“AT the time, they really thought that they were doing the right thing.” These words, spoken by new Minister of Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Affairs Alan Lagimodiere, provoked much negative reaction. The reaction is understandable, but I would respectfully ask that we take a moment to reflect more deeply on these words. I want to suggest that there is a truth in them that we all need to hear, whether the speaker intended it or not.

Opinion

"AT the time, they really thought that they were doing the right thing." These words, spoken by new Minister of Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Affairs Alan Lagimodiere, provoked much negative reaction. The reaction is understandable, but I would respectfully ask that we take a moment to reflect more deeply on these words. I want to suggest that there is a truth in them that we all need to hear, whether the speaker intended it or not.

Those who have studied the history of the tangled relations between Indigenous people and the European settlers from first contact to Confederation know that there was considerable mutual dependence between the earlier settlers and the various First Nations who accommodated their presence. Some commercial and cultural interactions were welcomed at first, as First Nations cultures were accustomed to incorporating things that could be learned and borrowed from others. But when these relationships with the settlers went sour, the price was paid mostly by Indigenous people.

Relations with the representatives of the various and often conflicting European religious bodies provide examples. In the territory that today is Manitoba, the first congregations of what later became the United Church of Canada were Indigenous in membership and, for the most part, in leadership.

Not all Indigenous people welcomed the presence of these new religious currents, but enough did so to allow the missionaries to feel they were "doing the right thing."

Then came Confederation. The new nation of Canada inherited some treaties with First Nations and made others, with a view to clearing most of the land for more settlers. By the latter part of the 19th century, British colonialism, both here and around the world, was going full-bore. Social Darwinism assured the settler leaders that "survival of the fittest" meant that the triumph of wealth and technology was not only inevitable but good, because it reflected the will of God…. or was it Nature?

Never mind. Progress involves "building a better world." Get on board or get out of the way. Those on board were quite sure they were "doing the right thing." They were progressive, after all.

But there were those pesky treaties. The Indigenous people were not going away, at least not very fast. All we really want them to do, thought the settler leaders, is to become like us. The churches have schools, mostly on the reserves, but their students still think like "Indians" when they graduate. What can give us a final solution to these roadblocks to progress? How about residential schools? The churches will provide the staff, and the government will provide the money (no more than fiscal responsibility will allow, of course).

So what today we can readily recognize as genocide began. Some settlers who were genuinely willing to educate Indigenous children and treat them with respect signed up as teachers. Others had no hesitation in imposing the toxic nature of their own upbringing on the most vulnerable children available. Most were somewhere in between, becoming involved because it was the best job available, or as a stepping stone to an ecclesiastical or educational career.

Then came the cutbacks, the refusal to allow the resources necessary to provide for adequate nutrition, shelter and supervision for the students, teachers and other staff. We know now how this tragic story unfolded, with unmarked graves. Many of those truly concerned for the welfare of the students were finally overwhelmed by the realities of the system. A few continued to the end, trying to "do the right thing."

The governmental and religious institutions that were responsible for the residential schools and their usually unacknowledged mandate to "kill the Indian in the child" had a hard time recognizing and then dealing with their institutional responsibility for this catastrophe. By the 1960s, "everybody knew" that what had seemed to be "doing the right thing" in the 19th century was in fact very wrong.

It still took decades after that to close the system down, decades for most of the churches and the government to formally apologize. More than a half century later, we are only beginning understand what it will take to bring about true healing. All this because we settlers were so sure we knew what was "the right thing to do."

It would be easier if this were the only occasion on which we had been so mistaken. My own way of life has endorsed the notion that the more plastic, the more hydrocarbon use, the more "economic growth", the better. It all seemed like "the right thing" to me. But now we see that we have damaged our planet so deeply that "doing the right thing" means preparing for political instability and climate catastrophe.

The next provincial election will, I hope, give us our first Indigenous premier. I have read The Reason You Walk, and I believe he has a fair sense of his own failings and limitations. That awareness will be helpful as he tries to "do the right thing." May we all remember the terrible consequences of the times when we and our leaders have been falsely confident in our vision of the future, and have failed to listen respectfully to the voices of those who could help us learn to see more clearly.

John Badertscher is a retired University of Winnipeg professor of religious studies and the author of a 2014 memoir titled Fragments of Freedom.