A moment of reckoning in Canada

Parliament Hill Monday, June 7th, 2021

There are times in our collective story when something really stops people in their tracks. The story of the 215 unmarked graves beside a residential school in Kamloops is one of these instances. Even though the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report has been out since 2015, it seems to take the pictures of 215 little pairs of shoes on Parliament Hill to bring all this home to us.

We have known about the appalling death count in residential schools since at least 1907. That year, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce produced a report on the state of health in Canada’s residential schools. The conclusions of the report were astounding:

“It suffices for us to know, however, that of a total of 1,537 pupils reported upon nearly 25 per cent are dead, of one school with an absolutely accurate statement, 69 per cent of ex-pupils are dead, and that everywhere the almost invariable cause of death given is tuberculosis.”

The Bryce Report, 1907 p.18
One of the tables from the report. What is striking is that many schools did not report at all or said their records were incomplete, records that Archbishop Collins now says are available to all. The Bryce Report p. 18-19

Bryce focused on one particular school where the results were particularly heart wrenching:

Thus, of a total of 31 discharged from the File Hills school, 9 died at the school, of 6 others there is no record of condition on discharge, but all are reported to be dead, 7 others died from within a few months to three years after discharge and 9 are reported as in good health,

The Bryce Report, 1907 p. 18

The reason for this very high death rate was well understood. Scientific medicine had made great strides in the past 40 years and the health effects of good and proper ventilation were well understood. In many of the schools however, there was a criminal inattention to what was needed to keep kids well and protected. Bryce continues:

in the absence of regular and sufficient ventilation, extremely inadequate; that for at least 7 months in the long winter of the west, double sashes are on the windows in order to save fuel and maintain warmth and that for some 10 continuous hours children are confined in dormitories, the air of which, if pure to start with, has within 15 minutes become polluted, so as to be capable of detection by ordinary chemical tests. It is apparent that general ill health from the continued inspiration of an air of increasing foulness is inevitable; but when sometimes consumptive pupils and, very frequently, others with discharging scrofulous glands, are present to add an infective quality to the atmosphere, we have created a situation so dangerous to health that I was often surprised that the results were not even worse than they have been shown statistically to be.

The Bryce Report p. 19

The report goes on to talk about a general inadequate level of physical activity provided for the students and the absolute disregard for daily health and sanitation in the schools.

Such a report could have been a clarion call for action. These children were the responsibility of the state and it was clearly the state’s responsibility along with the various churches to make amends and vastly improve every aspect of the residential learning environment.

But here is where the story get sinister. Dr. Bryce reported to Duncan Campbell Scott, federal Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs and Scott suppressed the report. It was leaked to the media causing a public outcry, but very little was done to follow through on Bryce’s recommendations that included “the handing over of the school system to the Chief Medical Officer and be made in its first essentials a sanitorium system rather than an educational one: That each child must be primarily considered an “individual case of probably tuberculosis.”
That improvements be made in the buildings so that open air work-rooms and dormitories shall be provided.
That increased expenditure for extra clothing be provided for, also a special dietary. Also improved water
supply for bathing &.” Indian Residential Schools & Reconciliation

In fact, the report was seen as an irritation:

It will be obvious at once that Dr. Boyce’s recommendations while they may be scientific are quite inapplicable

to the system under which these schools are conducted. Even were the Department prepared to take the schools

over from the Churches, it is self evident that the Churches would not be willing to give up their share of the

joint control. These preliminary examinations by Dr. Lafferty and Dr. Bryce have already caused considerable

irritation and brought protests from the Roman Catholic authorities who have the larger number of pupils under

their charge

Department of Indian Affairs File 140,754-1 “Correspondence relating to tuberculous among the Indians in the various agencies across Canada 1908-1910” (c10167)

Daily Colonist November 16, 1907

Scott continued to block Bryce at every turn. In 1913, he denied him the funding he needed to continue his work. Bryce was not allowed to present his findings at conferences. He was denied positions in the Federal Public Service that he was certainly qualified and by 1921 he was forced into retirement (First Nations Child and Family Caring Society). All techniques used by large institutions that have no need for the truth.

But we still don’t seem to get it. Decades after the suppression of The Bryce Report by Duncan Campbell Scott and the Canadian Government, there is still no willingness to call the acts of our churches and governments genocide.

The interview with Rosemary Barton and Cardinal Collins is just a rehashing of past wrongs. Would Scott have said anything really different than the platitudes Collins offered this past Sunday?

Collins is a smooth operator and he brushed aside any thought that there are records that have yet to be disclosed, even as the head of the Oblate order, Rev. Ken Thorson, is in the process of digitizing the records from their Kamloops school (CBC, June 6, 2021).

It is the smug arrogance of church leaders like Collins that will really make the struggle for reconciliation so much harder. No need for apologies, no grand gestures, just a little bit of work here and there.

Full interview with Cardinal Collins

When the mighty fall, they fall hard. Trite statements and interviews by complacent, comfortable men do not help. Yesterday Egerton Ryerson’s statue in Toronto came tumbling down and it has been announced it will not be reinstated.

A photo of the Egerton Ryerson statue at Ryerson University in Toronto after being pulled to the ground. Credit: Global News. Global News

Ryerson was responsible for the early design of the residential school model in Canada. He believed that white and indigenous students should not be taught in the same schools due to their different cultural backgrounds. He was also responsible for developing the separate school system in Ontario – another outmoded idea that might also soon face the chopping block.

As we reexamine our history, who do we still honour? Who do we now comdemn?

All history is relative and the judgement of current times will have to be meted out on people like Scott, MacDonald and Ryerson. These are Canadian icons no more and they must all be toppled from their ridiculous pedestals so we can move on.

School Boards in Ontario – Rethinking Governance in Education

Egerton Ryerson, education reformer from Ontario’s past

I think there is lots to write about on the topic of governance in education in Ontario. Recently, the Globe and Mail has tackled this topic, questioning the need for elected boards. It is a really good read and asks important questions on how we organize education in Canada.

The topic has been covered several times by Sheila Stewart in her blog. Her posts are very thought provoking and are important to read if we are interested in this topic. She rightly notes that this is a complex issue with no easy solutions:

There has been a fair bit of discussion about the role and relevancy of education trustees in Ontario lately.  There are many questions, if not confusion, about their role and purpose.  The topic can get quite complex and it is not an easy discussion.  I suspect there is something unique about the culture of every single board of trustees that is in place at each of Ontario’s 72 school boards.  I don’t know the answers regarding what they should be doing, or if they should exist or not.  How can an unbiased discussion about alternatives occur? How can the discussion be kept to be about the role, and not personalities and politics?

The trustee – parent connection in #onted

 

I think we all should be interested in how our education system is organized. We have a system that has been in place going back to the 19th century. Local control of education was established as far back as 1816. Much of our current governance structure hails from this time. The 1816 legislation was, at the time a boon to a growing community. It provided for local control and the appointment of trustees:

The law provided that the people of any village, town, or township might meet together and arrange to establish one or more schools, at each of which the attendance must be not less than twenty. Three suitable trustees were to be chosen to conduct the school, appoint teachers, and select textbooks from a list prescribed by a District Board of Education.

Egerton Ryerson and Education in Upper Canada, Putman, John Harold (1866-1940)

If you follow the story of education in Ontario the name Egerton Ryerson will come up. In 1846, he reorganized the system of education in Ontario, establishing District Superintendents, Normal Schools (later teacher colleges), property taxes for the support of schools, standards for texts and a whole host of regulations establishing a system of education in the new province.

The last review of education governance took place in 2009. It’s a little shocking when you look at the people who were responsible for this review. All were trustees, former school board directors or university professors. From what I can see, this was a group very interested in maintaining the status quo in Ontario. The recommendations from the review do not upset the apple cart, but strongly support the structure first envisioned back in 1846.

Calls for education reform in Ontario and other jurisdictions rarely call for an overall review of governance. Instead, we focus on adjusting teaching methods, exhorting educators to become more ‘connected’ or more innovative within the current box that exists and improving our EQAO scores.

It seems like the greatest call for education reform, especially in Ontario comes in the form of opposition to EQAO. Peter Cameron writes in his post Test Time…stress time?

Perhaps it’s not that teachers need to change; in fact I’d argue that we are always innovating and evolving for the good of our students. Perhaps it’s EQAO that needs to be innovative in how they assess our kids . WHAT IF students could submit ePortfolios, podcasts, videos and screencasts to demonstrate their learning? Better yet, WHAT IF EQAO could send PEOPLE to our schools, to spend time, sitting and listening to our students?

Writing like this is so important – we need educators to challenge a system that seems to have lost its ability to be self critical. I agree with Peter, what would happen, for example, if superintendents became primarily responsible for the success of a small collection of schools and their current ‘busy’ portfolios like ‘student success’ and ‘safe schools’ be turned over to education officials actually trained to deal with these portfolios?

We do not write about what trustees do in the current system apart from vague declarations that education must remain ‘in public hands’. What does that actually mean? Education is highly technical these days. It is unlikely that most trustees even understand what is going on in education. This means they are totally at the mercy of board officials – superintendents and directors that really are not accountable to anyone. These officials have the real power in the system, they can be very good and use their authority responsibly, but there are others who abuse this power and do little to improve the system for our students.

One observation – we have an excellent medical system here in Ontario and no equivalent of local elected boards. How does a system, rooted in reforms over 150 years old actually serve the children in our province? Governance is a topic long overdue for discussion in Ontario.