An open letter to Williams Lake City Council regarding residential schools
As a concerned citizen of this City, having read the June 17 story in the Williams Lake Tribune and watched the June 16 meeting of Council, I am deeply disturbed by recent statements from council members.
Councillor Brenner’s comment “there ‘are always two sides’ to reconciliation and that not everyone had a negative experience at residential school” ought to be condemned, as does the joint comment from Brenner and Mayor Cobb “First Nation people … were ‘disappointed that they had to leave residential school because they had a pool … and a hockey team.”
These is no appropriate context for these comments that ignore our local history, are built on fallacies, and are harmful to members of our community. As requested by Chief Willie Sellars of WLIB, Councillor Brenner must apologize and resign. Brenner’s follow-up statement, a non-apology, from 18 June is woefully inadequate because it fails to acknowledge that any harm was done. Collectively, Council must also apologize for tolerating such degrading comments.
The residential school system, including the St. Joseph’s Mission, a few kilometres from city boundaries, was a harmful, destructive, and traumatizing institution in Canada for nearly a century. Just because students had extra-curriculars does not mean they were treated humanely.
Looking at it on the whole, Indigenous children were removed from their families, abused in large numbers, and much of the evidence was covered up. The abuses are too numerous to list here but survivors Phyllis Webstad and Bev Sellars have retold their experiences, and those of their friends and families, in many books and speaking engagements. Anthropologist Elizabeth Furniss has also documented many horrors at the Mission.
The intergenerational trauma continues to negatively affect many Indigenous people to this day. I encourage Council to review the 2015 Report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which outlines ways in which governments can address the harms, both historical and lasting, of the system on communities, including in Williams Lake.
I have often heard this “two sides” argument when discussing the legacy of residential schools. This argument is built on the false premise that both sides, survivors and abusers, have equally valid experiences of colonialism which is absurd because survivors were systematically abused while the other side was culpable in the abuse.
As a heritage professional, I similarly do not ask Nazis for their perspectives on the Holocaust. That would validate the oppressors at the expense of survivors. This is sometimes called a false balance fallacy. It disrespects and denies the validity of survivors’ experiences. As someone who has heard survivor testimony from the Mission, I have no time for denial of reality.
Normalizing fallacies and false conceptions of the past pollutes our community’s discourse. As ambassadors for our community, councillors need to set a more conciliatory example. This is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of acknowledging the documented, systemic, and bloodied treatment that many Indigenous people and people of colour have suffered in this community for generations. We as a community of citizens cannot ignore these facts, for, in the words of William Shakespeare “what’s past is prologue” (The Tempest, III:1:i). For the sake of our collective dignity, we must do much better.
Williams Lake, B.C.