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Truth and Reconciliation

Residential Schools in Canada:

Remarks to Congregation of Comox United Church, Sept. 19, 2021

In Recognition of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation


J. Rick Ponting, Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of Calgary

[Note:  the PowerPoint slides are available at the end of this reflection]

(Slide 2). En route to Alberta on July 1 this summer, I made a pilgrimage to the Kamloops Indian Residential School. As I sat on the grassy slope (Slide 3) at twilight contemplating the magnitude of the atrocities that happened there, I was profoundly moved. I had taught about the abomination of the residential schools in my university courses for decades, but that night, head in my hands, I couldn’t escape the question “How could this have happened?!”

The experience led me to come back with my wife the next morning. We spoke with an Elder, who was both the former director of the museum there and a former student at that residential school. She was overseeing the cleanup of the memorial site (Slide 4) that had been damaged by a storm after I left the previous night. Knowing that Comox United’s Social Justice Committee wanted me to get involved locally on this issue, I asked the Elder what message she would want me to convey to you if I were asked to speak.

In some respects, her message was simple:

“We are all equal. Learn about this so it doesn’t happen again.”

I hope that my remarks this morning provide some learning, albeit mainly from the perspective of a white sociologist. I do not speak for Indigenous people and their communities, but my remarks do draw, in significant part, upon my readings of the lived experiences of Indigenous people as reported themselves.

This morning I’ll review my past remarks from this pulpit on this topic, and then address some other questions about the residential school phenomenon, including what can we, as individuals, do to move reconciliation along?

Because some of the typeface on the PowerPoint slides might be too small for people seated at the back, and because I’ll be moving along at a rapid pace, these slides and the narrative version of my remarks are available on the Comox United website, on the Sermons and Social Justice pages.

Review of My Past Remarks to the Congregation (Slide 5)

I made several main points when I spoke here on this topic in 2013:

1) The first was that there likely was variation within and among the residential schools, from teacher to teacher, from school to school, and across different eras.

2) The mandate of the residential schools was one of cultural genocide -- complete and total assimilation, an assault on the culture of the students. As poet Duncan Campbell Scott, one-time administrator of the residential school system for the federal government said,

“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”

3) The residential schools were a “Primordial Event” for First Nation peoples --that is, a pivotal event with profound and lasting consequences that shapes the history of the people, like 9-11 in the USA or the Conquest for French Quebecois.

4) The residential schools were like a sociological earthquake, the aftershocks of which still rumble today down through the generations. In significant part, that is because, in being taken away to school, the students were removed from role models of good parenting in their families.

5) Sociologically, a good lens for understanding the students’ residential school experience is the concept of the “total institution”, other examples of which would be prisons, army boot camps, mental hospitals, and concentration camps.

 By “total institution”, we mean A confining, formal organization usually intended to forcibly change people's  behaviour and self-concept. It does that by means of the rigid structuring of daily routines and assault upon  personal dignity and autonomy. The residents can be called “inmates”.

6)   I described the experiences of the inmates at residential schools, including how the churches inflicted a multi-facetted assault upon the inmates (Slide 6) – that is, an assault upon them Emotionally, Cognitively, Spiritually, and Physically, and, as I’ve already said, Culturally.

     My 2013 remarks seriously understated the physical dimension of the assault on the inmates – namely, the deaths. We’ve long known that many, many deaths had occurred at the schools due to illness, suicide, abuse, and escapes turned tragic. However, in 2013 the Elders’ stories and the research had not been published to capture how horrifically widespread and commonplace those deaths were.

 Exceptions to that statement about research were the suppressed and widely overlooked research reports by Dr. Peter H. Bryce, as some investigative journalism by the Globe & Mail discovered in summer 2021.

Bryce was the chief Medical Officer of Health at the Dept. of Indian Affairs. His reports were based on his investigations at 35 Indian residential schools on the Prairies in 1907 and 1909.

 Some of Bryce’s findings, and the fact that nothing was done about them, despite the government’s fiduciary responsibilities, are shown on the slide (Slide 7).

      · One finding, as far back as 1907, was that the students were malnourished, over-worked, and abused, and that the schools were overcrowded and unsanitary.

       · Another finding was the very high death rates in the schools – as high as 75% at one school.

       · Another was the extremely high rate of tuberculosis which I would imagine accounts for a large proportion of the deaths at Kamloops, Cowessess (Marieval), and elsewhere (e.g., St. Eugene’s Mission School near Cranbrook; and Kuper Island near Chemainus).

I’ll come back to the Bryce Reports in a moment.

7) I also spoke last time about the residential schools’ legacies, which were almost entirely negative (Slide 8). Incidentally, the slide shows the back view of the Kamloops IRS, with its huge chapel.

8) Finally, I left members of the congregation with a sheet of paper that captures many of those legacies, as shown on the next slide. (Slide 9) However, what I gave them did not include the causal arrows that make up this web of causal relations. I concluded by asking them to put in the causal arrows and by suggesting that it is a wonder that individuals can step out of the entanglement of that web and live a fulfilling, productive life, as many do.

Did the Government Know About the Abuse, Disease, and Deaths? (Slide 10)

Unequivocally, YES. Not only were there the Bryce Reports, but First Nation parents petitioned the government and threatened lawsuits. Other forms of resistance, like burning down several residential schools and at least one murder, could not have gone unnoticed.

Yet, this was the response to one of Bryce’s reports, by Duncan Campbell Scott in 1910 (as quoted on the slide):

“It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habitating so closely in these schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is being geared towards the final solution of our Indian Problem.”….

Why Did The Physical & Sexual Abuse Happen? (Slide 11)

There are many reasons. Foremost in my mind is my hypothesis shown on the slide: -namely, that a lack of responsible oversight and therefore a lack of accountability, when combined with large power differentials (such as between staff and students in the schools), creates a very high probability of abuse of that power.

Various other reasons for the physical and sexual abuse are shown on the next slide. (Slide 12)

· First, bear in mind that corporal punishment was an accepted part of the culture of the times.

· So, too, was arrogance and extreme ethnocentrism -- the belief in the superiority of one’s own culture.

With regard to ethnocentrism, I for one, was very pleased to hear this morning’s introduction to the passage from Genesis refer to the Eurocentrism of the view that God created us to have dominion over all the creatures. That passage is a pivotal point of divergence between western European culture and most Indigenous cultures.

· Hand in glove with ethnocentrism was a racist ideology and a missionary zeal in pursuing it.

I’m referring in particular here to the racist belief at the time, that Indigenous people, as so-called “heathens” or “pagans”, are not totally human.

Related to that was the belief that it was God’s will to Christianize Indigenous peoples, and apparently, in the thinking of the day, the end justified the means.

· It has been abundantly clear for quite some time that there were also some colossal failures in the recruitment processes used to hire staff for many residential schools.

We know that it was difficult to recruit good teachers to go to often remote locations, to deal with a challenging and non-prestigious clientele. Results suggest that the schools were sometimes desperate to hire anyone.

And remember, this was a time when there was probably no police check or psychological screening of teacher applicants.

So, some sadists or otherwise psychologically very needy or warped persons were hired or, in the religious orders, assigned.

I can think of no other explanation of the physical brutality that some students have reported was inflicted on them.

· Power struggles were another contributing factor, and in saying so I’m in no way intending to blame the victims.

Students engaged in various forms of resistance, like stealing, arson, running away, and so on. Staff would be outraged at what they considered to be students’ “defiance” and so-called “uppityness”. So staff would seek to “teach them a lesson” through harsh punishment and would use that punishment as an intended deterrent to others.

Can you imagine how it would be received by a residential school teacher if a student tried to outsmart the teacher with a question, the way the Pharisee tried to trap Jesus in the Gospel reading from Matthew today?! Residential schools did not encourage critical thinking.

Before leaving this point about power struggles, let us not forget that sexual violence is often much more about power than it is about sex.

How Could The Abuse Go On? (Slide 13)

The obvious answer is that there was a Lack of Accountability.

One must also wonder whether there was willful blindness on the part of local administrators and colleagues.

Yet, as we have seen elsewhere, when staff were known to be offending, often the only consequence for the offender was to be transferred to another school or parish.

That is to say, they were allowed to continue to get away with abusing children.

[The picture on the slide shows one side of the memorial at Kamloops IRS. It lists members of the Adams Lake Band who died at the school, like Felix Anthony, born 1930, died 1938 and Bernadette Anthony, perhaps Felix’s cousin or twin, same birth and death years.]

A second contributing factor to the persistence of the abuse is authorities and peers disbelieving the victims’ stories.

I submit that the offending staff members’ behaviours were sometimes so egregious that it was inconceivable to authorities that the accused, such as a nun or another “person of the cloth”, would even be capable of such abuse (e.g., a nun sexually abusing a boy taking a shower).

Indeed, the disconnect between the accusation and what the authority receiving the report believed about the accused, would create significant cognitive dissonance that could most easily be resolved by dismissing_the_accusation and/or questioning the accuser’s motives in coming forward.

I think we can gain some further insight into the question of how the abuse could go on, if we do a couple of mind experiments.

The first, as distasteful as it is, is to put yourself into the mind of the perpetrator and imagine the rationalizations that he or she would have used. I’ll leave this for your consideration later.

The second mind experiment is to put yourself into the mind of a perpetrator’s new colleague who catches the abuser “red-handed” or who has an abused student report the abuse to him.

Imagine the cross-pressures between religious convictions and moral obligations, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the concern about losing one’s own job if labelled a troublemaker, and the concern with being ostracized by one’s colleagues for breaching norms of collegial solidarity.

Now imagine further that the new teacher reports the abuse to the principal or the priest, and is rebuffed. Think of how that conversation would go.

Are There Grounds For Hope for the Relations Between Indigenous People and The Larger Canadian Society? (Slide 14)

Contemplating the larger matter of reconciliation as we approach the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, my answer to this question is Yes, definitely.

I find many reasons to hope:

Consider the residential school survivors’ willingness to discuss their experiences and non-Indigenous Canadians’ increasing awareness of the oppression by the settler society and awareness of the need for true reconciliation to include concrete measures that improve Indigenous peoples’ standard of living and deconstruct colonial structures and mindsets;

Consider the sensitive symbolic changes introduced by governments (e.g., revising the citizenship oath) and various pieces of legislation and Supreme Court of Canada decisions on Aboriginal rights;

Consider the revival of Indigenous languages and cultures and the blossoming of Indigenous leadership, education, organizational capacity, and even entrepreneurship;

There are also international pressures on Canada, assertive domestic resistance and, dare I say it, the willingness of Indigenous people to exercise coercive or obstructive power such as in the rail blockades of 2019 that were, perhaps, only interrupted by Covid.

What Can You and I Do? (Slide 15)

There are many things that we can do to further reconciliation, especially if we remember that reconciliation is necessary for the whole colonization phenomenon, not just for the residential schools. I’ll just touch on a few of them in closing.

1. Write to the Prime Minister (my own letter to Justin Trudeau is posted on our Comox United website). Politicians attach importance to letters. Be assertive.

2. Do a pilgrimage to a residential school site. It is a powerful experience that takes todays remarks out of the intellectual realm and makes them visceral.

3. Patronize Indigenous Businesses &Learn About Indigenous Success Stories

e.g., I-Hos Gallery, Best Western Tin-Wis Resort near Tofino, Nk'Mip (pron. “inkameep”) Cellars wine from the Osoyoos area

4. Educate yourself. Heed the Calls to Action of the TRC to educate ourselves about the residential schools and the call of the Kamloops Elder to learn about colonialism and the residential school system so that this doesn’t happen again.

o Read the TRC Calls to Action

o Read books on the residential schools (on website)

o Read RCAP, MMIWG Report, the AFN Report

o Read the Comox United website entries under Ministries>Social Justice

There are various other things that can be done, but time constraints prevent me from going into them. You can find them and other material I’ve covered too quickly this morning on the Social Justice section of Comox United’s web page.

(Slide 16 – Some Words of a Kamloops I.R.S. Survivor; Slide 17 in closing)

5. Stop yourself and others when resorting to stereotypes

6. In informal conversations, speak up to counter the misconceptions/ inertia/opposition of your friends, relatives, and neighbours.

7. Reach out to, and learn about, local Indigenous populations

e.g., volunteer and offer your skills

8. Contribute financially to the United Church’s Healing Fund

9. Pray

10. Stand with Indigenous people literally and in symbolic solidarity.

[Note:  to view the PowerPoint slides, click here]

Prof. Ponting's letter to Prime Minister Trudeau:

 June 6, 2021

Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, PC, MP, Prime Minister

Government of Canada

The Parliament Buildings, Ottawa, Ont.


Dear Prime Minister:

I am writing today from the perspective of one who taught/wrote/researched in the realm of First Nations in Canada for almost his entire 32 year career as a university sociologist specializing in Indigenous matters. I am writing because I feel accountable to my grandchildren and to my First Nation friends who are entitled to ask me what steps I am taking toward reconciliation in 2021. I am also writing out of concern that First Nations’ frustration with your government could contribute to the resumption of the rail blockades that were paused by the onset of the global pandemic. Thus, I am writing today to urge you to attach much higher priority to achieving, without delay, concrete successes in reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in Canada.

The horrors and atrocities of residential schools have been known and documented for decades, as have the numerous other issues such as poverty, violence against women, treaty violations, deficiencies in on-reserve critical infrastructure and racism in numerous institutions such as child welfare, health, off-reserve education, policing, and justice. The time when mere symbolic gestures were sufficient is long past. Similarly, the time is long past for more study, protracted implementation periods, ministerial defensiveness, and politics-as-usual.

I submit that a mixture of outrage, grief, frustration, guilt, sadness, and perhaps even bewilderment has taken root among Canadians in response to the Kamloops revelations and is likely to intensify with more such discoveries. This is, in important respects, Canada’s “George Floyd moment” -- a watershed moment of reckoning when a society can turn tragedy into opportunity in matters of race relations.

You have the opportunity and ability to make this a moment when Canadian history pivots. What is required is bold reconciliation leadership from you and a public commitment such as you made on the Covid response which I paraphrase as “We’re here to support you no matter what.” For generations, Indigenous priorities, such as clean drinking water, went unmet because insufficient funds were devoted to addressing them. Your government’s Covid response demonstrated that when a sufficiently high priority is placed on a particular outcome, your government is prepared to act quickly and to “pull out all the stops” to achieve that outcome. That is precisely what is needed on Indigenous issues, now. Canadians need to hear, preferably in a special address to the nation by you, “We’re going to right these wrongs, no matter what, and bold action starts now.” It is no less important than your father’s unequivocal response to the 1970 FLQ kidnappings.

The Royal Commission, The Truth & Reconciliation Commission, and the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls have set out what needs to be done. I submit that this is the defining moment of your prime ministership, the singular moment when, more than on any other important issue, you are measured against the extraordinary leadership needs of your country.

J. Rick Ponting, Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus (Sociology)

The University of Calgary


Some Suggested Readings on Indigenous People and Reconciliation

The following is a list of a small number of publications, from a now much larger literature, dealing with the residential schools or, in the case of the Cajete book and the Ross book, with insight into Indigenous cultures. Any entry on this list would be a good starting point for increasing the reader’s understanding and for delving into more recent literature.

Gregory Cajete, Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence. Santa Fe, N.M.: Clear Light Publishers, 2000.

Celia Haig-Brown, Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School. Vancouver: Tillacum Press, 1988.

Isabelle Knockwood. Out of the Depths: The Experiences of Mi’kmaw Children in the Indian Residential School at Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia. Lockport, N.S.: Roseway Publishing, 1992.

J. R. Miller, Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

J. Rick Ponting and Cora J. Voyageur, “Challenging the Deficit Paradigm: Grounds for Optimism Among First Nations in Canada”, The Canadian Journal of Native Studies Vol. XXI, No. 2 (2001): pp. 275-307.

J. Rick Ponting, First Nations in Canada: Perspectives on Opportunity, Empowerment, and Self-Determination. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1997.

Rupert Ross, Dancing with a Ghost: Exploring Indian Reality. Markham, Ont.: Octopus Publishing, 1992.

Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, The Final Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, Vol. 1-5. Ottawa: Minister of Supply & Services Canada, 1996.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Calls to Action. Ottawa, 2015.  Access at › calls_to_action_english2.pdf

Wilma Spearchief and Louise Million, Breaking the Silence: An Interpretive Study of Residential School Impact and Healing as Illustrated by the Stories of First Nations Individuals. Ottawa: Assembly of First Nations, 1994.