As Canadians are once again confronted by the genocidal reality of Indian Residential Schools, some continue to ward off this painful history and legacy through the magical invocation of “good intentions.”
Last week, Father Rhéal Forest was banned from speaking publicly by the Archdiocese of St. Boniface in Winnipeg after remarks to parishioners where he said that every residential school student he had met had loved it.
He went on to minimize the harms of the system by suggesting that many of those who complained of abuse were lying, and that if there was abuse, it was by the night watchmen, not the clergy.
But Forest is not alone in minimizing the harms of the residential school system. From "Christian theologians to senators to premiers to Indigenous Affairs ministers, variations on the myth of “good intentions” are invoked as a tool against the truth about residential schools.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports are clear. The express intent of residential school system was to “civilize” Indigenous children and assimilate them into society.
As a model for the residential school system, the 1879 Davin Report recommended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Its architect, Richard H. Pratt, described his philosophy as “kill the Indian, save the man.”
First Nations had initially negotiated the provision of a school on every reserve in the numbered treaties.
But what they envisioned was a system of local schooling, overseen by the community, something along the lines of a “big teaching wigwam,” to use the term of Ojibwa Chief Shingwauk.
That vision was not to be realized. Both the church and the state saw education as a means of assimilation.
Roman Catholic Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin was a champion of the residential school system. “To become civilized they should be taken with the consent of their parents and made to lead a life different from their parents and cause them to forget the customs, habits and language of their ancestors,” he wrote.
While some Indigenous people were indeed interested in receiving English or French education, they were not agreeing to have their own culture and language erased.
What drove Grandin to advocate such an assimilationist vision of education?
During the Victorian period, there was a widely held belief among British imperialists that Indigenous people were on the verge of extinction. It was believed that they were savages, and that savagery was self-extinguishing.
Archaeological findings of impressive ancient structures in the Americas had fuelled various pre-Darwinian theories of human origins that saw Indigenous people as having degenerated from a more advanced race and society. This thought process masked the way foreign diseases and violent colonial policy were actually responsible for declining population numbers.
It also provided plausible deniability to the colonial powers, allowing them to perform what scholars Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang have called a “settler move to innocence” while simultaneously enacting policies of genocide and displacement.
It allowed many settlers to believe that the “humane” solution to rapidly disappearing Indigenous populations was to educate them into “civilized society.”
One can see this at work in the so-called “Indian poems” of Duncan Campbell Scott, former deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs.
In Scott’s poem “Forsaken,” a Chippewa woman is depicted as doomed and unable to feed or provide a future for her son. In desperation, she leaves her child at the settler fort where he will have a future in the new society.
It should come as no surprise that Scott, the man who wrote such hauntingly evocative poetry, also oversaw the largest expansion of the residential school system and notoriously said in its defence:
“I want to get rid of the Indian problem.... Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department....”
The history of the residential school system is a history of using the positive rhetoric of “good intentions,” “saving” and “civilizing” to enact a genocidal erasure of Indigenous culture, identity and bodies.
In this way, the rhetoric of “good intentions” is a form of violent speech that provides cover for material harms. According to feminist philosopher Rae Langton this kind of speech only succeeds by keeping certain premises unsaid.
The residential school system was constructed with “good intentions” if we believe that education and civilization are unqualified goods. But I have pointed to numerous instances that show that the intent of both church and state was to kill or suppress Indigeneity so that the Crown’s assertions to sovereignty could not be challenged.
When Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew interrupted the province’s new Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations minister Alan Lagimodiere, objecting to his claim “the residential school system was designed to take Indigenous children and give them the kind of skills and abilities they would need to fit into society as it moves forward,” Kinew exposed the unspoken settler assumption that the purpose of the schools was benign and progressive instead of genocidal and erasive.
By doing so, he broke the spell of ignorance and erasure that the “good intentions” rhetoric so often achieves.
Dene scholar Glen Coulthard has pointed out that settler Canadians are eager to put the evils of the residential schools firmly in the past. He points to former prime minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology that historicizes the residential school system as a “sad chapter in our history.”
But reconciliation cannot happen when the truth of Indian Residential Schools continues to be denied and its history of erasure continues to be enabled by discourses like the myth of “good intentions.”
If reconciliation is still possible, it must involve settler Canadians learning to speak truthfully and consistently about the harms that took place and their lasting impacts, and a commitment to follow the example of Kinew and others in countering speech that denies genocide.
If you are an Indian Residential School survivor, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419.