abuse in residential schoolsYears ago a very quiet, polite man came to me after class one day. He waited until everyone else had left the classroom.

I had made a negative comment about the residential schools the government forced on first nations young people. I thought the man was going to confirm my comments about how terrible the schools were.

But he didn’t. He and his wife taught in one of the schools. “You know, Ed, they weren’t all bad. I tried hard to teach a good course and…well, it was a different era.”

The man was embarrassed that he had taught there.

This started me thinking about the relationship of the residential schools to our prisons today. Of course, most of the people in prison are guilty of a crime and that’s one big difference.

A hundred years ago residential schools were considered the right course of action. Very few people asked questions like, “Is it right to take children from their parents, from their culture?” Most people assumed it was right.

Today we pay compensation to those who were hurt through the residential schools. Turning to prisons, in the recent case of Ashley SmithAshley Smith that we talked about last week, no doubt the government will have to pay compensation for what happened. Will this continue? Will people get compensation because they contracted a dangerous disease while in prison? Will they get compensation because guards bullied them? What about being raped as many male and female inmates are?

There are people who try to do a good job in prison, teachers, psychologists, general staff. Will they prison industrial complex. Who profits?be embarrassed by the fact that they once worked there? Will the pharmacists, the grocery people, the rural unemployed, the people in the prison-industrial complex, will they feel bad because people suffered under a system that they profited from?

What about the volunteer teachers of creative writing? Are they guilty, too?


I don’t know. I’d like your opinion.

Images courtesy of:

  • canadianresidentialschools.blogspot.com
  • ironboltbruce.blog.com
  1. Catana says:

    I just read a moving book by a poet who’s been a volunteer creative writing teacher in Arizona prisons for thirty years. It’s a difficult book to read because he traces the practices that we see all over the US and Canada these days – the abandonment of any attempts at rehabilitation, and steadily increasing numbers of people sentenced to prison. A lot of the book explores his feelings and his sense of responsibility to his students. And he often felt guilty about his role — for not being able to do more, for giving prisoners hope and seeing it snatched away from them by the system. It’s a must-read book for anyone concerned with prisons and prisoners’ lives. Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer, Richard Shelton.

  2. Ed, I was very interested to read about the residential schools. We had them here in Aust’a, but we called them missions; they were usually run by Christian religious, although inspected by government inspectors. Often, Aboriginal children were taken from their parents forcibly (Rolf de Heer made a fine Aust’n film on this called Rabbit Proof Fence). A couple of years ago, those children of what is termed ‘the stolen generation’ were publicly apologised to by Kevin Rudd, when he was PM, and are receiving compensation, I think.
    Re your question, I don’t think anyone who tries to better the prison system can ever be weighed in the balance and found wanting.

  3. Dear Ed, I read all your articles from beginning to end. This one hit home where it hurt the most:
    I offer you a comment from my memoir: “The weight of instilled Catholic guilt became guilt by association when members of the religious order to which I had dedicated thirteen years of my life were convicted for child sexual abuse.” Years later, several of those Brothers were exonerated and found totally innocent. What they had suffered in the interim cannot be described. I knew thos men as loving teachers who cared deeply for their charges in the Saint John’s Training School, Uxbridge, Ontario.

  4. addendum: The memoir is Secrets Kept / Secrets Told, Libros Libertad. Ben Nuttall-Smith

  5. Tasha Turner says:

    Good question. I know people who are part of Alternative to Violence a volunteer program to help inmates find other ways to solve problems. I’m not sure that helping to enrich the lives of inmates makes you guilty of a system where bad things happen. Prison reform and the whole way we deal with crime needs to change. As does the education system. But changing those takes time and while working towards that helping in small ways… I don’t think that makes you guilty unless you are blind to what goes on inside.

    • Ed Griffin says:

      Thank you, Tasha. Of course you are right. I long for the day when society starts to use the ideas of restorative justice, not just in prisons, but in the whole criminal system. The courts — what if they followed native American practices. The prisons — restoring the offenders. And for the victims — much more than we do now.

  6. Joanne says:

    This post has certainly had an impact on me and many others. This is my opinion regarding the questions you posed.

    I do not believe that prisoners or ex-prisoners will be compensated or apologised to any time soon. Every society seems to need their scapegoats; prisoners (criminals who have been caught) are the current #1 go-to scapegoats of our society. If we collectively apologise to them, then, sadly, there will be others who will be paying for the imperfections in our lives.

    The other issue you raised is more difficult to respond to. Namely, would prison staff feel guilty if they wake up and realize that they were complicit in the maltreatment of prisoners? I think the answer is that it depends on the staff member. There are some, in fact, who already feel guilty about what they see. Their powerlessness to change it either leads them to find another line of work or to try harder to either justify the current treament of prisoners or turn a blind eye to it. There are others who rely heavily on moral justification and believe very strongly that the current treatment is justified beyond doubt in order to assuage the victims and to protect future innocent people. Those people are the ones who would disagree strongly to any proposed apology or compensation should it ever come to pass. Then there is another more sinister group who enjoy having power and control over others for self-fulfillment (to pump up their lagging self-esteem). They use the moral high ground as justification to further their own end but they do not truly believe in or care about any movements or causes.

    As for the volunteer teachers of creative writing–or any other like-minded volunteers who remain on the fringes of the system–they continue to work tirelessly to do what little can be done to bring some semblance of normalcy back into the lives of incarcerated men and women. And every now and then they succeed in making a difference in the lives of certain individuals. There is no shame in doing what is possible to effect positive change, however insignificant it may seem at the time.

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