Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history
and director of research at Redeemer
University College in Ancaster, Ont. Find more of
these columns at www.faithtoday.ca/HistoryLesson.
This past spring the Truth and Reconciliation Com- mission issued its final report on the system of
Aboriginal residential schools in
Canada. Its findings are still being
discussed and will be for a long time.
Some of the commission’s methods and conclusions have been
criticized. It is perhaps not surprising that a few of its 94 recommendations may be ill conceived.
Nevertheless, the commission has
done essential work by drawing national attention to the harm done by
these schools and bringing to light
the experiences of their students.
So what do we, as Evangelicals,
need to know about these schools?
Already before Confederation in
1867, some churches had established missionary-run boarding
schools for First Nations children.
After Confederation, the federal
government incorporated these
into a nationwide system of residential schools. The schools were
funded and overseen by the government, but run by churches – more
than half by the Roman Catholic
church, and the rest by Anglican,
Methodist (United after 1925) and
A mixture of motives lay behind
the creation of this system. Aboriginals initially asked for good education for their children. The churches saw the schools as an extension
of their missionary work.
More ominously, both the govern-
ment and the churches thought if
the children were going to succeed
as adults in a white-dominated soci-
ety, it would be necessary to break
the generational chain that passed
down Aboriginal cultures and ways
of life from parents to children. As
prime minister John A. Macdonald
put it, they needed to be isolated
from their “savage” parents so they
could “acquire the habits and modes
of thought of white men.”
Complicating matters, the schools
were poorly funded. They some-
times attracted teachers who were
unemployable elsewhere, or who
were predators looking for easy
victims. Students were often forced
to work to help cover expenses.
The schools also lacked adequate
oversight and had no accountability
to the parents they were supposed
to serve. But because the government made education compulsory,
and many Aboriginal communities
did not have local schools, many
children were forced to attend
residential schools whether their
parents wanted them to or not.
The consequences were dire.
All of them experienced isolation
from their families in schools with
subpar food, clothing and facilities.
The education they received was
often poor. Many of them were
forbidden to speak their own languages or practise their own cultural traditions.
Horrifyingly, many students
were subjected to sustained physical or sexual abuse with nowhere to
turn for help. Four thousand or
more died in the schools, many due
to neglect. In some cases they were
buried in unmarked graves on
school grounds without their parents even being notified.
Gradually, the authorities real-
ized the residential schools were a
disaster, and in the face of mount-
ing protest and court cases most of
them were closed in the 1970s and
’80s. The last closed in 1996.
In time the churches involved
issued apologies and compensation
for their role in the schools. Even-
tually the federal government did
as well, when prime minister Ste-
phen Harper apologized in 2008.
Our evangelical forebears, for
the most part, were not directly
involved in this system, given it was
run by mainline churches. But
there are also immediately applic-
able lessons for us in this sad tale.
First, good intentions are not
enough. Bad entanglements can do
great harm and bring the gospel
into disrepute, as we see with the
understandable underlying hostil-
ity to evangelism and missionaries
in parts of the commission’s report.
Second, parents have the right to
choose what kind of education
their children receive, period.
Schools and teachers must be ac-
countable to parents, and except in
cases where children are in danger,
they should not be isolated from
Third, because we are all fallen,
authority always requires oversight.
This is especially true for people
who have authority over children,
whether in a school, church or
other setting. Let’s make sure no
abuse takes place on our watch.
Finally, let us extend an extra
measure of respect, understanding
and co-operation to our First Na-
tions neighbours whose commun-
ities are still dealing with the
wounds inflicted by the residential
school system. As we seek justice
and right relationships with them,
let us imitate Jesus, who is himself
the Truth and the one who brings
Horrifyingly, many students were
subjected to sustained physical or sexual
abuse with nowhere to turn for help.
WERE STUDEN TS
IN THE CANADIAN
RESIDEN TIAL SCHOOL
Truth and reconciliation
What do we need to know about residential schools?
IN THE 2015 TRU TH