A residential school by any other name
I write this in an office that sits on unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin land called Wakefield.
The long-overdue reckoning with Canada’s genocidal history makes me think of what I was taught in school, and about a lone model Haida longhouse sitting among a crowd of models of California’s version of residential schools.
Growing up in the States, the country's genocidal history was swept deep under the basement rug during elementary school curriculum.
I was told that Indians – as I was incorrectly taught to call them at the time – came to Jamestown during a cold winter to give food to the starving Europeans; thus the tradition of Thanksgiving began, and everyone became friends and lived happily ever after. I was not taught the truth.
The California mission system, which was similar in nature and goals to Canadian residential schools, was taught in a lesson that lasted a few weeks. I was told that Indians came to the Catholic missions to convert and learn the European way of life – again, not the truth.
The current truth about the California mission system, according to the U.S. Library of Congress, is that from 1769 to 1834, when the 21 missions were active, the population of Indigenous people in the state was halved. The forced living conditions in the walled missions were crowded and harsh. Infant and child mortality rates skyrocketed.
My class lesson culminated in each student picking a mission and building a model of it for display in the classroom. It just so happened that I missed a week of school around that time to go with my mum to visit her family in Vancouver. While there, we toured the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, where I fell in love with the work of Haida artist Bill Reid and the model 19th century Haida village he and ‘Namgis artist Doug Cranmer built behind the museum.
When I returned to school, I learned that I missed my chance to pick a mission to build. Since my independent study program while on vacation was about what I learned at the museum and about the west coast First Nations, I (really my dad) built a model coastal First Nation longhouse instead of a mission.
The day of the model presentation came and my longhouse was displayed on my desk flanked by models of California missions. The irony of the juxtaposition was totally lost on 10-year-old me. I doubt the inhabitants of my longhouse would have gotten along with the priests running the neighbouring missions. Many of the model missions had cemeteries; I wonder how many graves went unmarked.
Despite the 20/20 hindsight vision that we 21st-century dwellers should have, California missions remain symbols of the state, popular tourist attractions, and architectural inspirations.
With the recent discoveries of unmarked mass graves outside residential schools across Canada and the suspected thousands more remaining to be discovered, Canada is just starting to consider grappling with its genocidal past. I say “starting to consider” because there is so much more to do than just acknowledge it, and I’m at a loss about what I – a privileged white man in the media – can and should do. So, for now, until I can come up with something more concrete, I’m writing this. I won’t say that Canada is stepping in the right direction because I’m not the right one to say, and time will tell if the Canadian government and people will take further steps toward much-needed generational healing.
Canadians are stereotypically good at apologizing, but how will we act when apologies aren’t enough?