Monitor letter re Spanish Residential School

Editor, Mid-North Monitor


Re Column on the Spanish Residential School

Dear Editor,

Your Backwoods Bill column about the Spanish residential school was so negative and unbalanced as to deserve a reply.

The late Basil Johnston attended the Spanish school in the late 1940’s and wrote a book, Indian School Days, an affectionate, humorous and mainly positive memoir about his years there. He went on to become an ethnologist, specializing in Indigenous languages and culture, with the Royal Ontario Museum. He quotes many of his schoolmates as saying that their attendance there was the best thing that could have happened to them. It certainly made Basil Johnston into a very successful adult.

Another student, Cecil King, became a University Professor in Saskatchewan. He said that he could never have achieved anything near what he achieved had he not gone to that school. He said he learned to speak better Ojibway there. He expressly challenged the notion that the school was a place of horror like Backwoods Bill carelessly says it was.

Graduate Peter Johnson, former Chief of the Serpent River band, said that the Spanish residential school was the best thing that ever happened to him because he met his wife of 45 years there. He said that the schooling he received there taught him independence and allowed him to serve as a Roman Catholic Deacon.

Retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Jack Major, a graduate of Espanola High School, was a friend of Basil Johnston. They played football and hockey against each other.  Justice Major says that the notion that pupils at Spanish were torn from happy homes is a myth. He remembers that a lot of the students there were rescued from starving on trap lines and many had tuberculosis, for which they received special care. He says it’s true that English was paramount, “but how else to equip students to function off the reserve?”

Finally, as to residential schools generally, the renowned Cree playwright, novelist and pianist Tomson Highway, recipient of the Order of Canada and residential school attendee, said that people only hear negative stories about residential schools, never all the positive stories.  He said that “there are many successful people today that went to those schools and have brilliant careers and are very functional people, very happy people like myself, and my career wouldn’t have happened without that residential school.”

Columnist Backwoods Bill should be more careful and balanced in his writing, and not just accept as gospel everything he was told by people who never even went to the school. The Monitor should demand more from such writers. There were many good teachers and administrators at that school, all passed away and thus unable to defend themselves, who are being unjustly maligned by such unbalanced writing.

Yours truly,

Peter Best


Barber Street, Espanola

Phone 6910-0600

P.S. All references for quotes can be found at, at chapter 40, Setting Indians Free From Their Past

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