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Books on Kids
by Heather Hodgson

An elementary school sits nestled in an affluent, old neighbourhood in Regina; the students who attend it mostly live within walking distance. It's clearly a happy place-art brightens its windows. And folks in the neighbourhood have great affection for it. In summer, it stands empty, but the happy memories of its children are still palpable in the silence of the main hall.

I asked to see Davin Elementary School because it was named after Nicholas Flood Davin. Davin, as Professor John Milloy reminds us in A National Crime, was the man who proposed the system for Indian residential schools in Canada. While his part in the history of the First Nations since colonization has been eclipsed by the longer shadow of Duncan Campbell Scott, Davin's influence was foundational and, therefore, no less important.

Davin was an MP and a journalist whose troubled life, professionally and personally, ended in suicide. His proposal for residential schools-on record as a minor part of his contribution to Canada in C.B. Koester's biography-would have grave consequences for the First Nations children who lived in those schools. A National Crime tells us that story.

A National Crime also provides information about the residential school system that has not been available to a general readership. Most of what Canadians know about the schools has been garnered from the media, and much of what is crucial was locked up in classified files. Milloy has researched, assembled, and ordered the morass of information into one of the most comprehensive pictures of that tragedy to date.

The idea for Indian residential schools was first raised in the early 1800s by Sir Peregrine Maitland, who outlined most of the "civilizing concepts and techniques" that would eventually be used. Yet Maitland's proposal remained a paper construction because First Nations peoples had not yet become central to the body politic's settlement activities. It was only when their stubborn presence became a problem for colonial expansion that John A. Macdonald's policy of assimilating Indians became central to government objectives. Then the residential school idea moved ahead.

Nicholas Flood Davin was commissioned to report on industrial schools in the United States, then charged with educating and assimilating that country's Indians and "half-breeds". After his study, Davin recommended that the best way to civilize the Indians was to separate the children from their parents. In this regard, Davin concurred with Maitland before him that "adults [thoroughly acculturated in their traditions] could make only limited `progress' toward assimilation."

In today's "post-residential school" era, particular attention has been given to the sexual abuse suffered by children in Indian boarding schools. Countless adults-who were bona fide victims, innocent children torn from the protection of parents and culture-are struggling to overcome the impact of the residential experience on their lives. Many have told their stories publicly and their silence no longer protects their perpetrators. Telling is cathartic, the painful first step towards healing.

That children in residential boarding schools were abused systematically and as strategic policy is a crime against humanity. On January 7, 1999, that crime was acknowledged through an official public apology from the Honourable Jane Stewart, Minister of Indian Affairs. The Minister backed her words with a healing fund for the victims, which can only partially compensate for the damage done.

Now, A National Crime can be a powerful resource for scholars, the public, and, perhaps most importantly, the victims trying to understand how those who claimed to subscribe to Christian values could do what they did to children. While Milloy reflects on his initial misgivings about writing the book-his fear of trespassing on the Aboriginal experience-few readers will take issue with him. It's clear that A National Crime is also a white man's story: the residential school system was conceived, designed, and managed by non-Aboriginal people. The author's critical retrospection enriches our understanding of the primary data of witnesses and victims, explaining why and how it could happen. Milloy also provides the needed political and social contexts for the intentions, motives, culture, and ideology that led to the implementation of a residential school policy, and he tells us something about the mind-set of its implementors. His book, then, is a welcome addition to what we already know. While the evil done was on public record to some extent, something of its repugnant rationale had been missing up till now. Were the perpetrators of the abuse evil men? No. We learn that they were grey bureaucrats, black-robed clergy, and very ordinary people who pretended to civilize, while they implemented cultural genocide and tuberculin epidemics in Indian residential schools.

The research for A National Crime was conducted on behalf of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which was mandated to investigate and propose solutions to the problems that arose from the "evolution of the relationship among aboriginal peoples, the Canadian government and Canadian society as a whole." Milloy's research material included archival and government sources that had never been made public. He read hundreds of documents from the National Archives in Ottawa, from Anglican, Presbyterian, and United Church archives in Toronto, from the Deschatelets Archives of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Ottawa, and from the Department of Indian Affairs. His detailed study is complete with names, dates, and excerpts from the records of employees, medical inspectors, and the children.

In 1931, there were eighty residential schools in Canada; six were opened later in Quebec. Jointly operated by church and state, there was a twist: the church was the handmaiden, rather than critic, of the government's ethically-bankrupt policy. While some churches attempted to unilaterally build schools without government approval, ultimately the Department of Indian Affairs assumed the final authority and provided yearly grants. The churches-Roman Catholic, United Church, Church of England, and Presbyterian-supplied teachers and equipment.

From the start, the plan was doomed: chronically underfunded, with inferior teachers and inadequate staff, the professed noble aims were thwarted. The results were disastrous: the quality of the teaching was substandard and the buildings themselves were deemed unfit for human occupation. The children suffered and thousands died. For these reasons, Dr. P.H. Bryce, a Medical Inspector to the Department, described the condition of the schools and the health of the children in them to be "a national crime". Yet, that crime persisted through decades of inaction. In 1948, Indian Affairs Superintendent N. Walker said that if he "were appointed [to] ... spread tuberculosis, there [would be] nothing finer in existence than the average Indian residential school." This is an elegant reduction to absurdity of the then status quo: schools as instruments of genocide. No reader will be unmoved by the facts and evidence that Milloy has gathered to confirm all we've heard in the news. It's a page-turner.

A National Crime contains comparatively less information about the sexual abuse of children in residential schools, perhaps because we have learned so much about it from the media. Milloy has balanced discussion of sexual abuse with discussion of starvation, cruelty, and disease. This is the complete, and shocking, story about Indian residential schools.

Beginning in 1879 when the first schools were opened, the story travels across this land, through ten decades, ending in 1986 when the last of the schools was closed. The book is written in vivid, compelling prose and is in three parts, with an epilogue, appendix, footnotes, references, and an index. Photographs show children straightjacketed in European clothes, their hair shorn or tightly drawn back. Before-and-after photographs of a young boy named Thomas Moore are fused for the book's cover, giving the reader a sense of how those trying to "kill the Indian" in the child, as it were, might think the child's outward transformation would effect an inner transformation as well. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Part 1, "Vision: The Circle of Civilized Conditions", traces the history of residential schools. Part 2, "Reality: The System at Work", covers the pre-World War II period before residential schools were the focus of "assimilation". Part 3, "Integration and Guardianship", describes how the plan failed and was shut down. The Epilogue, entitled "Beyond Closure", will be kept open for years to come, for critical moral reflection by governments. It chronicles the national outpouring that began in the early 1990s about the abuses committed in residential schools. Admissions continue to this day.

A postscript.

When I finished A National Crime, I was prompted to take a closer look at C.B. Koester's biography of Nicholas Flood Davin, which the Davin School principal showed me after my tour. It struck me as a strange coincidence that Davin, like Duncan Campbell Scott, was also a poet; but it seemed especially ironic that this Regina elementary school was named after the man behind the development of Indian residential schools. Later, I couldn't help thinking that Davin might even be redeemed, since the school that now bears his name is slowly becoming an indicator of a more tolerant future. Last year, the Native count in Davin Elementary's population increased to fifteen per cent; it was almost zero in the decades before. And perhaps the mural inside the entrance-vividly and colourfully depicting First Nation peoples, their art, and notably, their children-is already a sign of greater tolerance among all people for all children. 

Heather Hodgson, of Cree ancestry, is a Lecturer in English at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College.


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