A report that outlines the RCMP’s official involvement over 100 years of Indian residential schools claims Canada’s national police force was involved only in taking Aboriginal children from their homes to the schools and in returning truant students.
“Our role was not involved specifically within the school,” said RCMP Deputy Commissioner Canada East Steve Graham, who presented the 173-page report on the last day of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s most recent national event held in Halifax Oct. 26 to 29.
Marcel-Eugene LeBeuf, who authored The Role of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police During the Indian Residential School System on behalf of the RCMP, wrote, “The report shows that Indian Residential Schools were essentially a closed system between the Department of Indian Affairs, the churches and school administrator. The problems within the schools did not attract police attention or intervention because they were mostly dealt with internally or were unknown to the police.”
However, many residential school survivors recall RCMP involvement differently.
“I do know there were accounts where the RCMP were called into the Shubenacadie residential school to deal with things. I do have an account from an Elder who said that one of the RCMP actually stopped a beating of a child at Shubenacadie residential school. So I do know that they are aware of some abuses that were happening in the schools at least here in the Atlantic and I’m sure that story is the same all throughout the country that they were aware of the abuses that were happening,” Vanessa Nevin told CBC News. Nevin, of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs, was one of the organizers of the TRC’s Halifax event. Shubenacadie residential school is the only school in Atlantic Canada to meet the criteria to be included in the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.
Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said he has heard similar stories from his family members that attended residential schools on the west coast of British Columbia.
“I would defer to and support other’s experiences. Even from afar it would seem that authorities would have had some sense of understanding of what was going on within the schools and the school systems,” said Atleo.
In a news conference following the tabling of the RCMP report, Graham said, “I couldn’t comment specifically on other’s memories. I can just tell you what the research came back to us in terms of what the (RCMP’s) role was.”
Graham said the report involved talking to “a very good cross section of people.”
However, LeBeuf noted that there was “very little written material about the specific role police officers played with regards to physical or sexual abuse in Indian Residential Schools… The available historical literature on the RCMP has no reference to Indian Residential Schools, even in provinces where schools were numerous.”
Despite apparent discrepancies in the RCMP’s official version of its role and what survivors said they remember of RCMP involvement, Atleo said the RCMP report is welcomed.
“I would suggest … that their introspection of their role in the residential schools is an important act in the reconciliation process, in truth telling and that’s what the TRC is all about,” said Atleo.
He also noted that the relationship between the RCMP and Aboriginal people continues to be difficult “even into the modern era.”
Cpl. Mel Calahasen recently celebrated 25 years as a member of the RCMP. Calahasen, who grew up in Grouard in northern Alberta, recalled his mother’s refusal to give him permission to join the force at 17 years of age although he already had a brother with the RCMP. A year later, as an adult, Calahasen joined.
“I think it had a lot to do with the negative connotations associated with the RCMP with the Aboriginal people back in the days. They were used as enforcers. Children were taken away from their homes without reservation and they were forced into these (residential) schools. I think my mom being in that era, even though she has never said that to me, I’m thinking that’s probably one of the reasons,” said Calahasen.