August 23, 2019 — According to Bill Blakeney, the process behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was both “frustrating” and “moving” at the same time. A lawyer working as legal counsel for the Jesuits of Canada, Bill was involved in the Jesuits’ proceedings before and during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The TRC was officially created in 2008 as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Its final report highlighted the tragic circumstances of thousands of students who experienced trauma in Canadian residential schools. For example, at the Spanish Residential School, a Jesuit institution, several children were forcibly separated from their community, the use of their mother tongue was frowned upon with suspicion and they were often severely punished for minor infractions. In Canada, further to the TRC’s report, compensation procedures were put into place and 94 recommendations were made “in order to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.”
Bill Blakeney agreed to explain to us how the Jesuits used their archives to pave the way to such reconciliation. He explains that after some resistance regarding the testimonies of former students from Spanish, the Jesuits decided to implement their values of social justice by re-examining this part of their history in a transparent manner. In doing so, they may have become a model for other religious orders in their relationships with indigenous communities.
“At first, there was great resistance to the fact that the students had been unable to speak or learn Ojibway at school. Some Jesuits felt the students were ungrateful, given the education they had received. There had always been a firm conviction that Spanish was a model school.”
How were you involved in the Spanish school case?
I had already been involved before with the government and the First Nations. I had been the legal counsel for the Jesuits and their insurers since 1992. Over the years, I served in this capacity with numerous Ojibway First Nations in northern Ontario. The former pupils and teachers of the school are both friends and clients.
In the inquiries regarding Spanish, the Jesuits were represented by an excellent lawyer named Donald C. McLean. Don helped set up the compensation plan for victims of the school. My instructions were to assist Don because he was a criminal lawyer while I had experience with historical cases and mediation with large groups.
How did the Jesuits react to these inquiries?
At first, there was great resistance to the fact that the students had been unable to speak or learn Ojibway at school. Some Jesuits felt the students were ungrateful, given the education they had received. There had always been a firm conviction that Spanish was a model school.
However, as time went by and several people were interviewed, a more complete picture of the school began to emerge. The Jesuits hired a very respected historian, David Shanahan, to write a book about the school with access to the archives. He was told: you have the resources you need, just write the book and the Jesuits won’t interfere. Fr. Jacques Monet, SJ, supported this idea because he knew that David was a good historian and that he was going to be fair. And I think he wrote a fantastic book.
What did the sources reveal?
Most of the sources used came from Fr. Maurice, SJ, the last principal of the Garnier Residential School. Fr. Maurice wrote letters to everyone explaining that the people who worked at the school were incompetent, that there wasn’t enough money, that the students were so afraid to be beaten that they didn’t even raise their eyes. Part of the problem, in fact, was that the school had not been designed to welcome young children since it was supposed to be the equivalent of a vocational school.
“Students from other schools died after having been beaten without being treated, after having fled without reaching their homes or because their school was used as a quarantine zone by the government in order for white children not to be exposed to their contagious schoolmates. When Jacques Monet and I went to Spanish to find the tombs, to make sure they were properly identified and find out what had happened to the students, it was very moving, even if these deaths were not due to negligence.”
What was your work in the archives?
I did most of the research work in the archives – at first with Fr. Patrick Boyle, SJ, the Jesuit archivist in Toronto. The documents were in bad shape. The archives were simply a collection of boxes with no order. I proceeded to classify things. Also, the documents were scattered; some were at the Martyrs’ Shrine, others had been taken out by Jesuits for reading purposes but never returned. I also looked through the microfiche of the federal archives in Ontario and in Fr. Maurice’s documents. And Jacques Monet even authorized me to take some documents as long as I returned them.
Are there archives or a moment in the process which really moved you?
We quickly realized that one of the mission mandates of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to see and determine what had happened to the students who never returned. Ironically, the mortality rate at Spanish was much lower during the flu epidemic years and the years where tuberculosis was endemic in schools. The Jesuits brought a doctor from Montreal when they had contagious illnesses in the school. Students from other schools died after having been beaten without being treated, after having fled without reaching their homes or because their school was used as a quarantine zone by the government in order for white children not to be exposed to their contagious schoolmates. When Jacques Monet and I went to Spanish to find the tombs, to make sure they were properly identified and find out what had happened to the students, it was very moving, even if these deaths were not due to negligence.
Further to the research that was carried out, what was the report of the Jesuits, the Church and the First Nations?
I want to emphasize that. Jim Webb, SJ, as Provincial, reinforced that the Jesuits believed in social justice not just in theory but in practice and that they needed to do everything to make it so. At the same time, certain entities were doing everything in their power to stop the Jesuits – for example, by trying to exclude them from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We tried very hard to serve as an example. We produced all documents on a voluntary basis (pictures, school files, etc.). We worked with former students regarding compensation, we shared our premises with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Toronto, we were the only Catholic community to allow historians to interview the Jesuits who were in Spanish and we made sure they had access to everything they needed.
As for the First Nations, we had a discussion later on with Fr. Peter Bisson, SJ, and some former students of Spanish. We were asked to convey a message that the students of Spanish and the indigenous communities felt that the government’s priority for the moment should be to address the environmental problems in their communities. This group’s greatest concern was the fact that certain aspects of their education had erased the Ojibway language and their traditional knowledge. They feared that the Commission’s calls to action to integrate the history of residential schools in the whites’ curriculum was only a secondary concern when compared to having available linguistic resources on the reserves.
In general, how do you think history and the archives can serve indigenous peoples?
The most important element – which I talk about all the time – is that there is something totally conflicting in the European concept of archives, namely that archives are a square where precious things are preserved for posterity. One supposes that the people that will use them are European academics or international researchers. Nothing is intended to be distributed in native communities where the archives are basically of the public domain. The most important thing is to make the school-related archives available to communities so that the grandchildren of survivors, for example, can find documents and pictures, school journals, etc. Those are really precious items. They don’t want to read the journal of Father so-and-so. Some survivors also want to find their best friend but each year, there are fewer and fewer survivors.