(Not) Too Late to Apologize

Ashley Thorne

How many apologies are enough to right a wrong? One more, apparently, can never hurt.

Last week, University of Manitoba president David Barnard made an official statement of apology to native Canadians for requiring children to attend “Indian Residential Schools” during the 19th and 20th centuries. These church-directed boarding schools mandated that the children live apart from their families in order to accustom them to practicing Canadian ways and speaking English. Students were not allowed to speak in their language or practice native traditions. It is a story of a social experiment that seemed well-intentioned but turned out to be an enduring stain of shame for Canada.

Indian Residential Schools were established in the 1840s after Methodist minister Egerton Ryerson published a commissioned study recommending the best form of education for native residential schools. The minister, after whom Ryerson University is named, also helped shape general education in Canada. Professor Ron Stagg, who teaches at Ryerson today, defends the creation of residential schools:

Natives generally welcomed them as the education provided would help their children cope with the changing nature of their environment. Increasingly they lived among farms and, as the farms were cleared of trees, their semi-nomadic way of life became increasingly difficult. Knowing English, arithmetic, etc. was seen as beneficial in the new environment. For the churches, this was a way to convert the natives, but was not seen in terms of making them into copies of white persons.

The last Indian residential school closed in 1996, a few years after Canadians began to condemn the system, calling it an instrument of “cultural genocide” and denouncing the role it played in squelching native Canadian language and customs. In 1998 the Canadian government made its first formal apology to indigenous tribes. Three years ago the Canadian prime minister again begged pardon on behalf of the federal government; two years ago the Vatican confessed on behalf of the church; and last week the University of Manitoba put its apology on the record.

President Barnard refers to “physical, sexual, and emotional abuses that occurred at residential schools.” Wikipedia echoes this phrase without providing references or examples, as did the Canadian prime minister and Pope in their statements. All Prime Minister Harper said was that the children were “forcibly removed from their homes” and that many were “inadequately fed, clothed and housed.” In his 1996 book Shingwauk’s Vision, J.R. Miller gave more detail. He related anecdotes of sexual abuse by both the staff and the older students. He described the excessive punishment the staff administered to misbehaving students – shaving their heads, striking them, calling them “stupid Indians.” Miller wrote that the worst problem, however, was that removed from family life, many children never learned “how to love” and turned to violence and alcoholism as adults.

Reporter Patrick Donnelly, however, wrote in a 1998 Alberta Report article that these anecdotes don’t tell the whole story. Former residential school students he spoke with remembered their schools fondly and with appreciation for what they had learned:

I really enjoyed my time at the school; not only did I learn to work with other people, I also learned to respect them and respect myself.

We learned reading, writing, history, science, as well as how to operate machinery and farm chores. I really appreciated being able to learn all that. I'm a rancher now, and I use a lot of what I learned at the school.

Donnelly’s story shows that many native parents were eager for their children to attend the schools; that the schools were turned over to Indian control starting in the 1970s; and that schools run by tribal offices were themselves prone to sexual abuse allegations.

Rod Lorenz, a Métis Catholic missionary whose son attended a residential school, is quoted in the article: “Sure, mistakes were made but there are two sides to this story and you have to look at the positive side.”

He noted that much of the motivation for complaint about the schools came from the hope of reparations. “Victimhood gets money,” said Lorenz. “If you’re trying to get money, balance is not what you want.”

The Canadian government has been liberal with victimhood money. With its first apology in 1998 it established the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and endowed it with $350 million. In 2005 it announced a $1.9-billion compensation package for all who attended Indian residential schools. Hundreds of millions more have been spent on investigative projects and agencies such as the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

So what prompted the University of Manitoba to say something now? The University, in fact, played no role in the Indian Residential Schools. President Barnard wanted to be on the safe side, and he blames the University for standing by and not confronting them. His statement is in the main a politically correct gesture to curry favor with those who see the world in terms of victim narratives. Indeed, Barnard uses the word “victim” and even the word “survivors” to refer to those who attended Indian Residential Schools. The word “survivors” is itself a mechanism of guilt. Some children died of natural causes while attending the schools, but attendance was not inherently life-threatening, as the misleading word indicates.

President Barnard’s apology is an ode to multiculturalism in the modern university. He promises, “We will work to ensure that the values of First Nations, Métis and Inuit cultures and communities are included in scholarship and research across the university.” He closes with a “thank you” in seven aboriginal languages (apparently they haven’t been wholly lost).

Apologizing for bad but long-discarded social policy from a different era is a way of fawning before the right people in order to appear moral and humble. Ironically, it’s also a means of asserting self-importance.

The University of Manitoba’s arbitrary confession is misguided in four ways.

First, it ignores the good that residential schools did in providing both liberal and practical education to many generations of people who benefitted from such training and would probably not otherwise have had access to it.

Second, it addresses a system that has been essentially defunct since the 1970s and totally defunct for 15 years. How many years afterward do apologies remain relevant? It’s hard to know, but at some point we have to put the past behind. That’s a key element in the debate over reparations for American slaves, but slavery has been practiced throughout all of history. Should the Egyptians apologize for enslaving the Israelites? Should descendents of the Roman emperors apologize for feeding Christians to the lions?

Third, it suggests the advent of reverse indoctrination at the University of Manitoba. Whereas President Barnard faults the residential schools for compelling assimilation into non-native culture and language, he seems to be setting the stage  for a privileging of aboriginal cultures. His vision to include indigenous interests in “scholarship and research across the university” essentially establishes affirmative action for favored ideas. This is how certain ideologies can bypass normal academic scrutiny and enjoy attention without earning it.

Finally, the University’s grandiose apology fosters a permanent sense of grievance. Barnard says we must “move forward in a spirit of reconciliation,” but continuing to dwell on the past and this victim narrative is a move backward. The way to nurture healing, on the contrary, is to focus on what we have in common as human beings, to strive for equal opportunity for all people, and to show respect by holding everyone to the same standards of merit.

The history of the Indian Residential Schools is not above reproach; no doubt many students (and their parents) experienced loneliness and difficulty, and some fared worse. But declaring mea culpa over and over again years after the fact merely freezes everyone in the past and amplifies tension between groups. 

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