Willful blindness and the need for healing

By David Langtry

Published in the Edmonton Journal, March 24, 2014.


Later this week I will be an honourary witness at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final national gathering of survivors of Indian Residential Schools, here in Edmonton. It promises to be an emotionally painful, but also healing experience.

The TRC was set up as part of a class-action settlement, the largest in Canadian history, of a lawsuit brought on behalf of tens of thousands of survivors of the schools. They are called “survivors” because the horrific physical and sexual abuse so many endured didn’t kill them. The TRC’s mandate is to uncover these uncomfortable truths and help us move toward reconciliation with Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

Over the past five years, the TRC has heard from thousands of survivors. They have spoken tearfully, angrily, wrenchingly, about being forcibly taken from their families to be crowded into spartan boarding schools plagued by hunger, abuse, disease, and death. Alberta had more residential schools than any other province, so this week’s gathering could be one of the largest. This province alone has 12,000 survivors out of an estimated 80,000 alive today.

Inflicting this trauma on Aboriginal peoples in Canada was not accidental. In the 1870’s the schools became part of an official Canadian policy of forced assimilation designed to “kill the Indian in the child,” drive what was left of Aboriginal populations onto remote reserves, and permit “whites” to settle the West.

The legacy of this policy is visible on the streets of nearly every Canadian city to those who know the story. But most Canadians never learned about it, and indifference is the result.

I grew up in Winnipeg in the 1950s. My upbringing was unusual: racist stereotypes, so common then, had no place in our home. My father saw everyone as equal. He treated everyone with respect.

Aboriginal people have always had a positive influence on my life. My father would take me to Shoal Lake every weekend, where we camped in the heart of a First Nations community and fished from their shores. As a young man, I took a job that involved living and working in First Nations communities throughout Manitoba.

But while I made friends and learned from the wisdom of Elders, I learned nothing about residential schools. Only years later, when I became Assistant Deputy Minister for Child and Family Services in Manitoba, did the deep, enduring impacts of the schools on survivors and their families hit me for the first time.

It helps to remember the schools were established under Canada’s first Prime Minister and were not abolished until the 1990’s. Over 150,000 children passed through them. Research shows psychological trauma is passed from generation to generation. A recent study by University of Ottawa and Carleton University researchers confirms this: the trauma experienced by parents who attended residential schools hurts their children. When multiple generations attended them, the negative effects are cumulative.

This helps explain why Aboriginal people in Canada lag behind the rest of us on indicators of well-being such as education, employment, and health. Yet many of us cannot see the connection between the challenges facing Aboriginal people today and the impacts of ruthless government policy. Perhaps our indifference stems from what we were taught in school, or more accurately, what we were not taught.

Willful blindness to the horrors of the schools was government policy. Dr. Peter Bryce, hired by the government in 1907 to report on health conditions at residential schools in western Canada found that in Alberta the mortality rate was a staggering 50%.

Ottawa’s response was to fire Dr. Bryce, abolish the position, stop reporting, and repress the facts. Shortly afterwards, it became mandatory for all Aboriginal children to attend residential schools.

This is among the reasons why this government’s 2008 apology to Aboriginal people is so significant. But that apology, so overdue, was just a first step. The history of residential schools needs to be taught to our children. This was not just a shameful chapter of Canadian history. It is our history. We must not be complicit in willful blindness.

This Sunday, I will personally commit to help make Canadians aware of our shared past and this legacy of trauma. I intend to be part of the process of healing, because only when we know the truth and assume responsibility for it can we find the path to reconciliation between our peoples.

Healing may take generations, but education will help. As TRC Commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild has said many times, “Education got us into this mess, and education will get us out of it.”

David Langtry is Acting Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission

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