations of Indigenous children went without the experience of familial socialisation, cultural education, and a strong sense of community attachment. The reverberations of this experience continue today, with high levels of physical and sexual violence, substance abuse, health and mental health challenges, and other indicators of marginalisation present within many Indigenous communities and connected to cycles of violence that began in the residential schools.

Our colleague Senator Brian Francis reminded us in his speech sponsoring Bill C-5 — which helped create the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action No. 80 — that the actions of creating and operating the residential schools were:

. . . based on racist assumptions about the intellectual and cultural inferiority of Indigenous people and their ways of knowing and being.

The efforts of the residential schools to assimilate, convert and civilize Indigenous children through brutal means had the intention of “killing the Indian in the child.”

Colleagues, while preparing myself to participate in our special Arctic Committee’s visit to that region in 2018, I spoke with people who were working in the school system in Nunavik in northern Quebec.

I will never forget what one of the senior educators told me about the ongoing impact of the residential school system there. She said that the residential schools were no longer needed to kill the Indian in the child; in fact, their devastatingly harmful legacy is now causing the children to kill themselves in such large and tragic numbers.

Colleagues, in Statistics Canada’s 2019 report on suicide rates among Indigenous peoples in Canada, the suicide rate among First Nations people was three times higher than that of non‑Indigenous people.

The suicide rate among Métis people was twice as high as that of non-Indigenous people. And the suicide rate among Inuit people is nine times higher than that of non-Indigenous people in our country.

Colleagues, I could read you the many achingly painful personal testimonies of residential school survivors recorded through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

I could cite many articles on the intergenerational trauma experienced by the descendants of residential school survivors. I could cite the sorry numbers on Indigenous language loss. I could talk about the ongoing racist treatment and mistreatment of Indigenous Canadians in our health care system.

But I believe the evidence before us is so overpoweringly clear that racism is the basis on which the residential school system was established and operated — and that the manifestations of its horrific impacts on Indigenous people and their communities further fuels that very racism today, as well as exacerbates and perpetuates the harms and human rights abuses they experience.

Honourable colleagues, now let’s turn back to the motion before us, asking us to admit to, to acknowledge and to apologize for this tragic and unjust racist reality of residential schools and their harms.

Colleagues, our very chamber would have been complicit in approving these laws, policies and programs — and complicit in not protecting the children, the families and the communities who were harmed. The residential school system was a cruel and, sadly, effective instrument of genocide.

As one very small step toward reconciliation on this day — the eve of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — honourable colleagues, let’s admit and acknowledge the truth about residential schools, as articulated in this motion. And let’s respectfully apologize as representatives of our respective provinces and territories, and collectively as the Senate of Canada.

Colleagues, let’s take this step toward rebuilding trust and toward healing our important relationships with Indigenous peoples and communities across Canada.

Thank you, Senator McCallum, for your initiative and for providing all of us with the opportunity to do the right thing.

Wela’lioq, thank you.

Hon. Patti LaBoucane-Benson

Honourable senators, I rise on the territory of the Algonquin and Anishinaabeg people to speak in favour of Senator McCallum’s Motion No. 10.

I want to thank my colleague Senator Coyle for that beautiful speech. You got my heart pounding. It was very well done. Thank you.

Colleagues, in the beginning, when the European settlers first arrived, the nature of the relationship with First Peoples has been described as a relatively peaceful coexistence. The relationship wasn’t great. It wasn’t even good. Nonetheless, there was a dialogue beginning between First Peoples and individual settlers, which, if allowed to expand and flourish, held real potential.

However, at the very same time, the country we now know as Canada also began to take shape. The government needed to secure Crown land, create an international border, create a system of individual land ownership and sell our natural resources to pay for it all.

Indigenous people were viewed as a barrier to progress and therefore needed to be moved off the land and absorbed into this process of nation building. To accomplish this, the government promoted three fundamentally racist assumptions: One, that Indigenous people were primitive and uncivilized; two, that they were godless and heathen; and three, that they were childlike and unable to make decisions for themselves.

Those ideas — those lies — were used to justify all the laws, policies and programs the government used to segregate and forcefully assimilate First Nations, Métis and Inuit people. Combined with the obvious language barriers between settlers and First Peoples and the pre-existing fear many settlers had of Indigenous people, settlers never really got to know who Indigenous people were.

How would individual settlers have had the chance to understand this beautiful Indigenous interconnected worldview? Communities and nations were deeply interconnected, creating a complex and robust safety net for children to ensure their protection, education and positive identity and vocational development.

In addition, at the time of settlement every nation had a legal tradition, a constellation of strict laws, values and ethics that guided the behaviour of all members. But, again, how would settlers have known?

Senator McCallum’s motion first proposes that the Senate acknowledge that racism, in all its forms, was a cornerstone upon which the residential school system was created. She asked us to acknowledge the racism and to acknowledge the far-reaching intergenerational impacts of the residential school system.

One definition of racism is:

. . . the belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another. . . .

There is ample evidence that the government of first England, then Canada used those racist assumptions to distinguish Indigenous peoples as inferior to justify the laws and policies passed to control every aspect of their familial, social, political and spiritual lives.

This included the Indian residential school system, which had three components. First was to break the bonds of kinship by removing children from the influence of their family and community for the majority of their childhood.

In 1908, the then minister of Indian affairs Frank Oliver predicted that residential schools’ attendance would “elevate the Indian from his condition of savagery.”

Later, Duncan Scott, deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, stated frankly that the provision of education to Indian communities was necessary, for without it Indigenous people would be an undesirable and dangerous element in society .

Honourable senators, the bonds of kinship were broken so significantly that the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples reported that:

Aboriginal children learned to despise the traditions and accomplishments of their people, to reject the values and spirituality that had always given meaning to their lives, to distrust the knowledge and lifeways of their families and kin. By the time they were free to return to their villages, many had learned to despise themselves.

Second, residential school attendance was meant to stop the development of an Indigenous identity through acculturation into European culture and Christianity. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples found that the focus of residential schools was not education, and the school staff were not trained teachers. In fact, a departmental study found that as late as 1950:

. . . over 40 per cent of the teaching staff had no professional training. Indeed, some had not even graduated from high school.

Most teachers were priests or nuns, who focused their efforts on the Christianization of children and the destruction of the cultural and spiritual expression of Indigenous people.

And, senators, the assumption that Indigenous people were godless and heathen was an appalling misunderstanding. Children raised in their loving families, in that web of deep, caring relationships, had a profound connection with their loving Creator. They certainly didn’t need religious conversion.

The truth is that Duncan Campbell Scott was absolutely aware that the residential schools were providing a poor quality of education that was well under the standards of that time period. He was also aware of the lack of funding for the schools and neglect by the Department of Indian Affairs. Undernourished children with depressed immunities living in overcrowded, unsanitary dormitories led to the spread of disease, like tuberculosis, among the children, who died without proper medical attention. And there was a doctor.

Between 1904 and 1914, the chief medical officer for the Department of Indian Affairs, Peter Bryce, wrote numerous reports detailing the unsanitary conditions of the schools and the very high rate of death of the children. In addition, in 1907, he did a special inspection of 35 different Indian schools in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which the government never made public. It said:

Regarding the health of the pupils, the report states that 24 percent of all the pupils which had been in the schools were known to be dead, while of one school on the File Hills Reserve, which gave a complete return to date, 75 percent were dead at the end of the 16 years since the school opened.

He offered sensible recommendations to the government to fix the problem.

Dr. Bryce, a professor from McGill, also wanted to bring the tragedy of the high rate of death of Indigenous children to a meeting of the Canadian Tuberculosis Association. The federal government not only blocked the discussion but did nothing to attempt to stop the spread of TB in the schools and took no action to provide medical attention for sick children. They essentially condemned the children to a painful death.

Again — this was 1914 — the government knew better and chose not to act in the best interest of the children. They didn’t think Indigenous children were worth the expense or the trouble. Dr. Bryce called it “transparent hypocrisy.”

Bryce noted that, at home and with good sanitation, Indians had a higher birth rate and a lower infant mortality rate than non‑Indigenous people and therefore should see significant population growth. And, if the same quality of health care would have been provided in Alberta to Indigenous peoples “. . . much might have been done to prevent such a splendid race of warriors as the Blackfeet from decreasing,” noting that the actual loss of population for that community was 40%.

Finally, Bryce worked to ensure that the development of a bill for a Department of Health — our very first Canada Health Act — would include Indian medical service. However, the bill entered second reading with the Indigenous clause removed. Bryce despaired that the Minister of Health:

. . . could with all the accumulated facts and statistics before him condemn to further indefinite suffering and neglect these Wards of the Canadian people, whom one Government after another had made treaties with and whom deputies and officials had sworn to assist and protect.

This led to a complete confusion between provincial and federal jurisdiction — does that sound familiar to anyone? — that resulted in no one claiming responsibility to ensure Indigenous people received adequate health care.

Bryce even tried to convince the government to do better, noting that in 1914, 2,000 Indigenous people had already volunteered to fight for the empire in the First World War.

Honourable senators, we are often accused of judging the past based on today’s standards. The truth is that bureaucrats knew they had a problem, but didn’t want to spend the money saving the lives and properly educating Indigenous children because the third and final goal of residential schools was to eventually free the government of any treaty obligations by assimilating Indians through enfranchisement. Children who didn’t survive were no longer their problem.

Finally, Senator McCallum asks us that the Senate apologize unreservedly for Canada’s role in the establishment of the residential school system.

I spent a lot of time reading the Debates of the Senate from 1920. They were very instructive. In 1920, the Senate debated the amendments to the Indian Act that would make residential schools mandatory. Senator Lougheed, the government sponsor of the bill, argued that Senate should pass the bill, stating that the schools were:

. . . manned by competent teachers; Indian children have been taken from their parents and furnished with educational advantages and desirable influences, . . . .

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

The critic, Senator Bostock, was highly suspicious of the bill, stating:

I think it’s a serious matter indeed for the Government to undertake to take these Indian children in this way and separate them from their parents and their home surroundings and to put them in boarding schools, which, if careful inquiry were made, I think we might find were subject to certain objections and not altogether satisfactory.

Senators, they knew the conditions of the schools were bad.

In fact, Senator Bostock made a compelling argument regarding the difference in the Indigenous mentality and how it is largely misunderstood by White people. He argued that the Indian would see the situation differently and that the government should take into consideration the position of Indigenous leaders very carefully. He wanted the government to consult with Indigenous leaders.

Further, he had consulted with the Indians of British Columbia, stating:

I think they have shown every desire to have their children educated and trained and that the children themselves have shown that they have a mentality that makes them capable of acquiring information and of responding very quickly to the training they are given.

It appears they were advocating for day schools, which would allow for children to stay with their families while acquiring an education.

The bill’s sponsor was not persuaded. He said:

In many cases it is very desirable to take the children away from the demoralizing influences which surround them in their homes. The children are placed in those boarding schools, under not only moral, but religious influences . . . .

Colleagues, senators knew that Christianization was a primary goal. The fact that the schools were not even run by the government but through contracts with the church was also called into question. Senator Turriff, who also opposed the bill, asked what the educational record of the schools was. He mused that surely, after 25 years, there should be Indian teachers, doctors, lawyers and farmers. The bill’s sponsor replied that he didn’t have the statistics, and blamed poor educational outcomes on the nomadic nature of the Indians.

Senators, reading the Debates of the Senate makes it obvious. They knew the school conditions were bad, the educational outcomes were poor and that Indigenous leaders didn’t want their children to attend. They also knew it was immoral to remove children from their families and communities. But they went along with it anyway.

For these reasons, the Senate has ample reason to apologize. By passing this motion, the Senate will finally apologize for our institution’s role in an atrocity that was perpetrated on generations of Indigenous children and continues to affect the lives of people to this day.

Senators, if you agree, I would like to call the question on this motion. Hiy hiy.

The Hon. the Speaker [ + ]

Are senators ready for the question?

The Hon. the Speaker [ + ]

Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, to adopt the motion?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

(Motion agreed to.)

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