Hot! Addressing the legacy of residential schools means supporting native families, not necessarily their band leaders – Full Comment
March 31, 2014.   Jonathan Kay

In Monday’s edition of the Globe & Mail, Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, described his mixed emotions as he attended the final public event held by the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Edmonton.

On one hand, he described the reaction of his grandmother, who “told me about a dream she had of trying to turn a dark page, a heavy page. Too heavy.” But then Mr. Atleo decisively stated: “We must not burden another generation with anger and pain.” The message of his op-ed seems clear: As much pain as Residential Schools caused many First Nations people, we should not encourage young aboriginals to dwell incessantly on the injustices of the past. The whole point of the truth and reconciliation process has been to help these communities gain a sense of closure. If that project is to be a success, their members also must stop thinking of themselves primarily as victims.

Testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, like most journalistic coverage of the issue, has focused on the worst examples of abuse. But the truth is that the system was run by a patchwork of religious and government officials, and there was no universal residential-school experience for native students. Some schools were infamous. Others were humane.

In fact, some First Nations communities, when given the choice in the mid-20thcentury, voted to keep their local residential schools open, because they wanted their children to learn the math and language skills that would permit them gain a livelihood. Many children at residential schools also received life-saving medical treatment — including medication for tuberculosis — that was unavailable to First Nations people still living in the bush or in remote settlements.

But even taking into account those students who had relatively positive experiences at residential school, the system produced an overall effect that was negative: A whole generation of First Nations youngsters grew up without any knowledge of how a nuclear family is supposed to work, of how loving parents are supposed to raise well-loved children.

In First Nations communities with a residential-school legacy, mothers and fathers struggled to recover the lost wisdom of how families are supposed to work

When they began having their own children, residential-school graduates often lacked proper parenting skills — because the only model they’d observed was the cold institutional environment they’d experienced themselves. Nor could they turn to their neighbours for assistance, because in most cases they’d gone through the exact same experience themselves.

The idea of the nuclear family is fundamental to our society that many of us don’t think of “parenthood” as a skill at all, but rather something that is innate. But it isn’t innate: We all model our own parenting style, at least to a certain extent, on that which we observed as children. And in First Nations communities with a residential-school legacy, mothers and fathers struggled to recover the lost wisdom of how families are supposed to work. In many cases, that meant skipping back several generations to grandparents or grand-grandparents. These elders sometimes became de facto parents themselves if the real parents became lost to drugs, alcohol or destitution.

“Children are at the very centre of our cultures, our homes and families,” Mr. Atleo writes, getting to the essence of the issue. “We can once again capture that deep care and concern for children.” In furtherance of this worthy goal, he declares that “We will take control of our lives, lands and government.”

These are familiar demands from aboriginal leaders. And there is no doubt that some forms of progress really will require a devolution of powers to bands. But rebuilding First Nations families is primarily a social project, not a political project. And in some ways, the emphasis on treaty rights has actually retarded the healing of First Nations families — because the cash bounty has encouraged the transformation of reserves into miniature low-employment welfare states. No matter what one’s skin colour, dependency and idleness always encourage substance abuse, a lack of respect for education, local political corruption and other pathologies that prevent the creation of healthy communities.

In the short run, at least, good schools, good jobs and well-funded social services will be far more important in addressing the legacy of residential schools than ambitious political agendas. Until First Nations communities are full of healthy families, other forms of progress will be difficult.

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