Today's editorial in the Montreal Gazette takes a bold view of the federal government's recent Indian residential school payout. read on:
- "It's tempting to simply heave a sigh of relief that the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations have finally agreed on a settlement that will bring an end to the long, agonizing drama over the mistreatment of aboriginal children in Canada's residential schools. In fact, at $2.2 billion, the agreement seems almost a bargain if it can, indeed, bring this shabby chapter in our history to a close.
For the real victims - those who were sexually and physically abused - the agreement will bring some relief and compensation for their suffering. Not a lot, perhaps - $10,000 plus $3,000 for each year spent in the system - but something. And more has been set aside for victims of extreme abuse.
There are, however, elements of this deal that reek of expediency rather than justice. Compensating men and women who were raped and beaten as children is one thing; including loss of language or culture in the list of eligible grievances is going much too far.
It's true that many Canadians have come to regard residential schools with the kind of odium and disdain otherwise reserved for concentration camps. For those people - and they would include most of the aboriginal leadership - just to have been in one of these schools is qualification enough to line up for a government cheque.
But that's unfair, both to the smaller number of victims who bear physical and emotional scars unimaginable to most of us, and to the hundreds of well-meaning men and women who went north to work and teach in those schools, firmly convinced that they were acting in the best interests of the children involved. In fact, many graduates have positive memories of their experience in residential schools.
The motives of the people who built the schools and ran them were certainly coloured by the prejudices and preconceptions of their day, but their objective was to prepare aboriginal children for life in a modern society. Their methods were harsh and sometimes coercive, but at the time, assimilating children into white society was seen as a far better guarantee of success and happiness than leaving them to try their luck eking out a living in the wilderness.
We have become more sophisticated over time. Modern sociologists now tell us that the best place to help anyone is where they live (a concept, oddly enough, that the earliest Catholic missionaries also believed). But even that debate continues. The abuse and neglect that children suffer on many of Canada's more remote reserves - and the drug-and-booze-drenched hopelessness of their lives - doesn't seem much of an improvement on the residential schools. If anything, the lot of those children is sometimes worse; at least the schools made an effort to teach their wards a trade.
It's certainly sad that in that process, many of those children lost their language and their cultural identity, but the government and the religious groups who ran the schools acted in good faith and in accordance with the best understanding of the time in preparing their wards for the modern world. Just because something's lamentable doesn't make it actionable. Equating the loss of language with sexual and physical abuse is absurd."
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2005