Local writer offers even-toned overview of residential schools
December 29, 2014
Western Catholic Reporter
The story of Canada's Indian residential schools could be told and often is told with moral outrage. Lord knows that it was a system that was warped in just about every conceivable way.
Larry Loyie, a former student at the St. Bernard School in Grouard now living in Edmonton, however, has chosen to provide an overview of the schools in a matter-of-fact way without invective or sensationalism.
Loyie, in his Residential Schools: With the Words and Images of Survivors (Indigenous Education Press), written in conjunction with Wayne Spear and Constance Brissenden, has told the story of the schools in a way accessible to the average reader.
Most of what has been written about the schools has come in the form of either academic treatises or personal accounts provided by survivors. Loyie too has told his own story in Goodbye Buffalo Bay (Theytus Books, 2012).
But his new publication is the product of more than a decade of work by himself and his two co-authors, rounding up photos, personal stories and random facts about the schools.
The result is something that should be read and perused by every Canadian who wants to understand what residential schools did to Canada's aboriginal people without having to plough through a lengthy history or rely on the testimony of one or more individuals.
Loyie's Residential Schools is replete with dozens upon dozens of photographs, both archival and current, and a bevy of brief sidebars that provide a brief sketch of an individual's school experience or some interesting fact about the institutions.
We learn, for example, that students at the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont., referred to the school as The Mush Hole because of the sticky porridge they ate every morning.
Or, that in the famous photo of youngster Thomas Moore taken at the Regina Industrial School in 1910 (presented on the left side of the book's front cover), Moore was made to look like "a savage" by dressing him up in a conglomeration of traditional men's and women's clothes that had no connection with his life on the reserve.
Or, the comment by a former white student who went to play hockey against the team from the Fort Frances, Ont., residential school and sensed a feeling of sadness pervading the native hockey players.
Loyie does not whitewash the schools, but neither does he overwhelm us with the details of the sexual abuse experienced by some students.
There are pieces of information I had not heard previously, for example, that nearly 1,000 already malnourished residential school students in several schools were made research subjects in a nutritional experiment in which they were further deprived of both food and vitamin supplements.
No matter how you cut it, the story of Canada's residential schools amounts to what historian John Milloy called a national crime, a crime whose repercussions continue to reverberate through Canadian culture today.
The residential schools were a failure in every way. They failed in their goal of assimilating aboriginal people into mainstream society while at the same time ripping away the familial, cultural and spiritual roots of hundreds of thousands of young children. They failed to educate their students while introducing many of them into a culture of physical and sexual abuse.
Thousands of aboriginal children died in the schools; tens of thousands became the walking dead. Many also survived and overcame their harsh upbringing to make decent lives for themselves.
There is also a story that has not been told, that of those who worked in the schools, including sisters, priests and brothers, who were exploited labour for the federal government's nefarious assimilation policy.
They too suffered greatly and were tossed into a no-win situation usually untrained and almost always without the financial resources needed to feed and clothe their young charges properly.
The churches also carry a heavy weight of blame for the schools, something that cannot be whitewashed. But they too have a story to tell, one that unfortunately cannot or will not be heard by the general public today.
Nevertheless, the First Nations' perspective on residential schools is one that every Canadian should know. Larry Loyie and his co-authors have told and presented that story in a way that most white Canadians should be able to digest and incorporate into their own understanding.
Their book, Residential Schools, is recommended reading.