Indigenous children stand in front of the Christie Residential School on Meares Island.
Photo Credit: Archives Deschâtelets-NDC, Fonds Deschâtelets

The Story of a National Crime

We have a history of ignoring hard truths about residential schools

Dr. Peter Bryce wrote about residential school neglect and abuse 100 years ago

So the Pope flew to Canada and made his apology. The response from residential school survivors and their families has been mixed. Some say it was a good start and heartfelt. Others say the Pope’s carefully worded apology didn’t fully acknowledge the Catholic Church’s role in the abuse—and murder—of thousands of Indigenous children across Canada.

That’s to be expected. Indigenous folks have different thoughts, lives, and experiences. Folks won’t all react the same.

But now what do we do?

The Canadian government also apologized for residential schools when Stephen Harper was Prime Minister. That was ten years ago. But like the Catholic Church, Canada hasn’t fully atoned for its role in residential schools. And they’re the biggest crime in Canadian history.

If it had, former residential schools would be wrapped in yellow police tape and treated like the crime scenes they are. RCMP would be bringing abusers to justice. We’d expect no less if it was our kids and our schools we were talking about.

We have a history of ignoring hard truths around residential schools.

Have you heard of Dr. Peter H. Bryce? In the early 1900s, he saw tuberculosis killing Indigenous children in residential schools. He saw them being abused and neglected. He warned the federal government over and over again.

In 1904, the federal government made Dr. Bryce the chief medical officer for the Department of Indian Affairs. In 1907, he wrote a report with details about how bad the schools were. He described how ill the children were. He estimated that between 14 and 24 percent of kids in the schools were dying.

Imagine sending your kid to a school with a 1 in 4 chance they could die there?

And get this: the federal government never released Dr. Bryce’s report. Instead, in 1921, they railroaded him into early retirement.

He didn’t let that stop him, though. He released his report anyway: The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921.

In it, he wrote how children at residential schools weren’t getting medical care and lived in filthy conditions. He also made recommendations to improve the care of Indigenous children.

But nothing happened. The government ignored him, and children continued to die.

Fast forward nearly 50 years. In 1970, Dan Rubenstein and Nancy Dyson travelled to northern Vancouver Island to work as child caretakers at the residential school in Alert Bay.

The federal government had taken over the school from the Catholic Church the year before. The young couple had left the United States as Vietnam War protests raged. They thought they were headed to a more caring, compassionate country.

That image was quickly shattered the day they started working at the school.

They saw how their fellow staff treated the children like they weren’t even human. Fifty years after, they spoke to Global News about their experience. Dyson and Rubenstein recalled seeing kids being punished for things like playing together, “speaking their Indigenous language or drawing memories of their home and culture.”

“Where children go to schools, you expect records, you expect oversight by the superintendent of education,” Rubenstein said.

“You expect that parents know every day what happens to their kids when they come home. And if there’s a problem, they get on the phone, you know, but there’s none of that there. There was absolutely no oversight.”

At the time, the couple shared their concerns with the authorities. They didn’t want to see Indigenous children neglected and abused just because they were Indigenous.

Four months after being hired, the school fired them.

These are only a couple of examples where folks on the inside raised the alarm. Our leaders could have stepped in and listened to whistleblowers like Dr. Bryce, or Rubenstein and Dyson. The authorities could have gotten in gear after Harper’s apology.

But they didn’t.

And that’s a failure. It’s an institutional and moral failure. It’s a criminal failure of duty that is shocking for a country like Canada that prides itself on respect for human rights.

Will the Pope’s apology change that? Will we start doing something instead of just apologizing?

Only time will tell.