Burying the Scandal of Canadian Residential Schools



By John Anderson


The long weekend in Ontario landed on my son’s fourth birthday this year so my partner and I decided renting a cottage for the weekend would be nice. Up north would be cheaper, and nicer, we figured. We went up past the Toronto cottagers, beyond the smelters in Sudbury, to just south of Timmins on Lake Mattagami. Mattagami First Nation was down the road a mile from where we were staying. The community is impoverished. Unable to live off the land. Unable to benefit from the massive amounts of wealth the land creates.

Almost all of Ontario’s resources are in the north. Crown land—what government controlled land is called in Canada—is highly regulated to maximize resource extraction by mining and logging companies. Near Mattagami they mine gold and log, with access roads crudely carved into the landscape. Mines all eventually close with the land left open. Logging companies rent land from the crown, cut down trees until the lease expires, and leave.

The Ojibway and OjiCree people of Mattagami signed Treaty #9 in 1906. Essentially the treaty stated that white people had begun to log, mine, and build railroads through Mattagami, and that this will continue to happen. The treaty makes clear that Mattagami people will be allowed to use vast crown lands to trap, hunt and live, but the crown has the right to regulate the land as they see fit. The compensation given to Mattagami First Nation was of course sparse.

Mattagami First Nation got a small parcel of land (a reserve) to control fully, except when the regulation of the crown lands interfered. That happened in 1921 when the Ontario government built a hydro dam 20 KM downstream that flooded the Mattagami River, turned it into the lake where I once rented a cottage, and forced Mattagami First Nation to relocate their community.

Every member of the Mattagami First nation also receives $8 a year, and because the treaty didn’t mention inflation, it still remains $8 a year to this date. The treaty also clearly stipulates that the crown will pay for the full education of all children.

For the children on Mattagami this likely meant schooling at St. John’s Indian Residential School. The school, run by Anglicans and then the federal Department of Indian Affairs, was located a couple hundred kilometres west of Mattagami, and had the horror scene hallmarks of all Canadian residential schools.

That is Treaty 9, and it covers huge swaths of Northern Ontario. The Catholic Church is catching some fire—not close to enough—for its duplicitous role in Canada’s residential school system. The paltry sum of money the Canadian government asked of each church involved in residential schools to resolve their malfeasance? The Catholic Church in Canada is slithering its way out of that, saying they were only able to raise $3.7 million, $21 million short of their prescribed goal.

In reality the Canadian Catholics are flush with cash. The Canadian Catholic church is a complicated network of churches and dioceses headed by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops—all with charitable status. Combined, they are the largest charity in Canada. So large that, as the Globe and Mail reported, donations to all Catholic entities totalled $886 million dollars in 2019, or five percent of all charitable donations made in Canada that year.

The Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops, the highest order of Catholics in Canada, continues to hide its tracks about its role in residential schools. Their website goes on about how decentralized the church is, stating only 16 out of 70 dioceses had a role in the residential schools’ system, and that dioceses are autonomous and not accountable to a central body.

Seemingly every week another unmarked grave full of skeletal remains of murdered Indigenous children are uncovered at an old residential school in Canada. As I wrote about in my last column (v.52#2), I had hope that this proof of undeniable horror forced upon Indigenous people would force some sort of reckoning in Canada.

That sadly seems to have been my own fantasy. The Canadian federal election just passed and Indigenous issues, while resonating more in the consciousness of the country than ever before, undeniably remained a low priority for the country. It is desecration, upon desecration, upon desecration.

John Anderson is the Field Director for ACORN Canada. Since 2004 John has helped to develop the ACORN Canada operations in Toronto, Ontario, and British Columbia. He is a graduate of the University of Winnipeg.

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