Mr. Wagamese cited his mother, who attended residential school as a child and spoke to him not of catastrophic experiences but instead of how she learned to cook and clean and sew, skills he saw reflected in her tidy home.
In broaching the subject of possible good in residential schools, Mr. Wagamese ventured into fraught territory.
It's generally taboo for residential school survivors to speak about their good experiences because they don't want to play down the more common stories of abuse, said Ted Binnema, a history professor at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George.
“At a time like this, any person is going to feel some pressure just to be quiet if their experiences were positive in residential schools, not because they're native people but because it's human nature.”
It's not just an emotional need to keep quiet about the positive side of a negative situation. It's a rational strategy. Even if what you're saying is 100% true, people will take it out of context and use it to further their agenda. You'll become an accomplice in a cause you may not believe in.
Look at all the conservatives who try to deny that Euro-Americans committed genocide against Natives. Their goal isn't simply historical accuracy. No, they want to end tribal sovereignty and gaming and force Indians to become plain vanilla Americans. They can't stand the thought of someone who isn't a white male Christian getting even with them.
In this environment, how does it help Indians to acknowledge that, yes, most Indians died of disease, not warfare? Answer: It doesn't. It helps only those who defend the status quo, not those who want to change it.
Moreover, even this "fact" should come with qualifiers. Yes, most Indians died of disease--after they were enslaved, after the strongest members were killed, after their lifestyles were totally disrupted. All these things made them more susceptible to disease than they would've been otherwise.
Similarly, many Indians probably got a good education at their residential schools and went on to lead happy and productive lives. Does that mean they wouldn't have led happy and productive lives if they had stayed on the reservation and gotten a traditional education instead? Who knows? Many decades later, it's impossible to say.
Millions of Canadians ignore or deny the fact that residential schools abused Indians. Millions of Americans ignore or deny the fact that their ancestors committed genocide. We don't need more excuses to ignore or deny these facts. We need more reasons to acknowledge and understand them.