About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Removing Indigenous Children from their Families in Crime Fiction

Banner Photograph for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
In I’ll See You in My Dreams by William Deverell a significant issue involves what happened with the victim, Dermot Mulligan, when he was principal of an Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan during the 1940’s.

The book touches upon the problems caused by the education of generations of Canadian Indians in residential schools. Thousands of Indian children, as young as 6 years of age, were taken from their families on their home reserves to attend these schools. At some schools they would get to go home at Christmas. At other schools they would be there from September to June.

The schools were part of the Federal Government’s attempt to assimilate Canadian Indians through education and taking away their culture. At the schools children were punished for using their native language or following any traditional cultural practices. Discipline was harsh. They would remain in the residential schools for up to 12 years.

There were major problems with physical and sexual abuse. There have been generational problems as the children who, essentially grew up without parents and other family, became adults and had their own children.

In recent years the issues of residential schools are being addressed through a Federal Government compensation system and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that is currently holding hearings across Canada.

I have represented Indians pursuing compensation. They consider themselves survivors of residential schools. It is a wrenching experience to listen to strong, physically powerful, men break down in your office recounting experiences some had not even told their families.

At the same time I have also represented individuals who worked in residential schools against whom abuse allegations have been made. While they face no legal or financial consequences it is also difficult to hear persons emotionally stating they are facing false accusations.

The residential schools deeply scarred generations of Canadian Indians.

Australia has its own issues with the removal of thousands of aboriginal children, now called the stolen children, from their families. At the Creative Spirits website it states:

            The stolen children were raised on missions or by foster  
            parents. They were totally cut off from their Aboriginality.
            They were severely punished when caught talking their
            Aboriginal language. Some children never learned anything
            traditional and received little or no education. Instead the
            girls were trained to be domestic servants, the boys to be

In Arthur Upfield’s book The Will of the Tribe he talks about two educated aboriginal people, Tessa and the Captain. While educated they neither fit into white nor aboriginal society.
Denmark had a policy in place from the 1940’s to take Greenlander children to Denmark to live in boarding schools from as early as 10 years of age. In Peter Hoeg’s book Smilla’s Sense of Snow the lead character, Smilla Jesperson, is one of those children and the victim, Isaiah, another.

Smilla talks of the dislocation for the Greenlanders removed from their semi-nomadic life on the land to urban Denmark. Many found themselves isolated neither accepted by Danes or native Greenlanders. They struggle to find a place in society. I described Smilla as a misfit in Denmark.

In contrast is the experience of Jimmy Perez in Raven Black by Ann Cleeves. Children as young as 12 would be brought to Lerwick from the smaller Shetland Islands to live in a hostel so they could attend school. Perez from the more distant Fair Isle, could not go home for weekends. While required to move away for school at a young age there is not the same cultural dislocation as with indigeneous children.

I do recognize the impact on a person leaving home to go to school. I left home to attend boarding school when I was 15. It was the hardest year of my life going to live at a school where I did not know anyone. Yet my experience was mainly positive as I adjusted and matured. There was none of the abuse of Indian residential schools.

In Canada, Australia and Denmark each nation sought to eliminate the cultural identity and assimilate their aboriginal or indigenous people. The results were devastating to each country’s indigenous peoples with the effects continuing into the future. Australia described it best as “stolen generations”. 


  1. Bill - Thank you for shedding some light on this Canadian tragedy. It happened in the U.S. too and resulted in some of the same deep wounds you describe. I'm sure it must have been harrowing for those involved. If I were an attorney I think I would find it hard to remain professional in cases like that.

  2. A fascinating, if tragic, post. I have learnt quite a bit about this issue in various countries through reading books, for example as you write Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow and several Australian books. In The Lewis Man by Peter May, which I've recently read, the story is told of many Catholic children who in the 1960s were sent to the Outer Hebrides as little more than slave labour - this later became known and was a scandal. Not indigenous children in the sense you write, but a similar tragedy in that many of these children never found their birth parents or original families. I am sad to read of the events in your post, but thank you for highlighting them. It is at least something to be grateful for that in the present, some of these past offences are coming to light and, where possible, being rectified, though of course that is not possible in a full sense of the word.

  3. Margot: Thaks for the comment. Over the past 20 years between clients infected through the blood system (AIDS and Hep C), Gay survivor pension issues and Indian clients I have had a succession of clients with difficult personal situations from government actions.

  4. Maxine: Thanks for the comment. I had not been aware of the shipment of children to the Hebrides. You put up an excellent post on The Lewis Man. I am glad Canada has sought to provide some redress for past wrongs.

  5. The movie Rabbit-Proof Fence is based on a memoir of a Indigenous woman in Australia who was taken, along with other children, from their mothers to be domestic servants.

    The children ran away to reunite with their mothers; two made it. One was recaptured.

    The movie is very well-done and emotionally wrenching.

    Also, the New York Times ran an article about a scheme in England, where thousands of children of poor women -- who had to work and left their children with government agencies -- were shipped to Australia to work as agricultural or domestic workers.

    Often, the children were told their mothers had died.

    There is a program now reuniting adult chidren with their families.

  6. One of my jobs when I was an archivist for a state government here was to be a liaison person for Aboriginal people who were part of the stolen generations or descended from those people - they use all sorts of government records to try to find links to their families and so on. Their stories are sad but like you I've also worked for 'the other side' and their stories are sad too - most of the people had good intentions and it is only with hindsight that we can see the ramifications of those awful government decisions. Which is of course the problem inherent in governments - they make broad brush decisions for a one-size fits all world and of course one size doesn't fit all.

    I now work in the health sector and we are starting to see the truly astonishing ramifications of the early 1990's efforts to de-institutionalise all people with mental health problems - again one size does not fit all but governments of the time thought they were doing the right thing.

  7. kathy: Thanks for the comment.

    The Rabbit-Proof Fence sounds like a fine film. Having gone through the stories of Aboriginal Canadians at Residential Schools I am not sure I am up to watching the movie.

    The story of English children is equally sad.

  8. Bernadette: Thanks for commenting.

    In Canada the children did maintain contact with their families.

    Bad things when governments try to determine what is best for families.

    I have also had experience with mentally ill people who need the structure of instutitions but are trying to cope, unsuccessfully, with life on their own. I expect we will see new forms of institutions for the current system is not working.

  9. Bill, the good thing is that with Rabbit Proof Fence, the ending is a good one, except for one child. The movie's mood is not sad; it's upbeat about how inventive the children were along the way home.

    One of the major problems with the state budget cuts in the U.S. is that mental health facilities and clinics have been shut down for years, now more and more.

    In my city, there are half-way houses that people who need them can live in them, but very often people are discharged from hospitals who are not able to cope, all with the purpose of containing costs.

    And agencies that deal with the mentally ill are told to avoid hospitalization no matter what.

    So, it's another "budget" problem when it's a "human" problem.

  10. kathy: Thanks for the further comment.

    I am glad the Rabbit Proof Fence is not as discouraging as I thought.

    I do not think we have found a good balance with the mentally ill. When I was a young lawyer in the late 1970's it was too easy to warehouse mentally ill people. Now it is too hard to get someone in an institution. I think governments have yet to accept individual solutions for people problems.

  11. I have seen there are achievers in Punjab schools just as there are in any other school in India, just by looking at some of the websites. Depending on the attitude of the child, even if they are put in the most prestigious school in India