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Kamloops News

THOMPSON: Canadian residential school tragedy demands restitution

June 14, 2021 - 12:00 PM



When I first heard of the 215 unmarked graves of children who died during their forced attendance at Kamloops Indian Residential School, my heart sank. Canada is my home, it is where I live and work and play. Many of the people I love dearly - family and friends - are Canadians.

And for reasons that now seem unclear…I thought or at least hoped such atrocities simply could not happen in Canada. However naive my thinking…the truth is no less crushing to my soul. The fact that such reprehensible acts are inextricably woven into the fabric of not just Canada - but virtually every country on Earth - should make all of us think…and act.

The universality of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man is daunting. I came to Canada from Florida a decade ago…just after the discovery of unmarked graves at the Florida School for Boys in the small Florida panhandle town of Marianna.

Never mind that these horrible events happened just short distances from my homes in British Columbia and Florida. The similarities…in the cruelty meted out in Marianna and Kamloops by people who not only didn’t care but who seemed to relish their subjugation of children…are inescapable.

The Florida School for Boys - also known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys - operated from 1900 to 2011 as a reform school…the largest in America for a good part of its 111-year history.

The Kamloops Indian Residential School - the largest in Canada - operated from 1893 to 1969 under the auspices of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a missionary religious congregation of the Catholic Church. The Canadian government took over in 1969, maintaining it as a residence only, with children going to various day schools until it closed for good in 1977.

Both schools had just over 500 students during the 1950s and early 1960s. There were more than 82 unmarked graves found in Marianna…about three times as many Black as white children. Of course, the loss of life was much greater in Kamloops…where all 215 bodies were indigenous children…and Kamloops was but one of 139 Indian Residential Schools across Canada.

Knowing what I know of the tragedies in Kamloops and Marianna…it is very likely there will be more bodies found in both places…and perhaps hundreds more across Canada. After all, there were 138 other Indian Residential Schools.

The unilateral decision of white people in Canada to take Indigenous children from their families and cultures as if some cure for what ails them - or as government officials actually said - “to kill the Indian in them” is indefensible. White Americans made the same erroneous decision. Two wrongs it turns out…are just that.

These bad initial decisions in both my countries were compounded by further absurd actions…putting people in positions of authority who were both unqualified…and whose personalities were nothing less than cruel if not monstrous.

Consider that Florida’s Governor Hardee in 1922 - more than a century ago - abolished flogging for convicted felons in Florida’s prisons, but children at the Florida School for Boys were beaten with leather barber’s razor strops through 1968.

The cruelty, the sexual and physical abuse, the abuse of “converting” children from one culture to a culture more acceptable simply because you have the authority to do so smacks of racism.

We do not know how many indigenous children died at the hands of overzealous religious and misguided government officials…the estimates range from 3,200 to 6,000. The recent discovery in Kamloops points to the need to expand the use of ground-penetrating radar to look for bodies near the other 138 schools.

As I sought background for this column, I found photos of survivors of the boys - now men - of the Florida School for Boys, and men and women who survived Indian Residential Schools. The pain of their experiences and the scarred lives they have lived are etched on their faces…to the point of being unsettling. They are difficult to look at.

I have written about survivors of the Holocaust, and the faces in photos at the Dachau Concentration Camp museum in Germany were more like those of survivors of both Indian Residential School and the Florida School for Boys than I wanted them to be.

Like war, those who paid the ultimate price…dying and resting for eternity in unmarked graves…might always be in our thoughts and prayers. But should there be more? And what of those who survived? What do we owe them? An apology?

I’ve never liked a non-apology apology…and yet that is exactly what Pope Francis offered last week. Can healing and reconciliation happen without a sincere apology? I think not. Religious leaders and politicians are often in lockstep with words…thoughts and prayers…investigations and reports.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report detailing the damaging legacy of the country's residential school system was clear…but practically nothing of consequence has accrued to those who died, their families or survivors. What happened in Canada and in Florida wasn’t “for your own good” like the children were told.

We - Americans, Canadians…fill in the blank - talk better than we act sometimes. Americans can’t stomach the conversation of reparations for hundreds of years of slavery and Jim Crow. Canadians thus far don’t seem to have an appetite for a discussion on what we might owe those indigenous people damaged by our government and religious leaders…people who represented us. Like it or not, white people ruled during these times…and with an uneven hand.

My Canadian friends are often quick to point out how wrong it is for Americans to ignore the institutional racism that has subjugated people of colour in the U.S. But I hear less criticism about how Canadians are dealing - or not - with what Indigenous people have suffered at the hands of white Canadians…and that doesn’t seem right.

The things I’ve heard for decades from white Americans about Black people…I hear all-too-often from white Canadians about Indigenous peoples. “First Nations people get a free ride.”  “You can always tell you’re on a reserve.” “They’re lazy and drink too much.” And, the inevitable, “I never mistreated an Indian.”

The truth - however painful - is that Canada needs to pay those who were hurt at the hands of those in power, who left their descendants with better education, better jobs, better healthcare, and so much more. Call it restitution or reparations or payback…just don’t call it a shame…and turn your eyes away. 

Because if what happened at Indian Residential Schools happened to you or your white ancestors…maybe you’d believe it was simply justice.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.

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