Sunday, February 26, 2012

Blyth, Weenusk, and Other Small Towns

Blyth Public School 1896 - 1965

Several people, including my wife Janis Vodden, have suggested that there is a parallel between the current closure of small rural schools and the infamous Residential School Scandal that has been the subject of police investigation, parliamentary investigations, criminal charges, law suits, and truth and reconciliation hearings for the past two decades.

I must admit that when Janis first mentioned this to me, I didn’t pay close attention. I was too much involved in our local fight with Avon Maitland School Board over their attack on our community of Blyth by threatening to close our only school, Blyth Public School.

That fight has reached a milestone two days ago, February 23, 2012 when I delivered our stack of 631 signatures on a petition to the office of our MPP, Lisa Thompson. It is a petition to stop all of these inappropriate closures of schools all across Ontario by school boards that have been granted the absolute right to close any school of their choice and no one has the right to appeal that decision – no person or group in the entire world!

The school board says to us “Your school is closing as of June 30, 2012 and your children are going to be bused to another community for a year or two until we get a new school built and then your children will be bused to either that new school or maybe another school.” And this line is issued with the understood implication “and there is nothing you or anyone else can do about it!”

Parents in our community hate this arrangement. They want their children to continue to walk to their school just down the street. Many of them have voiced their opinions and complaints, but no one listens to them.
Now that the petition is on its way and I have a little more time to think about things, I am realizing that Janis is absolutely right.

We are being treated by our school board in exactly the same way as the First Nation communities throughout Canada were treated when their children were wrenched from their arms (sometimes literally) by the RCMP, and taken to a residential school not just for the day but for the entire term. The school to which they were taken could be just a few miles away or, in many cases, several  hundred  miles away.

For example, all the school age children from Weenusk near Hudson Bay were taken to Horden Hall, the Anglican residential school on Moose Factory Island, at the southern tip of James Bay near Moosonee. This is a distance of over 500 miles as the crow or the airplane flies. No chance for parents to drop in for an occasional visit, no chance to meet with the teachers to discuss the children’s progress, and no opportunity for the teachers or principal to get to know the communities from which the children came or the way of life in those communities.

Well, the teachers in the residential schools, were not concerned about their lack of understanding of the background of their charges. Their job was to replace those backgrounds with a strict religious doctrine, a different language (English or French), and a completely different way of life. The goal was to stamp out all vestiges of the aboriginal culture. By the same token, the time away from their home communities prevented the children from learning the ways of the hunter, fisherman, and trapper which was how their home communities supported themselves. They also did not learn the stories of their people, the customs by which their communities operated, and the centuries-old cultural and religious tenets that had sustained their people for centuries. The main goal of most of the residential schools was to teach the children to disrespect everything about their first language, their customs, their community, and their parents.

As generations of First Nation people were exposed to this systematic cultural deprivation, many children grew up in a kind of wasteland between two cultures, in many cases with no practical parenting skills, torn as they were between the role model of natural parents whom they were taught to disrespect, and institutional staff who were more like jailers than parents.

And of course, in some instances, there were many forms of abuse as part of the “educational experience”.
What does all that have to do with the closures of schools in Ontario?

First of all as in the issue of residential schools, the closure process is very widespread.

Here is a list of schools that are< have been  or will soon be under threat in Ontario:  Blyth, Brussels, Moonstone, Peterborough, Thorold, Colborne Central, East Wawanosh, Cobalt, Welland, Niagara district, Sudbury District, Crowland, Bruce Mines, Echo Bay, Grandview Sault Ste Marie, Central Algoma, Johnston Tarbut Central  PS, St. Mary's Kingston, Listowel Central, Turnberry, Usborne Central, Wallace PS, Zurich PS, Downview Hanover, Elgin Market Kincardine, Chesley, Milton, Kanata, East Guillimbury, Foleyet, Gogama, Dunville, Haldimand, Port Dover, Harrow, Sudbury south, -----to name just a few. There are many others.

Your first thoughts may jump to the differences between the two situations. In our present battle there are no residential schools involved, they are not federally operated schools, the children are not all aboriginal, the times away from home are not of term duration but daily only, and the distances from home to the “foreign” school are much  shorter.

But there are strong similarities between the two situations:
  •    The decisions to close are contrary to the wishes of either community
  •     The decision of the school board was arbitrary and did not require approval from the parents or the  community, just like the federal government’s decision of where aboriginal students would  be educated
  •     No person in either community has the right to appeal the decision.
  •     Should a parent in our present case refuse to allow their children to go to the new school, the RCMP will not come and drag their children away, but there would be legal steps taken to force the parents to comply.
  •  The children are being moved out of their own community to be educated in a different community which will offer a different cultural environment than that of the children’s and their parents', same as in the aboriginal communities.
  •  The children will have less chance to learn informally about their home community.
  •   The teachers in the new school community will by and large have no knowledge of or interest in the idiosyncratic characteristics of the displaced children’s community, same as in residential schools.
  • The economy and the social fabric of the community deprived of its only school, will suffer in many ways: unable to attract or retain young families, less able to attract business investment, loss of business, loss of a major employer ( the school), and loss of identity. The aboriginal communities suffered from their children not being able to learn the life skills needed in their environment.
  •  Small towns, like First Nation communities, depend on each new generation to learn how the community functions and to learn a role by which they can contribute to that community. Stealing hundreds of hours and days out of the time of our children, robs our community of much of the potential spirit, wisdom, and dedication which we will require of them when they come of age to lead and sustain the unique character of our home town.
  •   Finally, this is probably the most powerful connection between the Residential School scenario and the current school closing phenomenon. Some explanation is required:

o   The residential school movement was conducted under a regime intended to give it legitimacy and to mask its evil intent. That regime was, in almost every case, a church or other religious entity. To the outside world these “educators” were seen as sacrificing their lives and talents to a noble cause, as proven by the fact that they were hired and paid for by the federal government and trusted explicitly because of their impeccable sanctimonious credentials.
o   The current behaviour of school boards which are closing schools for no good reason do so under a regime of legitimacy stated in the current Education Act which gives them the untrammelled right to close any school. In former times we thought of our school trustees as our representatives, people we could trust to oversee our children’s education.  In recent times the school boards have been co-opted by the Ministry to force upon us an unproven fantasy that bigger schools provide better education, that smaller schools are too expensive.
o   The result of this is that our communities are completely cut off from the school system, completely unrepresented, just as much as the people of Weenusk were cut off from the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs who paid the Anglican church to teach their children that their community was worthless, their parents not worthy of trust to make educational decisions for their children.
o   This is a fundamental change to our education system. Our school boards do not represent the community in any sense and to any degree. They have been taken over by the Ministry of Education which remains impervious to community appeal, shielded by their school boards who cannot be held accountable for anything.

The only avenue open to us who are trying desperately to retain our only school and to maintain the viability and vibrancy of our small rural communities is to appeal to the Ontario Legislature which is over and above the government, in the hope that the members of all parties will recognize the flaws in the current closure policy and will recognize the justice of our pleas and will make the changes so desperately needed.

Brock Vodden

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