They thought they were doing the right thing. They thought they were helping children. Now we know better.
I recently heard this from a library customer. They were referring to the residential "schools", the accepted euphemism for the system of concentration camps that was used to destroy Indigenous families, communities, and cultures in Canada.
|Image by Kent Monkman|
From the way the customer talked over my response, I realized this was a ready-made statement, a justification they've picked up (likely online) in the current discourse about the residential "school" system in Canada.
I later related this exchange to my partner, who does a lot historical research. He suggested, "You could ask what evidence they have to support that claim." I'm going to use this in the future. It's an excellent response to so many denialist views, parroted as facts, but with no basis in reality.
I'm willing to bet I've read and watched more about the "schools" than the person who made that denialist statement. And I've encountered nothing to support the conclusion that the creators of that system thought they were doing the right thing for children. To do so would mean they cared about the children that they were rounding up and imprisoning. And I see no evidence of that.
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In the summer of 2021, mass graves -- the remains of thousands of children's skeletons -- were discovered at the sites of former residential "schools". The revelations rocked Canada and sent the country into a period of mourning. Many non-Indigenous Canadians were shocked and profoundly saddened. Many Indigenous people were re-traumatized. The revelations about the graves catapulted the country into a different place in the Truth and Reconciliation process.
At that time, I encountered this knee-jerk response:
Many of those children would have died anyway. There were more children deaths in those days.
I only saw this online. I don't know anyone with these repugnant views who is either brave or foolish enough to say them aloud, in public. Which tells you something.
Mass graves. Of children. And there's a but?
Fortunately someone always replies: Did your grade school need a cemetery? Have mass graves been found at the site of any schools that settler kids attended?
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The stated purpose of this system was forced assimilation, and the destruction of Indigenous cultures and families. Those goals existed for the benefit of the colonizers and the world they wanted to build.
The Indigenous presence on the land claimed by the settlers was an annoyance, an irritant, an impediment. Indigenous people and cultures were a problem, and this was a solution. A final solution, one could say.
Through the residential "school" system, the colonizers tried to create a captive labour force -- normally called slaves, but here called students. Girls were forced to do laundry, scrub floors, and other domestic work. Boys were forced into manual labour. Typical of a slave society, few resources were expended on the workers, so children were chronically malnourished and denied healthcare. Also typical of a slave society, the children were abused -- emotionally, physically, sexually, psychically, and spiritually.
These systems can only exist when the dominant group regards the subjugated people as less than human.
Had the colonizers viewed Indigenous people as fully human this system would never have existed. Need proof? Was this done to white, Christian families? To families of immigrants from European countries? Case closed.
Slavery, genocide, apartheid, concentration camps. The specific justifications of these horrors vary with context, but the fundamental conditions are always the same: viewing the "other" as subhuman.
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From summer 2021:
8 common claims of residential school deniers and how to shut them down, by Daniel Heath Justice and Sean Carlton.