They Meant Well

They meant well, but sometimes meaning well does not mean well-being.

I was presented this week with two contradictory images. One was of a sculpture representing the work done by Catholic nuns in Alberta. It is called Service Through Christ and is by the artist Herman Poulin.

The press release from Covenant Health says: “The monument recognizes the congregations of catholic sisters who “helped found the province, providing health care, education and social services to pioneering communities.”  It shows a nun holding a piece of stained glass representing the sisters’ desire not to be in the forefront.

I saw that sculpture on Sunday and on Monday I was confronted by a startlingly contradictory image. It is of children being taken from their homes by representatives of the Catholic church and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

I saw on Twitter a comment by the Canadian businesswoman Arlene Dickinson where she wrote: “[I] just learned that when Cree children attending a residential school would briefly see their parents, the Cree word they used to describe it was “kiskinwahamctowikamik” which translates to “A building you go to learn to cry,” and @lindaws responded by posting this picture by Kent Monkman called The Scream.

The McGill University website explains:

The Scream references the fact that for over one hundred years of Canada’s 150-year history, Indigenous children were taken (often forcefully) from their parents. Ostensibly in the name of education (Residential School), but what is now understood to have been a way to disrupt family relationships and break up language knowledge and cultural continuity.  Of this system, Sir John A. MacDonald stated,  “Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

The nuns provided education to indigenous children, but it was not accomplished easily and it was not appreciated by the recipients. The Catholics teachers may not have wanted to be in the forefront, but they caused a lot of anguish that has been passed through generations. They taught children to cry.


  1. Familiar with this version of the tragedy that was Canada’s residential school system, imagine my surprise when an indigenous woman in my education program explained how and why the closing of the residential school in the late 70s caused widespread harm in her community. First, she loved the school and the teachers where she learned stuff unavailable to her. Second, the community and the school was mutually supportive. Third, graduates had become important community leaders. Fourthly, the tribe became mostly self sufficient with members becoming professionals in a variety of capacities and returning to the community to help make it highly successful, independent, yet integrated with the wider society in only two generations. She told us many such instances across many tribes. And she knew this because she was – to use the English term – a hereditary chief. She worked in this capacity with literally hundreds of other tribes and had many such stories of benefit and loss.

    All of this was truly shocking to those of us raised on the narrative you pass along here. In fact, people have learned to shut their mouths about anything positive to say about residential schools whatsoever after a physician and Member of Parliament dared to diverge from this mantra during a leadership debate and offered the opinion, based on fact no less, that perhaps these schools weren’t all bad. Of course, she was called racist, alt Right, and kicked out of the party and expected to provide a mewling apology because in many instances these schools and the system used to integrate indigenous people was brutal. Anything else, ironically, has now become blasphemy.

    What bothered me most about the indigenous woman’s explanation was that her first hand account was dismissed out of hand by professors busy teaching us how to be good little teachers. Your story here is the one acceptable version… forgetting that it IS in many instances just a fiction pasted over the non fiction story.

    • If the image in the post is a reasonably accurate representation of what happened, – and <i see no reason to doubt this – then it was wrong..
      If one wants so be truly honest then one needs to start from that basis, don’t you think so?

      • It’s a complex issue, Ark, and one requiring context. Yes, forcefully taking away children is wrong. This is the problem with a one-size-fits-all approach taken by the federal government responsible for all indigenous people, in exactly the same sense as a parent is responsible for their children. Is it wrong for a parent to force a child to, say, go to school? The problem then as now is the inherited legislation that assumed a parental role by a government in law made by the British Crown through the Indian Act. Because that legal relationship was dysfunctional to begin with, of course you’ll end up with such a tragedy for so many, one that I think overshadows the good effects brought about by many good people with the best of intentions.

        But my comment is to point out that this false dichotomy believed and passed on by indoctrination – that the idea of integration through common schooling was all ‘bad’ and a form of ‘genocide’ against all indigenous people by a brutal federal government – is the fabrication, the fiction. That it was a disaster is not in question, but to avoid disasters in the future starts</i. with understanding how such a thing could happen, to take the good that resulted with as much recognition as the bad, to learn, to move on older and wiser. To pretend otherwise actually does a disservice to those who really did suffer because it makes no attempt to understand how such a thing could happen and then change this aspect so that it never occurs again.

        • Where it didn’t slaughter or exterminate, colonialism ”dehumanised” indigenous people, relegating them to the status of savage or sub-human.
          As total extermination was prevented or didn’t take place, what were colonialists going to do with the remaining tribes now they had effectively robbed them of their land, and reduced many of them to virtual non-entities?
          All that was left was some form of partial integration, which would mean trying to ensure subsequent generations of indigenous people at the very least received some form of European style of education.
          For the most part I really did not enjoy school. But it ”did me good” in as much as it prepared me to take my place as a valuable and productive member of society ( I am trying not to spray my coffee over my laptop as I read this back)

          It often depends how one begins a conversation / discussion lime this:

          ”If it wasn’t for colonialism, the indigenous people of (such and such place) would have …… ”

          (fill in the next sentence depending on one’s POV)

          • You present an interesting challenge, Ark. I’m mulling over how to end that sentence, but I think it would have something to do with being nomadic and living off the land. It is hard to say how indigenous lives would have evolved over the years, but they would have kept their languages and probably most of their traditions.

            • Well, look to China and all those environmentally sensitive nomadic tribes wandering the land… except, well… the reality of Genghis Khan conquering half the world. That’s real politiks because that’s what real people do until they are stopped by another group of real people. We just condemn Western imperialism now because that’s what we’re taught to believe is far more evil than all the other past empires.

    • I lived in the Northwest Territories for three years and saw there how European-style schools and Christianity had been accommodated into many communities and the lives of individuals.

      It is a credit to these people that they have found ways to survive and sometimes thrive in their changed world.

      None of that should make it possible for us to ignore the truly awful consequences of colonization upon indigenous peoples. I don’t doubt the story the woman told in your program. At the same time, I do not doubt the stories of those who had vastly different experiences.

      • Oh, and I don’t miss the gumbo from the NWT now that I’m living way down south! But those were the days when much of the Mackenzie Highway was gravel. Haven’t been back since. I don’t know what the blackflies are living on without me serving up a blood sacrifice to those columns of wee beasties.

  2. Nobody is ignoring anything. All I ask is that people learn history so that they can learn from history. And that starts by respecting what’s true over and above what we are told is true. That willingness to believe a caricature of what’s true to serve a narrative causes as much harm in the long run, I think, as whatever it might be we are being told to believe was all bad.

    • Much of the English history I learned in school in the UK was a distillation of nationalist propaganda. I didn’t realize that until much later, after I had travelled and had seen that it wasn’t all righteousness and glory.

      • Just so.. although on the whole there is much more to be proud about as there is to regret. It’s understanding and using the regrets as the higher bar that I think drives real progress.

        We have used public schooling throughout Canada to bring divergent populations together and share a common basis. This was the central plank used to justify a national Residential School program rather than the hodgepodge schools for the indigenous… in an attempt to incorporate all people into one national identity by use of the schools. This has worked to a remarkable degree and helped build Canada into a First World country with a highly educated population.

        But it was also used to try to integrate and assimilate people from very remote underserviced areas into the general population in the hopes of saving public money trying to provide basic services for hundreds and hundreds of isolated communities. Because some of the more remote Residential Schools serviced a huge geographical area, of course the kids had to come to it. That’s why the police (the RCMP who had detachments to service these areas) were used to go into these communities and bring out the children where no day schools operated. This became known today as the 60s Scoop, the intentional gathering up of children (at a time when truant officers had the power to arrest and detain children not in school) and get them into school where they would live and board 8 months a year. But rather than create and staff a public school for these kids, various national Church organizations already with ‘boots on the ground’ so to speak and experience with these remote communities and the populations they had (some 260 different languages) were paid to provide these educational services. The effort was honest; the results not so much.

        It was a huge undertaking. And the abuse by Anglican and Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist priests, nuns, and laity started to come to light (language in the classroom for example, was in one of the two official languages – French and English – but student languages varied into dozens per classroom… hence the charge of linguistic and therefore cultural ‘genocide’) when death rates prompted coroner inquests and testimony was gathered into evidence. The public outcry was immense and the schools shut down. But because schooling of indigenous students is a federal responsibility under the Indian Act but public education a provincial responsibility under the Constitution, you can imagine the cross-over problems of jurisdiction, of providing these services to remote communities (no air strips in summer but frozen lakes used in winter, no roads, no trains, brutal weather and often permafrost).

        I could explain further about the deplorable rates of third world problems endemic in ‘native’ communities, but I argued in the 80s that it would be far, far, far cheaper to pay each indigenous person one million dollars to give up their Status card (an identity card used to gain services which are then paid for by the federal government under the Indian Act) and become Canadian citizens like any other. Right now, indigenous people use bloodlines to determine Status, bloodlines to determine political authority, so you can imagine the problem when people of different bloodlines (whatever that means) produce offspring. I mean, seriously… in the 21st century… bloodlines for crying out loud.

        So we Canadians have now and have always had to deal with the idiocy of legal status based on something as archaic as ancient treaties, bloodlines, the geography of birth, and inherited group ownership under tribal law – varying from tribe to tribe, no less – to determine rights and freedoms and privileges in law! It’s an open sore of social infection that continues – and always will continue – to poison equality, one guaranteed to produce generation after generation of inequality in inequity and social dysfunction. Unless and until the Indian Act is thrown out and people become one and the same under the law, these problems will continue to haunt what it means to be Canadian.

        • This overview of the historical context for residential schools takes a view of the issue as being a “whole country” issue. It must have felt very different from a local community perspective.

          I’m not sure what your objection is to indigenous peoples using blood lines to determine status, but you seem to think it is ridiculous. I’m from the UK where bloodlines have been used to determine status among the aristocracy and royalty for hundreds of years! 🙂

          • I know! But I align with the liberal idea that all people are born equal in rights and freedoms. And i do that for both sense of the phrase: both the modern one that relates to equality of rights and freedoms under the law as well Jefferson’s reference to the idiocy of and problems with primogeniture law.

            Call me a radical!

          • The problem is inheriting social status and authority based on… nothing. Bloodlines uplift tribal affiliations, a guaranteed way to divide people into Us and Them. It is a stone age method to justify privilege and rank by inheritance and causes nothing but institutionalized inequality and inequity between real people in real life. This is why Jefferson rejected the legal idea because you cannot have legitimate political authority by the the consent of the governed if they never had that consent to begin with. Respecting bloodlines means rejecting legitimate consent and we have seen exactly this play out in British Columbia when a complex multiyear and negotiated settlement between various indigenous communities by their elected representatives with the federal government for a pipeline right-of-way was tossed aside when 5 hereditary Chiefs simply overturned it by their decree. That’s what respecting bloodlines in law does: undermine legitimate government and elevate certain people’s decisions with arbitrary authority based on… nothing.

            • I’m probably way out of my depth here, but I understood the Canadian indigenous claims to lineage were in order to maintain land rights. After colonization they weren’t left with much land but in order to lay claim to whatever was allowed them, they had to prove their “blood lines” or heritage.

            • The original treaties signed between dozens of indigenous people and some traders from England and France recognized various tribal dominance of geographical areas by the traders in order to gain permission to travel and trade without being killed. From this august beginning, treaties have become a way for various tribes to appeal to the Crown for legal recourse when issues of legal rights arose. In other words, it’s been a shit show from the get go. Making treaties with ‘groups’ means making treaties with individuals who may or may not represent other members, other individuals, in the group. Funny thing… bloodlines don’t sign treaties. Groups don’t sign treaties. Individuals who claim authority to represent the governed sign treaties. That’s why tracing a direct line between authority and those whose name that authority is exercised to justify it is actually pretty important. It turns out, it’s always individuals. So it is hardly a stretch to appreciate why the INDIVIDUAL is the base unit of any legitimate authority, whether it’s over one’s self or on behalf of representing others. Inherited authority has no direct line to justify it.

              From this gong show we derive legal privilege here but not there, for these people but not those, in this way but not that way. There is no end to these ‘border’ disputes between individuals or even between tribes! Of note, tribes in Canada have not only claimed 120% of all land, sea, and air but have literally hundreds of overlapping claims with other tribes. Go figure. The Crown has basically washed its hands of the whole ‘colonial’ mess. Where possible, land claims have been ‘settled’ with the federal government aligned with provincial governments aligned with the tribe(s) who also have agreement between their elected municipal representatives and the hereditary Chiefs. But if anyone is wondering why more land claim settlements haven’t been done, it’s because one of these parties has an unresolved issue. Who knew, for example, that claiming tribal authority by inheritance of all of downtown Vancouver might meet some resistance? How much money should be paid in recompense? To whom – when we’re speaking of a ‘tribe’, to those who also claim to have some hereditary connection by blood to some ancient branch of some family that once lived somewhere in the vicinity and dug for clams according to a story someone may have told – is this money paid? What is being ‘transferred’? Property? Access? Resources? Ownership? How much of your tax dollars should go to ‘settling’ a land claim to a Newfoundland house painter who claims to be related by marriage to a great aunt who as a child picked low bush berries on a particular patch of swampland in a distant province claimed by a distant indigenous relative? What’s the dollar amount here? Or should we use the RCMP to remove the current farm ‘owners’ who employ dozens of people to pick lowbush blueberries and, what, give it over to this house painter? That’s a ‘settlement’? A billion dollars? Eternal low bush picking rights awarded by blood line?

              And you wonder why I call this legal quagmire about blood lines and hereditary rights idiotic?

            • Your frustration and indignation are quite clear.

              Many of us who live on treaty lands have no difficulty in recognizing that. According to the Edmonton and Area Land Trust, I live in Treaty 6 territory, a traditional gathering place, travelling route and home for many Indigenous Peoples including the Nehiyawak/Cree, Tsuut’ina, Niitsitapi/Blackfoot, Métis, Nakota Sioux, Haudenosaunee/Iroquois, Dene Suliné, Anishinaabe/Ojibway/Saulteaux, and the Inuk/Inuit. I am grateful to be able to live here.

            • My indignation and frustration is with those who continue to paint this complicated situation in simplistic terms to create a false narrative about a natives-TODAY-as-the-good guy/victimized group and the victimizing ROC (Rest of Canada – as if highly divergent people were a convenient large cohesive unified and responsible group!) as the bad guy/colonial bully adversary in this scenario. This is a load is crap. And as I have always advocated, you cannot address a problem if the problem itself isn’t first recognized and understood. And this binary narrative guarantees no solutions but never-ending obsequious and mewling behaviour expected to be offered towards anyone claiming indigenous blood. No one – other than virtue signalling woke white people – wants this. Especially the natives I know and respect who tell me this is just another form of bigotry but in reverse, and then are criticized by the allies of the Woke who claim they are too ‘white adjacent’.
              Sound familiar?

              Yes, your situation as I understand it seems to be an extension of common the rural – urban divide, where ‘treaty lands’ in this case can be more easily established. But the problem remains which tribe and/or tribal alliance has more authority here or there, for these people or those, in this way or that. Footing the bill for this ‘sovereign’ problem-producing arrangement is the Canadian population and held hostage to being fully responsible forever for the maintenance of this ‘sovereign’ arrangement… unless a land claim can become ‘settled’. Sounds easy. Increasingly difficult the closer to urbanization one gets.

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