Last year, on the occasion of the inauguration of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation by our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau was found taking a holiday with his family and enjoying the ocean waves in the West Coast village of Tofino. He wasn’t attending any commemorative events.
It really is difficult to know what to do on this national holiday. Should we follow his example and all go to the beach? Or is this a day of mourning? If that is the case, how much of the day should we spend in mourning? Should we spend an hour from 11:00 a.m. to noon and include a minute of silence? Is it alright to go to the beach afterward? Should we close all beaches to the public?
And that begs the question, what exactly are we commemorating?
I think the simplest explanation is to say we are mourning the children who didn’t come home from the residential schools. They lie buried in graves near the schools. It was not practical to send home their small remains due to the expense of transportation and probably the cost of embalming. If cremation had been done, then that might have changed the entire story because the remains would have been sent home. No, they were given a proper Catholic burial in the vicinity of the schools or churches. Neither the government, nor the schools, nor the families were willing or able to foot the bill to transport them home so now we have unmarked graves. Graves where the original wooden markers have disappeared over the years.
It seems that with this new holiday we will have a day of mourning for aboriginal children in perpetuity.
How many of the children who went to residential schools did not return? Did most of those who died, die of illness? Was the cause of each death investigated? Did any die a violent death? Who was responsible? Did some die as a result of deprivation or other reasons? One thing that has come of this holiday is this article and these questions, but the thought of repeating this every year is troubling. And the thought that efforts at truth and reconciliation haven’t happened in the past is simply not true. News articles bear witness to repeated reconciliation efforts. I think a maudlin preoccupation with abuse is a symptom of our age.
One can look at this from so many angles but first of all we have to admit that the Canadian government, in its wisdom, has for generations mandated that children from six to sixteen attend school, preferably the government-funded public school. Since it was impossible to have schools staffed by teachers in the regions where aboriginal families were scattered, a solution was found. Send the children to residential schools.
For generations parents have coughed up high tuition and boarding fees to send their children to residential schools. We actually call them boarding schools. They are reserved for the elite who can afford them. So separating children from parents is actually not a barbaric practice. But of course, these schools differ substantially from the primitive aboriginal residential schools and not only in terms of luxury. Parents of children in residential schools did not wield any kind of influence in the schools. The real difference between the two is choice. Parents choose to send their children to boarding schools. They are not mandated by the government to do so. Their children are not hauled away by government officials. That is the critical difference.
My immigrant forefathers reached agreements regarding schooling arrangements before arriving on Canadian soil, agreements that were subsequently ignored by the government. Many who would not comply were left with no recourse but to move to another country, and they did so. It was important to raise their children with their own values and without the intrusion of government. Their request to the Canadian government was to have their own teachers and to teach in their own language and this provision was denied.
Now we might say the government, at the time residential schools were implemented for aboriginal children, was being benevolant. Schooling, as well as room and board, were provided at no cost to the parents. But once again, the issue is that the will of the parents was not consulted. It was ignored. There was coercion and forced compliance. The government took it upon itself to replace the parent figure as the one who knows what is best for the children.
We are still up against this today. Parents who protest values they do want to see taught to their children in schools have their objections fall on deaf ears, or worse: they are outright ridiculed. I have witnessed this. Under pressure from special interest activist groups the United Nations mandates ideologies and our governments are compliant, or should we say complicit, in implementing this in a “we know better” approach. These activists carry on international surveillance to gauge compliance.
I am at a loss to know how we ought to behave on this holiday because it is essentially a Canadian holiday meant to point out the failings of our government to consider the wishes and needs of early inhabitants of this grand country. We are commemorating a mistake we don’t want to make again. Yet, in not so small ways, this mistake keeps being made. Government leaders think they know what is best and mess things up. In a few years we might see a Truth and Reconciliation Day for Truckers.
Community “events” are being planned. On Remembrance Day we commemorate sacrifices of honor made for our freedoms. In contrast, I find nothing to celebrate on the Day of Truth and Reconciliation and I’m not sure I want to risk attending these events.
Let’s remember that the Catholic Church is not to blame for being called to do the bidding of the government to educate, feed and house aboriginal children. Individuals who were there, who abused their role, should be held to account and efforts have been made to that effect, but I fear the time has passed now since the perpetrators of alleged abuses are no longer with us.
However, in terms of holding to account, there really is no excuse to continue to allow men with a penchant for young boys to be in positions of access to children within the Catholic Church or in schools.
I don’t want to offer excuses for anyone, but let’s remember that caring for large numbers of children who are away from their parents, around the clock, cannot be an easy task. And anyone who has lived a few decades has seen a tyrannical teacher. My first grade teacher ordered the students in the class who had run around inside during lunch hour to crawl around the circumference of the room, on their hands and knees, and one by one as they came by her, each would receive a strap. I can still hear the wailing and see the tear-stained faces. This was a public school, by the way.
I want to point out something that the media seems to be misrepresenting. There were no mass graves. There was no genocide. Genocide involves intent. Neither the Catholic Church, nor the Canadian government intended to wipe out aboriginal children. The intent was to educate. Some “survivors” have actually given testimony of benefits derived from an education. They would not describe residential schools as institutions of genocide. Yes, there was an abuse of power. But does that call for setting aside a national holiday?
When children died, whether of disease, or loneliness, or abuse, graves were dug for them and wooden markers with names were placed on the graves, according to Catholic tradition. The markers disappeared over the years as the graves were neglected, as I stated earlier. Aboriginal chiefs will tell you the graves are not a surprise. They have known about the graves. If we are talking about a Day for Truth, this should be part of the narrative.
Now we have set aside a day in which every person who settled in Canada, after aboriginals staked a claim here, is to share blame and be shamed for deeds in which they had no part. To me this is taking a very narrow view. I fail to see that anything positive will be accomplished by this holiday, because everyone, guilty or not, is set up to fall short of the required guilt sacrifice.