Curing Residential School Trauma

What is with all this “Gosh, we didn’t know!” about the Residential Schools? As I suggest in my book, “Why Are People So Stupid?” one of the main reasons that people act in irrational ways is that they really need to. The Canadian public cannot reconcile the nicey-nice image we have of ourselves with the horrendous details of the treatment of children in residential schools. Now that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has slapped us in the face with its report, we can no longer make excuses. It is time to act.

The Evidence Was Evident
There was a Residential School 40 miles from where I grew up. By the time I was 10 years old, I knew that the kids there were native children who had been taken away from their parents so that they would learn to be good little Canadians, and thus be able to partake of our society and be successful and happy.
A measure of my growing up involved my increasing awareness that this wasn’t necessarily a good situation. At that time, I didn’t worry about those kids and their situation. I didn’t think school was a great place, either, but I was sold the same line. Sure, the strap was a fact of life, bullying was endemic on the playground, and the teachers couldn’t/wouldn’t do anything about it. But you put up with it, because that was part of growing up. That was the way the world seemed to work. Some had it bad, others had it worse. I had yet to learn about sexual abuse.

A Worldwide Problem
But we must consider that all of European society – ever since we expanded our horizons and realized that there was a whole world full of other people out there – has believed that our way of life is superior to all others, and that everyone in the world would be better off if they followed in our footsteps. And let’s not make all the people who thought this way into monsters. Many of them were well-meaning people who truly believed that what they were doing was for the good of the indigenous people of the world.
The irony, of course, is that in practice the idea was sound. The European socio-economic system was destined to roll over the rest of the world’s cultures, and the peoples that have survived the best are those who adapted the fastest. When it comes to medicine, nutrition, education, and science, most people in the world would agree with European methods to a greater degree.
When it comes to the methods used to attain these ends, especially those of past centuries, most people would have serious reservations (no pun intended, but there it is).

A Further Irony;
In the American residential school system, (upon which the Canadian system was based) the residential school proponents were the friends of the indigenous people. Their enemies thought it would be better to just kill them off. Fortunately for America’s native tribes, it was calculated that it would cost about seven times as much to wage a war than it would to set up the schools, so the “educators” won the day. That was the prevailing world view 150 years ago, and Canadian governments toddled along happily, setting up residential schools to deprogram the children of the First Nations.

So the question we are all asking ourselves; was Canada that much worse than anyone else? Unfortunately, we were, for the simple reason that, with help from our British boarding school and Anglican and Catholic church school traditions, we were one of the most effective systems in the world at eradicating native culture. Which is not to say we were the worst in our treatment of indigenous people. We didn’t wage war on them like the Americans did, or hunt them for sport, as the Australians are said to have done.

But How Many Times Must We Discuss It?
When you see someone who only wants to talk instead of doing something, you can be sure that person hasn’t got his head around the fact that something really needs to be done. So now we have beat this around the bush for eight paragraphs in this essay, a week in the national media, and a century or so in the rest of the country. If we’re ever going to get our heads around doing something, NOW IS THE TIME.

That Was Then; What Now?
Now that the optimistically named Truth and Reconciliation Commission has completed the first half of its mandate, how do we achieve the second part? I don’t know that much about treatment of deep-seated trauma, but I’m sure that validating the victim’s experience and rights is a crucial first step. Presumably the public telling of the Truth has done that. The reconciliation is another matter.

The Political Solution
Of course, the immediate demand from the Opposition parties in Parliament was to throw money at the problem, and the predictable response from the Governing party was reluctance, because Balancing the Budget is their credo. This dumped the problem right into the usual parliamentary merry-go-round that will ensure that it goes nowhere. I have to say that while watching Question Period on this topic it came home to me that Thomas Mulcair is the quintessential one-trick pony, who does “righteous indignation” to perfection. And nothing else. And Justin Trudeau didn’t come up with anything much more original.
I was looking for someone to stand up in Parliament and say “Citizens of Canada. This is too important a matter to get sidelined by political partisanship. Let us create an all-party committee to come up with a plan that will be implemented no matter who wins the next election.”
I’d vote for someone like that.

Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome on a National Scale
But that’s never going to happen. Forget the political slant; we are dealing here with the effects of society-wide, generations-deep trauma. In the best of situations, it probably takes three generations before the effects of a serious abuse are pushed aside by the resilience of the human soul. And that’s the best-case scenario. If conditions continue to perpetuate the damage, the situation becomes a self-licking ice cream cone that can go on forever. The paternalistic, government-imposed administration of the past hundred years has done little to solve Canada’s ills, because the solution perpetuates the problem. The Irish (another indigenous people overrun by the imperialistic English) kept their battle going for over 400 years. Unless we find a way to change the rules of the game, I don’t see Canada doing much better.

Our Attitude Advantage
One thing we have going for us is the attitude of the indigenous peoples. They seem to be willing to accept reconciliation. Not like the Irish, whose national motto ought to be “Never forgive, never forget.” (My father’s family is Irish, so I can say that from personal experience.) So if we can do it right, I think Canada has a chance to solve this problem in…let’s say about four generations.

How to Do it Right?
I don’t have the solution in my pocket, but I do have two observations:

1. On an International Scale
As I mentioned above, the problem is not ours alone. The world over, aid agencies are trying to help poverty-stricken people rise from their colonial-induced degradation. All of these disadvantaged areas have been the recipients of billions of dollars of colonial-style, we-know-what’s-best-for-you aid that has failed.
And everyone I know who works in the international community bringing aid and education to the poverty-stricken cultures of the Third World insists that the only way to help those people is to stop telling them what to do. We must start by asking aid recipients what they need, and then help them achieve it. Why would the First Nations of Canada be any different?

2. A Final Thought:
This is an adaptation of something I published in this blog recently on a less grave subject:

“If I find my way somewhere by myself, I will get there slowly, but I will certainly be able to find the place again. If you sit in the passenger’s seat and direct my driving, I will get there faster, and I will probably be able to find the place again. If I sit in the back seat and you drive me there, I will get there the fastest, but I will have no idea how to find the place again.”

Canadian indigenous peoples have a journey to undertake. How will we help them?

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