LETTER: Macdonald made policy to assimilate Indigenous peoples

Some of the quotes that were included in the article“Online petition calls for Holding Court to remain at Picton Library”(July 23, The Picton Gazette), in particular quotes from a petition supporter who suggests that Sir John A. was doing a favour to Indigenous communities and supporting “native education” through the creation of the residential school system, are dangerously one-sided and misleading.

Sure –  Sir John A. can still be acknowledged for his work – but we have to go further.

We need to acknowledge the fundamental mistakes made by our historical leaders, including the treatment of Indigenous peoples and the harmful policies and ideologies that continue to have an effect on Indigenous communities today. It is no longer acceptable to gloss over these details of Canadian history.  Under the leadership of Sir John A. Macdonald, it became official policy to assimilate Indigenous peoples into European-Canadian culture. Government and church leaders believed that children needed to be separated from the influence of their families in order to sever the passing of Indigenous cultures. This ideology, perpetuated by Sir John A. and numerous leaders to follow, was the driving force behind the residential school system in Canada.

In 1883, Macdonald reported to the House of Commons: “When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

Starting in the 1880s, the residential school system expanded across Canada. The system included over 130 residential schools in total, with the last federally supported residential school closing in the late 1990s. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission tells us of the incredible rates of abuse, illness and death that occurred within these schools, as well as the intergenerational impacts that residential schools have on Indigenous families and communities. Our government’s actions cannot simply be excused by the times; there were plenty of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people along the way who spoke out against the residential school system, but their stories are seldom retold.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission provides 94 Calls to Action for us all to work towards a better future. But how will our next generation move forward from this dark past if we don’t even acknowledge how it began?

Whether the statue ultimately stays or goes, we need to take deliberate actions as a community to tell the truth, both good and bad, about Canada’s history.

Jocelyn Wattam