Residential Schools Should Teach the Church to Cease Trusting Experts

The bodies of 200 children have recently been discovered on the former site of a residential school in Kamloops. At present we do not know precisely when these children died or how, so it is not certain that these children died during the era of the residential school. The actual discoverer of these remains has been adamant that they do not constitute a mass grave and says a full report will be released by the end of the month. That said, it is worth taking the time now to consider how the residential schools came to be, what happened at them, and the nature of Catholic involvement in them. 

The image most people have of the residential schools is as an effort of the Catholic Church to forcibly westernize First Nations children, and that for this reason nuns kidnapped children, forced them to stop using their native tongues, and abused and murdered them. This is a comforting fiction for some people, as it lays the lion’s share of the blame at the one institution that consistently calls out modernity’s sins (thus making moderns very anxious to find any reason to discredit it), but this is a profoundly twisted version of what the historical record in fact shows.

I will be drawing principally from Robert Carney’s excellent article, “Aboriginal Residential Schools Before Confederation: The Early Experience,” which I strongly recommend reading in full. 

Carney goes back to the very beginnings of aboriginal education in the New World, pre-Confederation. The pioneers were the Jesuits, who ran day-schools with instruction in the children’s native languages. The style of these early schools is something quite different from what would become the standard residential school model:

[The Jesuits] followed certain pedagogical principles in what could be described as bush or wilderness schools. These principles included “tact, infinite patience and gentleness,” – in effect a rejection of the European idea of childhood, “which always saw the man in the child” and which regarded childhood “as a period of preparation, obedience, as discipline, often of a harsh character.” (…) Children attending wilderness classrooms were taught in small groups and in their own languages. A variety of pedagogical techniques were used to support such instruction, including simulated games, rewards and prizes, songs and pictures. Little thought was given to imparting secular knowledge, though some of this must have happened given the instructional context. The curriculum included prayers, hymn singing, devotions and doctrine, which sometimes involved the teaching of written scripts. (21, emphases mine)

This kind of education seems to be quite in line with both Catholic values and with how the Jesuits viewed the First Nations. Catholic teaching on education holds, as St. John Paul II put it, that parents are the primary educators of their children and thus a day school, indeed a wilderness school where the teachers come to the students rather than vice versa, seems distinctively Catholic.

Furthermore, “secular” knowledge is good, but only insofar as it turns us towards love of God; the Jesuit model therefore, almost to a fault, made no effort at all to “civilize” the Natives. This is consistent with the attitude of the original Jesuit missionaries. In The Jesuit Relations, St. Jean de Brebeuf refers to the Huron way of life as “if not luxurious, yet adequate and healthful” and then proceeds to talk of spiritual matters; “civilizing” the Natives or improving their technology simply doesn’t come up again. But I digress.

The federal government inspectors, Carney relates, were entirely unimpressed with the Jesuit model. Their preferred model, which would come to be dominant, was that of the Anglican and Methodist missionaries, modeled after English boarding schools: the “residential” school:

Initially, the Anglicans ran day schools:

Protestant entry into the mission fields of Acadia began in earnest in 1796 when the New England Company, a London-based philanthropic society, established a number of Anglican Indian day schools around Saint John. There is no evidence that the Indians asked for these institutions. They had hitherto shown no interest in European schooling and were of the same mind about this venture. The Company responded by consolidating its day school operations into a facility at Sussex Vale which was to be operated by a local board of commissioners. The plan was to settle Indian families on Company land. Their children would be required to attend school on a day basis, and once the children were old enough, they were to be apprenticed to local white settlers.

But since the kids weren’t showing up, the school became residential:

As attendance at Sussex Vale was very irregular, steps were taken in 1807 to provide twenty boarding places in the school, and to maintain an equal number of day spaces for children who were to be indentured locally. The school’s residential program involved taking in infant children, restricting contact with their families, and keeping them away from Roman priests. (22)

The Anglican-run “Mohawk Institute,” founded in 1831, would become the model residential school:

Having achieved limited success in converting and civilizing Indian adults, Protestant missionaries were therefore encouraged to shift their emphasis to the young to accomplish their objectives. It is therefore not surprising to find that the Mohawk Institute’s clients were young children. The school introduced vocational programs in 1833, and added a residential component a year later when “ten boys and four girls from the Six Nations” were taken in and provided with board and lodging. It was the first Indian residential school in Upper Canada and became a model, in terms of programs and physical layout, for Indian schools in Canada well into the next century. The children, including some day scholars, were also given a plain English education as well as some instruction in farming and gardening.

A central part of the Institute’s program was that all instruction and communication was to be conducted in English. Representations from Mohawk communities, such as one from a group of petitioners at Tyendinaga to [Anglican] Bishop John Strachan in 1843, that Anglican schools teach reading and writing in Mohawk as well as English met with no success. Since the English-only policy at the Mohawk Institute was generally deemed to be successful, any thought of including school instruction in aboriginal languages or cultures was seldom countenanced by church or colonial administrations. (24)

Carney tells us that “when it came to aboriginal schooling, the Methodists followed the same path as the Anglicans” (25). Boarding schools, English-only, with teachers effectively replacing parents. 

The federal government strongly preferred the Protestant model to the Jesuit model and made this official policy:

A general consensus was reached in the 1840s among government officials and Protestant missionaries in Canada West that boarding institutions were the most effective means of schooling Indian children. In a “Report on the Affairs of the Indians in Canada,” prepared for the Legislative Assembly of Canada in 1847, the government’s Indian policy was spelled out. The course of action was to “raise Indians to the level of whites” by confirming Christianity among them, by establishing them in settlements, by providing efficient schools for Indian children, preferably institutions where they would be under the “entire control and management of Teachers” away from parents who allowed their children “to do as they please.” (26)

Interestingly, expert opinion was that boarding schools were the most effective education for Natives, whereas day schooling was preferred for whites.

Despite expert opinion, those pesky Jesuits scandalously continued to allow children to be raised by their savage unenlightened parents, and worse, to teach them in their outdated native tongues: 

The educational programs of the Jesuits, who returned to Canada West in 1843 to assume responsibility for Roman Catholic Indian missions, challenged the prevailing view of Indian schooling. In areas of white settlement, they encouraged the admission of Indian children into the common public or separate day schools, where they would be instructed alongside white children. The Jesuit preference for day schools in their Indian missions became apparent in the 1840s at Wikwemikong, Walpole Island and Fort William, where they opened day schools and conducted them differently from the approach taken in Protestant Indian day and residential schools. 

When Jean-Pierre Choné arrived at Wikwemikong in 1844, the fruits of the Jesuit missions during the French regime and the Indians’ inclination “to favour French-Canadian voyageurs and their religion” were apparent. During the next few years, the missionaries opened a day school, and by 1856 the Jesuits were operating two day schools at Wikwemikong, which according to a government report of the time “were crowded with clean, healthy, intelligent children of both sexes.” There was a schoolmaster, an Indian school mistress and two ushers, who taught the children from nine to four daily. Except for a few senior boys who boarded at the parish rectory, all the pupils were day scholars. Ojibwa was the principal language of instruction in the early grades. (27-28)

The government was not amused, and began to vote with its wallet:

This Indian language and instruction orientation was not well-received by the colony’s Indian administration or by school inspectors. There is evidence that the Jesuits’ preference for Indian-oriented, day school programs had repercussions in terms of the financial support given them by the Indian administration. (28)

Carney notes that Jesuits at Wikwemikong received 50 pounds per annum for one teacher, which had to be split four ways––about 12 each––and no fuel or lodging allowances. The Anglican mission at nearby Manitowaning, on the other hand, received a salary of 60 pounds for the schoolmaster alone, along with other sources of funding. 

Eventually, as the government took over Indian schooling, it made funding available for boarding schools only. This, over time, made the Jesuit wilderness schools die out. While in general there seems to have been a suspicion of “Roman influence” among the First Nations as a whole, eventually the government would call on the Bishop to provide staff for the rapidly-expanding residential schools. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Sisters of Charity (Grey Nuns) filled this role. As Carney notes, neither of these orders had teaching experience, nor much knowledge of First Nations culture (though Carney mentions the Oblates working with the Jesuits to make dictionaries and catechisms in the native languages). Thus, though they staffed these schools, the Oblates and Sisters seem to have simply followed the educational model given to them by the experts of the time, which, again, was the approach favoured by the government and Protestant missionaries. Thus, as Carney puts it:

The initial emphasis on relationships, found in seventeenth century Jesuit and Ursuline schools, was superseded by an emphasis on skill acquisition which came about following the establishment of the Mohawk Institute and other early aboriginal boarding schools in Upper Canada. 

The story is a more complicated than I can get across in a blog post (I have not even gotten into the Hudson Bay Company’s role, which Carney covers extensively), so I strongly recommend reading the whole thing. 

Why Abuse Occurred

We know abuse happened at these residential schools. Needless to say, abuse is monstrously wrong, and even one case of it is too many. Why did it occur? Some of it was plain wickedness on the part of individuals, the kind we still see now. Even today, teaching may have the highest rate of sexual abuse of any profession. Why that is, is a topic for another day––for now, we should be aware that no one has not yet solved this problem even in modern schools.

Some of the abuse, though, was part of the system: what the experts said was best for the “savages.” Children were taken from their homes on the grounds that their parents did not know as well as the civilized experts how to raise them. Beating children as punishment for misbehavior and as a “teaching tool” for academic mistakes was the norm in schools in Europe. This meant children would likely be beaten for making the “error” of using their “savage” language. Thus, even teachers not intending to prey on children, if they followed the expert advice, could end up participating in abuse. 

What Caused the Deaths

Most people know that many children died at the residential schools, but in my experience, few know why. Many seem to vaguely imagine that they were all murdered by abusive staff. This is not true.

The main cause of death was illness, particularly tuberculosis. “The Story of a National Crime,” a 1907 report by Canada’s Chief Medical Officer, suppressed by the government for decades, is instructive reading on this topic. Dr. Peter Bryce notes that the residential schools he inspects have about 25% of their students dead, with some having a mortality rate as high as 75%. He says that even new incoming students universally already had tuberculosis before arriving at the schools, indicating a rampant epidemic in the communities themselves. Most disturbingly, Dr. Bryce proposed straightforward solutions to this problem and was repeatedly ignored or refused. He rightly calls the reasons for the refusals “red tape” and, noting the massive financial discrepancy between government response to TB epidemics in aboriginal and white communities, openly accuses his bosses of banking on the notion that the public doesn’t care if Indians die.

Whether the government’s horrifying deliberate negligence––they knew, and refused to act––was due to avarice, or to the thought that tuberculosis could “solve” the Indian “problem” faster than assimilation, I leave to the reader to ponder.

What the Church Should Learn From This

As we’ve noted, the Oblates and Grey Nuns are not teaching orders––they were simply going where they were sent. Thus it is not surprising that they simply took at face value what were presented to them as their standard teaching duties. 

That said, as Catholics, there is one respect in which they absolutely should have known better. They would not have been competent to debate the experts on whether it was better to teach in English or native vernaculars. Nor can many reasonably have been expected to reject corporal punishment as necessary to “good teaching”; they would have been raised on it themselves. 

No, what should have alerted them was that the experts advising these other things were also advocating for the destruction of families. From what I have read, the Oblates and Grey Nuns did not themselves perform the grievously sinful act of removing children from their parents––they were simply staffing the schools––but they absolutely must have known it was going on. 

Sure, the experts were doing this on the (false) grounds that it would make the children smarter and more civilized; one might therefore argue that the staff could not have known that the experts were mistaken. But it does not matter whether the experts were right: even if, counterfactually, having Native parents replaced with teachers meant Natives would grow up with higher IQs, it would still be sinful to take children from their parents. It is not anachronistic to note that any Catholic of this era ought to have known that a worldly goal of this kind does not justify sin. 

So the Catholics knew (or ought to have known) that the experts who designed these schools were, as part of the system, performing objectively sinful acts as a part of their system. Yet they still trusted these experts’ directives on other matters. It never occurred to them that the experts’ willingness to advocate grievous sin might make them likely to be mistaken on other issues too. There is the lesson. 

And at the risk of digressing, it’s a lesson the Church has had more than one opportunity to learn. The pre-modern Church severely punished clerics who preyed on young men, understanding that unnatural sexual acts were extraordinarily sinful and merited extraordinary punishment. At the time of the sexual abuse crisis, as the excellent book Sexual Sabotage by Judith Reisman shows, expert opinion was that pedophilia was not a big deal, didn’t really harm kids, and that pedophiles simply needed gentleness and understanding. Draconian punishments were relics of a superstitious world with irrational sexual taboos. (Indeed, as Reisman notes, right up until the crisis broke, it was becoming increasingly chic in academia to argue that pedophilia was good.) The Church listened to the experts and tried this (falsely) “merciful” approach, and sin abounded. 

To return to the issue of residential schools, how different might things have been had the Catholic Church insisted on running the schools their own way, as the Jesuits had, even if that meant refusing government funding all together?

The residential schools ought to teach us that it is often morally dangerous to follow secular expertise uncritically. Doing so can lead us into sin, or to neglect our duty of witness: calling out evil when it occurs. 

I will leave to the reader the question of how our response, as Catholics, to the advice our public health experts have been giving lately shows whether we have learned this lesson. I would urge us to consider how loudly supporting everything our expert-kings do while (very) quietly mentioning the sins they are committing will look to future ages––and more importantly, how it looks to God. 

Destroying First Nations Culture, Then and Now

There is one final observation to make. The current narrative is that the residential schools so severely impacted First Nations communities that (essentially) all of their current problems can be attributed to lingering historical trauma from this period. 

This kind of thinking is nearly always a blind. Historical trauma obviously does affect the present, but not to the extent that this narrative would have us believe. Serious problems in the present are almost always caused by something also in the present. Indeed, the facts give us further reason to question: the majority of First Nations children did not attend residential schools at all.

Conversely, drug abuse and the destruction of the family are fairly obviously a much larger cause of suffering than any historical trauma’s lingering effects ever could be. Ironically, the Natives would not be wrong to blame the palefaces for this, but it is present, not past palefaces that bear the responsibility: who is responsible for ever-increasingly normalizing drug use? Who are the sexual revolution’s shock troops and most vocal supporters? 

Make no mistake: the devastation drug abuse and sexual sin wreak in First Nations communities will inevitably occur in the “White” world as well, if we persist in acting as we do. It is the nature of these sins to destroy civilizations. The only difference is that wealth allows us to partially delay some of the consequences of these destructive vices: the Natives are simply father along on the same path we are because they adopted Western decadence before acquiring Western wealth. 

But there is a deeper reason for the decline of First Nations cultures: liberalism. As this excellent piece at Oz Conservative shows, liberalism by its very nature devours all non-liberal elements of any culture it is in contact with, and First Nations are no exception.

Liberalism is simply doing to Native cultures what it has been doing to every traditional culture: absorbing or destroying all elements of the culture that contradict liberalism. 

Consider just a few of the elements we are told are (or were) common in First Nations cultures:

– Preference for traditional ways of knowing, and suspicion of progress

– Reverence for ancestors

– Valuing harmony with Nature over mastery of it

– Belief in spirits

– Traditional roles for men and women

– Hereditary chiefs / monarchy.

– Esteeming warriors

– Ethnicity mattering (i.e. I can’t just decide to be Mohawk)

All of these are in direct contradiction with liberalism. Any non-aboriginal person who expresses support for any idea of this kind is consistently branded as irrational, outdated, sexist, racist, and/or dangerous. To reject progress is to fear change. Our ancestors are monsters because they were not as liberal as us. If I want to temporarily chemically neuter myself so that I can have more sex, that’s my choice, not Nature’s, and who cares if that causes pollution? Science tells us that nothing exists except the things science can tell us about. Gender roles are sexist and therefore evil. Non-democratic government is irrational by nature. Aggression is bad. Keeping people out of a nation because they’re foreign is xenophobic. 

(One might dispute the third point, noting global warming alarmism and environmentalism, but this is illusory: the solution is always some form of greater mastery of nature through a newer more progressive fuel source. More to the point, contraception and gender-reassignment surgery are straightforward rebellions against Nature). 

Liberals sincerely don’t want to destroy First Nations culture, so imagine their relief that it is being increasingly “discovered,” as has been the case with all traditional minority cultures, that the First Nations have always been liberals, deep down, the whole time. It has turned out that male-only chiefs wasn’t a big deal at all. And when the hereditary chiefs of the Haida nation voted in favour of the Keystone Pipeline, but the elected chiefs voted against it, the hereditary chiefs were stripped of their status. The wholesale abolishment of hereditary chiefs in general is likely not far off. Perhaps next we’ll “discover” that the First Nations have always rejected the family and advocated open boarders. 

As I’ve said, liberals don’t want to destroy all traditional cultures. The problem is that liberalism, by its very nature, cannot permit non-liberal institutions to exercise any real authority, because that would be oppression. Thus, all liberalism can leave cultures is a few superficial elements that don’t threaten liberalism, such as food and colourful costumes. This explains why liberals are so incensed about seemingly trivial aspects of “cultural appropriation”: after liberalism has finished devouring/assimilating a traditional culture’s religion, morality, sex roles, way of life, etc., all that is left over are the food and costumes––if those get absorbed into popular culture, then the culture will be undeniably dead (rather than merely functionally so). 

I pray that First Nations cultures can survive liberalism in a way that so many other cultures have failed to. But liberalism, thus far, has a rather alarming track record. 

St. Kateri Tekawitha, pray for us. 

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