WCR FILE PHOTO
Fr. Yvon Levaque celebrated his 90th birthday in 2005 by working at the soup kitchen he ran at Edmonton's inner city Bissell Centre.
EDMONTON – Catholics who worked in Indian residential schools made "heroic sacrifices" to help aboriginal students and fought against native integration into provincial school systems, wrote an Oblate priest who received the Order of Canada for his contribution to native education.
"I categorically reject the thesis that the Catholic Church, through the ministry of the Oblate missionaries, was in league with the federal government to exterminate native cultures by means of the residential school system," Father Yvon Levaque wrote in a 1990 article.
Levaque spent a lifetime working with aboriginal people, including terms as principal and administrator of the Lower Post Indian Residential School in the Yukon and St. Mary's School on the Blood Reserve in southern Alberta. He was also executive director of the Oblate Indian-Eskimo Council in Ottawa.
After retiring to Edmonton in 1988, he immediately began running a soup kitchen at the Bissell Centre. He died in 2008 at age 93.
In his 1990 article in Western Oblate Studies, Levaque vigorously defended his order's work in the schools.
While the federal government repeatedly broke its promises to aboriginal people and did little to improve their lives, the Oblates demanded hospitals be built on reserves and protected native people from exploitation, he said.
The Blackfoot people, for example, could no longer roam the prairies after signing Treaty 7 and were confined to reserves in southern Alberta, Levaque wrote. "Within a short time, serious sickness affected men, women and children."
Fathers Emile Legal and Albert Lacombe told the government of the health crisis, urged a hospital be built and recruited the Grey Nuns to operate it. "The sisters accepted and, through their efforts, saved the lives of many who otherwise would have died in misery."
Levaque also recalled the work he did to establish an "alternative trading post" in Fort Nelson, B.C., "to offset the economic slavery which the local Hudson's Bay Company trading post was inflicting on families."
The residential schools faced many difficulties and made "many mistakes," he said. They were plagued by poor attendance and a shortage of teachers. But those schools should not be judged by today's standards and values.
Nor should the lives of the First Nations peoples prior to the arrival of the missionaries be romanticized, he continued. "Life was hard and cruel, and was especially primitive for women, children, the elderly and the sick."
The Oblates' motive for involvement in the schools was simple – to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. "If one believes that the Word brings light and peace to the world, then nothing will stand in the way of spreading it."
Levaque recalled the testimony of one Slavey woman in northern British Columbia: "I don't want to go back to darkness: I am living in the light now." Other elders also were grateful for receiving the faith and for the schools.
Aboriginal peoples had no future without education. "The only answer, short of doing nothing at all, was to provide that much-needed education to the young, the future generation."
He described the Dunbow School at High River as "an outstanding industrial school." Founded in 1884, within five years its 49 students "drew praise for their good work and manners, and they compared favorably with children in the best schools of England."
Students there regularly won the top prizes for agricultural and domestic sciences at the Calgary Exhibition, and some became "the most successful farmer-ranchers of southern Alberta." As well, Indian girls were given equal educational opportunities with the boys, he said.
The Oblates alone opposed the integration of native education into provincial schools, Levaque said. When they were accused of self-interest in fighting integration, the 38 Oblate principals got together and developed a rationale for their opposition.
"They affirmed that the best environment for the growth and development of the native child was in an Indian school on the reserve, where parents could raise their children 'in the spiritual and psychological heritage' they knew best."
When the aboriginal people in the St. Paul area fought integration in 1970 by staging a sit-in to keep open the Blue Quills Residential School, "this action was wholeheartedly supported by the Oblates."
Levaque admitted that the Oblates' efforts to preserve native culture in the residential schools, although real, amounted to tokenism. Prior to 1960, however, it was not possible to have an authentic First Nations cultural environment in the schools.
It also became apparent that for native people to make their way in mainstream society, they needed more skills than their own culture could provide, he said. Some parents even pulled their children from the residential schools to place them in provincial schools where they would be barred from speaking their native tongue.
Levaque said the government's neglect of the wide spectrum of needs of aboriginal people created an expectation for the residential schools "to do everything that society and the government had not done.
"While we were trying to provide a climate of learning and growth in the schools, what was white society doing to welcome the Indian graduate? Absolutely nothing."
"Difficult as the school experience may have been for Indian children, there never was anything which could justify our Oblate institutions being described as concentration camps, penitentiaries or reformatories with routine physical abuse of the children."