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Native and Non-Native Voices on the Residential School Issue and Historical Revisionism: Writing Between the Times

Wayne A. Holst
University of Calgary
Calgary (Alberta)

«Evil happens when the imperative of the unquestionably good cause blinds people to the effects of their actions.»
Hannah ARENDT (1976, p. 1)

«Truth may be painful for the church, but untruth is even more so.»
Klaus SCHOLDER (1988, p. x)

«We need to face these abuses, our innate racist attitudes and our cultural blindness. We need to make appropriate amends to Native people. We need to do this as part ofa 'dialogue of conversion' with Natives, through which both we and the1) can be liberated from attitudes and prejudices that keep us from mutual respect, friendship and solidarity.»
Remi DE ROO (Daly et al., 1999, p. 58)aly et al., 1999, p. 58)

Canadian Native residential schools, long dead, have taken on a new life of their own. Once, there were about a hundred schools. Fifty seven were related to the Roman Catholic Church (Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1992). They existed in many forms and in most parts of the country. The last one closed three decades ago. Yet, during the past ten years they have become a major focus of controversy between First Nations, the churches and the rest of Canada.

In the late 1980s when this researcher was writing about mission history in the Mackenzie region of Canada's Northwest Territories, reference to the impact of the Oblate residential schools there was confined to several endnotes of his dissertation (Holst, 1989). The term "residential school" was little known and not used in common parlance until the 1990s. Much has changed in the past decade. Stories about the schools, usually associated with scandal, have appeared often on front pages of Canadian newspapers.

Today, the general public has a very negative impression of what supposedly went on in the residential schools. All the major denominations associated with them (besides the Roman Catholic Church were Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist / United and Salvation Army) have been named in hundreds of lawsuits so that the very future of these bodies appears to be threatened.1

Over the years, Oblate history conferences have heard a number of papers on the schools. Some were positive and some critical (Levaque, 1990; Carney, 1992; Gresko, 1992, 1996; Jim Miller, 1992; Titley, 1992). Assessing these presentations as a whole, it is somewhat disconcerting to find a lack of contribution from those for whom the schools existed to serve - i.e. the Native people themselves. It has taken time for the First Nations of Canada to find their voice and begin recounting their own experiences in print. That situation is rapidly changing and more Native people are expressing themselves in print. When they write their voice is often that of historical revisionism. It is apparent from reading the literature now surfacing that Native people frequently experienced the schools differently from those who created, maintained and advocated for them, challenging non-Native academics who researched the archival material, and the mainstream media people which interviewed aboriginals.

It is the purpose of this paper to trace four stages in the historiography of Native residential schools: missionary record, non-Native academic critique, Native voice and a proposal for a historiography of the future. Because the first two stages have already been given considerable attention at these conferences this paper, after reviewing the subject, will focus on the emerging Native voice and will outline possibilities for the future of residential school historiography.

Like most assessments, contemporary school historiography is written "between the times." Arendt (1976) admonishes that evil happens when the imperative of the unquestionably good cause blinds people to the effects of their actions. Scholder (1988) advises that truth may be painful for the church to hear, but untruth is even more so. Regarding truth and evil in the schools, much has been written in the past decade by Natives and non-Natives alike. Retired bishop De Roo of Victoria, who has invested much in coming to terms with the church's involvement with the schools, proposes a way forward. He suggests that after honestly facing the truth and making amends for the evil that happened, society and church, Native and non-Native, need to engage in a dialogue of mutual conversion so that all can be liberated from attitudes and prejudices that prevent respect, friendship and solidarity (Daly et ai., 1999). This paper is presented in that spirit. It is a reflection with a redemptive purpose and poses a challenge to the zeitgeist, or today's general attitude to the schools.


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