The Not So Glorious Past

Canada, like any country, has its past glories to celebrate and some things that are a shameful black mark. The discovery of hundreds of unmarked children’s graves on old residential school sites has brought up a dismal racist aspect of our past, part of which is still with us today. By all means celebrate the good, but let’s also commit to fixing the historic injustices that still linger in our society. To that end, the first step is knowledge, the second is action. Here’s a book that will help that understanding.

21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act by Bob Joseph

Indigenous Relations Press, 2018

The recent wave of discoveries involving unmarked graves around former residential schools has some people astonished, horrified and wondering how this came to be.  The generally inadequate reporting left too many unanswered questions and resulted in some wondering if the children were the victims of foul play. 

If Canadians want to broaden their understanding of this shameful part of Canada’s past, they could start by reading a short book written by Bob Joseph and published in 2018 by ‘Indigenous Relations Press’.  An e-copy can be obtained for $9.95 by going to:    The Joseph book is probably the best primer to use in understanding the historic injustices and current frustrations of First Nations peoples in Canada.

It was Canada’s colonial attitude to First Nations peoples and the policies of government, rooted in a belief that aboriginal people should be ‘assimilated’ into a single white ‘Christianized’ society that led to: the ‘Indian Act’, residential schools and the mass gravesites that are now being revealed.

There were upwards of 150,000 children ripped from their families by government decree and forced into residential schools between 1886 and 1996.  The schools were overcrowded to a degree that left the children extremely susceptible to diseases that were rampant in the facilities.  Completely inadequate funding left children malnourished.  The children were subjected to harsh treatment in an effort to ‘civilize’ them.  Stripped of their families, language, culture, proper nutrition and human kindness, they died by the score.  Joseph reports an estimate that 6,000 of these children died.  The contemporary accounts that Joseph quotes might lead to the possibility that the toll was even higher.  Record keeping by the government, Indian agents and the schools was extremely poor and it can’t be easy to generate accurate data.

In 1907 the national magazine ‘Saturday Night’ published an article on residential schools stating: ‘Indian boys and girls are dying like flies… Even war seldom shows as large a percentage of fatalities as does the education system we have imposed on our Indian wards.’

In 1914, Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of Indian affairs wrote: ‘It is quite within the mark to say that fifty per cent of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education which they had received therein.’

A 1907 report by Dr. Peter Bryce (hired as a Public Health Officer by the government) also outlined the grim realities of residential schools.   Joseph notes that ‘Bryce’s report was never published by the Department of Indian Affairs, quite likely due to its damning nature and recommendations for expensive renovations. Most of Bryce’s recommendations were rejected by the Department of Indian Affairs as too costly and not aligning with the government’s policy for rapid, affordable assimilation.’

While the churches ran the schools, it is the government that holds the greatest responsibility for this attempt at cultural genocide.  Their policies about residential schools continued unabated, despite the evidence of its effects. In 1910, a few years after Bryce’s recommendations, Scott reasserted his support for residential schools in a letter to the British Columbia Indian Agent General: “It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian Problem.’  The wording has chilling similarities to those propounded by Reinhard Heydrich at the 1942 Wannsee Conference in Berlin.

Residential schools, unfortunately, were only a small part of the apartheid encapsulated in the Indian Act, a piece of legislation that, in some amended parts, is still with us today.  There were on-going measures that legalized government theft of Indian lands and a section that made it illegal for Indians to hire lawyers or raise money to hire legal counsel. In fact there were jail sentences for anyone who lent Indians money for lawyers or legal counsel.

After reading Joseph’s book, you will have a much clearer understanding of why Canada has such an acrimonious relationship with its original inhabitants.  You’ll get a glimmer of how difficult ‘reconciliation’ is really going to be.  The real question is whether Canada can forge a nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations that recognizes them as self-determining, self-governing, and self-reliant.


Get this book and read it!

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