Quill and Quire

Book news

« Back to

Residential school reading

Monday was the deadline for former students of native residential schools to opt out of a $2-billion compensation package offered by the federal government for abuses they suffered while attending the schools. (Accepting compensation means they agree not to sue the government or the churches that ran the schools.) The Tyee provides some related reading with a review of two books: Good Intentions Gone Awry: Emma Crosby and the Methodist Mission on the Northwest Coast by Jan Hare and Jean Barman (UBC Press) and The Letters of Margaret Butcher: Missionary-Imperialism on the North Pacific Coast, edited by Mary-Ellen Kelm (University of Calgary).

Tyee reviewer Crawford Kilian says the books provide some insight into what those schools were like, the mindset of the people running them, and ways that the students suffered even when they weren’t subjected to the worst types of physical and sexual abuse that have been documented.

Apart from chronicling an almost forgotten era in B.C. history, these books introduce us to two remarkable women. Both were highly intelligent, immensely competent, and profoundly toxic to the people they were trying to save.

For modern readers, however, it’s striking to see that Emma expressed zero interest in the people the Crosbys were trying to convert. She never discusses the Tsimshians’ culture or history. (One photograph, from 1876, shows Thomas Crosby in Tsimshian regalia; he looks painfully embarrassed.) She refers in passing to the dirt and disease of the natives, but doesn’t even mention the catastrophic smallpox pandemic that a decade earlier had killed a third of the native population on the B.C. coast.

Margaret Butcher made similar remarks: “They are a slow, indolent, dirty people,” she writes, “bound very strongly by custom and superstition.” But Kilian makes particular note of her attitudes toward the Kitamaat people’s language.

“I suppose in a few years time Kitamaat speech will be extinct for the young folks learn to speak Eng. in the schools & one of our senior girls told me they cannot understand all the Kitamaat of the old folk.”

Butcher clearly considered this progress.

It’s very difficult to compensate for this kind of suffering and loss in dollars, but the costs to native people across the country are clearly evident and profound.