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Manitoba promises review after school trustee’s comments on Indigenous people

April 26, 2024
A school trustee’s comments on Indigenous people and residential schools have led to condemnation from many quarters and a review by the Manitoba government.ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Globe and Mail: The Canadian Press – Winnipeg: A school trustee’s comments on Indigenous people and residential schools have led to condemnation from many quarters and a review by the Manitoba government.

Paul Coffey, a trustee in the Mountain View School Division in western Manitoba, told a school board meeting Monday that residential schools started as a good thing.

“They were essential for reading, writing, arithmetic, also enforcement of school attendance,” Coffey said in his half-hour presentation, which was posted online.

“It was all nice until its well-documented and openly expressed intention to use schools to assimilate, eradicate Indians’ languages, cultures and spiritual beliefs.”

Coffey also said he would continue to call Indigenous people “Indians.” He said the term “white privilege” is racist. And he questioned the extent of abuse at residential schools as laid out in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in 2015.

“You have to start to wonder how authentic it is when there’s absolutely no good stories in Canada about residential schools. How is that possible?” he said.

Coffey added that he has mixed Indigenous and European heritage.

Attempts by The Canadian Press to reach Coffey for comment were unsuccessful.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission spent years investigating and documenting the history and lasting harms of church-operated, government-funded residential schools that more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend, often far away from their families and communities.

Prime Minister John A. Macdonald said in 1883 that children should be withdrawn as much as possible from parental influence in order to acquire the habits and thought of white people.

Thousands suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse. The Winnipeg-based National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation says more than 4,000 children died.

The Southern Chiefs Organization, which represents dozens of First Nations communities in Manitoba, has called for Coffey to be removed from the board.

The Manitoba Teachers Society said Coffey’s comments were vitriolic, uninformed and harmful.

The superintendent of the Mountain View School Division denounced Coffey’s comments.

“I would like to reiterate to all of our valued operational staff, students, parents and community members that I am greatly upset and disturbed by the words spoken by a trustee during Monday evening’s regular board meeting,” Stephen Jaddock wrote in a message posted on the division’s website.

“It has done much damage that has the potential to undo years of important reconciliation work and runs against all that we stand for.”

Manitoba Education Minister Nello Altomare said he is looking into the matter and is launching a governance review. He did not provide details of the probe.

“It is imperative that all of our schools are safe and inclusive spaces for all students,” Altomare said in a written statement Friday.

“We have been in contact with the board, and I will be meeting with the board chair and superintendent in the coming days to express our expectations, and remind them of their role and responsibilities as elected school board officials.”