Two Canadians in powerful positions with totally divergent views about the impact of residential schools on Indigenous Peoples: thankfully the one with the decision-making power has taken the time to understand the painful history, and legacy, of this atrocious system.
In January, Justice David Gibson of the Ontario Court of Justice wrote an insightful commentary on the history of Pikangikum, a First Nation community in northern Ontario.
(I’ve written about Pikangikum before, including in this post.)
“Pikangikum is going through a terrible and deteriorating health crisis. I have traveled to this community on average once a month for the last 24 years, first as a lawyer and lately in my capacity as a Judge of this Court. I have seen first-hand the steady and rapid increase in the size of the community, the explosion in violent crime and the deterioration of living conditions. There are many good people here and the conditions they are living in are a national disgrace.”
“It is shameful that a country as wealthy as ours tolerates that any of its citizens should live as many of the people of Pikangikum do (with an) appalling lack of basics like reliable electricity and water and sewer.”
As reported in Wednesday’s Globe and Mail, the judge wrote those remarks in the Reasons for Judgment in the case of two men from Pikangikum who participated in a riot in protest of police arrests in the community in June 2015.
Gibson clearly connected today’s broken community with colonialism, specifically the residential school system: “It is the fact that within one elderly person’s lifetime, a small group of people, whose ancestors lived off the land, who developed deep understandings of the spirit of the land they inhabited for millennia, could one day meet strangers in the wilderness with such devastatingly consequences for their children and grandchildren.”
“I have no doubt of the good intentions [editor’s note: I do have doubts] of the traders and the missionaries and the government ministries who sought to, in their own way, educate and support those first families living in the wilderness. But there can also be no doubt that the effect of their well-intentioned efforts has been to set these people on a traumatic and uncertain trajectory.”
And then there is Senator Beyak. On Tuesday she defended the residential school system in the Senate. “I speak partly for the record, but mostly in memory of the kindly and well-intentioned men and women and their descendants — perhaps some of us here in this chamber — whose remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part,” she said.
As reported by CBC News, Beyak had previously told the Senate’s Aboriginal People’s Committe: “The fathers and sons and family members of the nuns and priests, to this day, have to bear the reputation as well, and nobody meant to hurt anybody,” she said. “The little smiles in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are real, the clothes are clean and the meals are good. There were many people who came from residential schools with good training and good language skills, and, of course, there were the atrocities as well.”
To claim that the ongoing suffering of entire communities such as Pikangikum, which was sparked by the physical, sexual and emotional abuse meted out at residential schools, is equivalent to the skills learned by some individuals who attended those schools is, at best, willful ignorance.
You have to wonder how Beyak can relegate the well-documented suffering of thousands of children in those schools to an afterthought: “… there were the atrocities as well”. Possibly it’s her way of hiding from the racist attitudes of those who created the residential school system and – let’s be honest here – of many of our Canadian ancestors.
And let’s be brutally honest: those attitudes are much alive today.