My work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has thus far focused on archival research. One of the major themes that come out in this work is that of revisionist history: how stories are told and interpreted, and by whom. Forced assimilation was viewed as salvation for ‘les sauvages,’ one which settler communities felt should have been met with gratitude. This narrative has managed to survive over the past 150 years, with today’s racism being passed off as a political critique or social commentary.
When I tell people that I am working with the TRC, the most frequent response I encounter is along the lines of, “oh yes, it’s so tragic what happened, but they’ve been given so many opportunities since then.” This concept that indigenous communities should somehow be grateful for the ‘benevolence’ of settler peoples is still omnipresence in our national thinking. In the case of residential schools, it’s interesting to see how early attitudes surrounding the role of the institutions so clearly support our current rhetoric around indigenous issues.
I was recently asked to summarize a French text which outlined the history of St Paul des Métis colony in central Alberta by Historian and Oblate Eméric O. Drouin.
In 1895, Father Albert Lacombe was approached by the federal government to establish an agricultural colony for Métis in what is now east-central Alberta. The community would assure a Roman Catholic presence in a region that saw an increasing number of protestant settlers. Métis families were granted plots whose titles were retained by the government. At 69 years old, Lacombe assigned father Adéodat Thérien the task of organizing the colony. Yet with little training in farming, the community quickly shifted its focus to providing religious instruction to Métis children. In 1902, limited financial resources went towards the construction of a large residential school.1 One year later, a fire started by Métis students lead to its destruction, giving rise to the eventual termination of the colony in 1908.
The historian’s account of the fire required translation, not solely from a linguistic perspective.
The short account of the story is this: 16 year old Ducharme from lac Biche lead 14 students, all boys between the ages of 7 and 16, to burn down the school. Though successful in their plan, the fire’s sole casualty would be Ducharme’s sister, Marie.
In total, 4 were deemed too young to be prosecuted, and 10 were arrested. Of the 10, 4 more were acquitted by a Justice of the Peace in lac la Selle. The 6 others were brought to Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta to attend their trial. Justice McLeod acquitted the children. He relied heavily on the arguments of the defense, reasoning that the children had been provoked by poor treatment, furthering that no reform school for children existed west of Winnipeg.
You could characterize the story as one of struggle, as one of fight, determination and/or desperation by the Métis children against their abusers. This was the position of the defense. Or, you could adopt Drouin’s position, who argued that the accusations were “donc qu’excuses employees par les incendiaries pour attirer la sympathie, et pourtant, on les entretenait gratuiement à l’école depuis des années!”2 The historian furthers that an anonymous group pressured the judge to dismiss the case and that the verdict shocked the community. He quotes Thérien as stating: “Les enfants sont arrivés de la prison — le verdict du juge a supris tous le monde, même les parents. Évidemment ce judge McLeod est un butor.”3 Drouin contended that Cross was counseled by Lacombe not to pursue further action against the youth. He prayed that the case be dropped, as he had seen too many Métis sent to prison. In one final rhetoric flourish, he concludes the incident as follows: “Des simples enfants ont allumé la mèche qui a mis le feu au baril de poudre et fait sauter l’oeuvre qui devait être leur sault.”4
Drouin ostensibly asserts that these ungrateful children sabotaged their own salvation. And that narrative still so strongly inserts itself into our conversations around indigenous issues in Canada today.
For his part, Lacombe lamented the fire, which would ultimately bring about the devolution of the colony:
Nobody to-day can understand my trouble, my grief, my disappointment – I have only God for witness of my devoted desire to save this population. I will go down into the grave with this sorrow in my heart repeating ‘Bonum est quai humiliasti me.’ My poor Metis! […] I can only weep in secret.
Historian Heather Devine notes that there was “some debate over whether the colony was a “planned” failure or not. Some evidence suggests that the first priest and manager of the colony, Father Therien, was not only skeptical from the outset about the prospects for success, but was actually more committed to creating a community of French-Canadians in the St. Paul area.” After the fire, Therien “encouraged young Métis to take up homesteads outside of the colony, while quietly encouraging French-Canadian settlers to move in.” In 1908, managers of the colony informed the government that they wanted to terminate the land lease. In 1909, the lease, and subsequent colony was terminated, and “approximately two hundred and fifty French-Canadian claims were registered on the former Métis leases.”5
1 Heather Devine, The People Who Own Themselves: Aboriginal Ethnogenisis in a Canadian family, 1660-1900 (Calgary: University of Press, 2012) at 183-4.
2 Émeric O. Drouin, Joyau dans la plaine (Edmonton: Collège Saint-Jean, 1968) at 436.
3 Ibid at 241.
4 Ibid at 242.
5 Supra note 1.