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I think your post speaks to a much larger issue - the hubris of government and social planners, period. Aboriginals were and continue to be destroyed by well meaning government, well meaning central bankers at the Federal Reserve caused the Great Depression, African Americans have been ghettoized by well meaning social housing initiatives, foreign adventurism has ruined the Middle East and almost all of Africa.

I cannot understand the reflex to defend the welfare state and its legions of social planners.

Depressing thinking about this, and wondering what similar mistakes me are making today, that our grandchildren will look back on in disgust in 50 years. I have my hunches.

My *guess* (I don't know this) is that residential schools were the "progressive" policy of the time, and any social conservatives who dared oppose them were accused of not caring, or worse?

Nick - not really, because religions organizations were very involved in the residential school project. I'd put the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches on the socially conservative end of the political spectrum, especially at that point in time. And much of the residential school policy was developed during the later years of the 19th century, when Canada had conservative governments (except for 5 years under Alexander MacKenzie).

So I don't think you can argue residential schools were progressive, unless you're figuring that the establishment churches and the conservative parties were the leading lights in the socially progressive movements.

Avon: "I cannot understand the reflex to defend the welfare state"

The late 20th century northern european welfare states achieved a level of economic equality and prosperity that is/was pretty much unparalleled in human history - some countries have been richer and more unequal, just about no country ever has achieved that prosperity/equality combination. People value equality, for all the standard Rawlsian etc reasons. People value prosperity. So they observe these successful welfare states and say "this is good."

Also: it would not be fair to pin assimilationist policy entirely on governments. The residential school system couldn't have existed without the support and groundwork provided by religious organizations. Assimilationist policies wouldn't have been implemented if they didn't command broad popular support.


The Northern European states are a red herring. It’s like asking why the rest of the United States can’t just be more like the San Francisco Bay Area. The population of those countries are small, homogeneous, and in the case of Norway, enriched with extreme resource wealth for its population size. Suggesting that the welfare state eventually leads to Norway is as vacuous as suggesting that unbridled laissez-faire capitalism will always and everywhere lead to Silicon Valley. A better comparison is the United States to Europe – and there we find a very different story: the average American has it better than the average European. Europe is not all Neuilly-sur-Seine and Via Veneto, just like the US is not all Compton and West Baltimore. Averages matter.

Inequality, by itself, is not a problem in search of a solution - if anything, it is a symptom of potential underlying problems. Canada is much wealthier than Cameroon not because of some zero-sum game that we won at the poor Cameroonians’ expense. There are different kinds of inequality: good market inequality and bad rent seeking government-favour inequality. Lumping all types of inequality together and attacking the symptom represents an error in logic. It’s like saying: “Fever is a problem. So medicine shall consist of reducing fevers.” To the extent that inequality is driven by rent seeking, the solution is clearly not more government. I don’t think that the source of inequality in places like Venezuela is because the state is not good enough at confiscating wealth.

But seriously, the state has a monopoly on violence which so easily tempts the powerful to enrich themselves and their friends while tyrannizing the poor and weak – especially if the poor and the weak look different, are foreign born, and a have different culture and history. That’s the real legacy of the welfare state in the 20 th century. Your post on the government’s treatment of Aboriginals is case in point.


Residential schools were seen as progressive and the church as a way to keep direct government costs down while bring the "civilization power" of the Cross. The narrative was that Aboriginals will not advance unless they learn to read and write English and adopt Christian values. They will be shut out of economic prosperity unless we help them. The more regressive approach was the Andrew Jackson solution. We thought we were doing a really great and generous thing by showing them how to live.

We are not that different today. How many international programs are about going to poor places and showing them how to "live right"? Think Afghanistan. Think Iraq. Think Kennedy's "Alliance for Progress". It transcends political party allegiance.

"But seriously, the state has a monopoly on violence which so easily tempts the powerful to enrich themselves and their friends while tyrannizing the poor and weak"

So the powerful would behave themselves if there was no state?

Avon: Norway was prosperous before oil. And the Soverign fund means the surplus is not consumed in living standard.
I live where residential schools existed and 30 years ago taught to survivors. Residential schools were not set up by "welfare state progressives". They were set up by the same genocidal maniacs who exterminated the Metis,put First Nations in concentration camps (sorry reserves) and hanged Little Bear.
"The red man must understand the power of the white man " said McDonald. And "All the dogs in Québec might bark but Riel will hang." Didn't come from the left field.

Jacques Rene - thank you for your comments, and for bringing the discussion back to the topic of residential schools. I really appreciate you being focussed and on-topic.

One thing that's interesting in the "Image of Canada" book - it has this description of the Canadian population: "Canadians are the descendants of settlers from many lands, for even the Indians and the Eskimos had migrated to the continent from northeast Asia. These peoples now form only a small proportion of Canada's population of nearly sixteen million, for the Indians, comprised of a number of tribes of different language and culture, total about 151,500, while the Eskimos number less than 10,000. The origins of the largest cultural groups were the British Isles and France...the other main sources of origin are German, Ukrainian, Scandinavian, Netherlands, and Polish."

Compare that to the 2011 NHS numbers, which are probably somewhat off, but give you some idea - 1.8 million people of Aboriginal ancestry, including over 70,000 Inuit, out of a total Canadian population of 32.8 million. So Canada has just over double the population now that it did in the early 1950s, but there are more than 10 times the number of people recorded as having Aboriginal ancestry, and more than 7 times the number of people with Inuit ancestry. Part of that reflects high birth rates in some communities, but it also reflects the fact those 1950s numbers are recorded at a time when people felt ashamed of having Aboriginal ancestry, also it was hard to keep Indian status (i.e. the right to live on reserve etc) - women lost status if they married someone who wasn't a status Indian, also for a time Indians had to renounce their status if they wished to vote (almost none took advantage of that however).

The point is that you're right - "genocidal" might be a little strong, but read this "Our object is to continue until there is not one Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question and no Indian department."

But those children look so happy, don't they?


You are free to have opinions about things, but I really detest revisionist history to fit an ideological narrative. Norway did not reach, as Frances put it "equality and prosperity that is/was pretty much unparalleled in human history" without North Sea oil.

In Macdonald's quote "All the dogs in Québec might bark but Riel will hang.", the dogs refer to sympathetic French-Canadian Catholics. Read about the North-West Rebellion and the events after the Battle of Batoche.

The "civilizing" of Aboriginals was see as a progressive thing - especially in the 20th century. Those pictures that Frances has in this post are not like the Nazi propaganda about the need to annihilate Jews. These pictures were meant to help urban Canadians feel good about how the government was converting desperately poor quasi hunter-gathering people into productive members of modern society.

Avon: I really relish being called a dog by the Prime Minister of my country, considered a great democrat and for whom highways, bridges and airport in my federal capital are named.
I taught enough college history to have read enough.
Back to work.

In the 19th century, Norway was a hellhole that sent migrants to North America. So did Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Britain.
Managed industrialisation rather well with hydro-electricity. Oil was sauce on the sundae.

Avon, speaking as a long time resident of a continental european country, I think you're mangling various causes and effects. You must remember that Europe still consists of indivifdual nation states with very different histories and political setups and, as such, levels of state intervention. If anything, one would have to test your hypothesis separately on nations within Europe. And by your logic, the more laissez faire countries should be doing better than others with more state intervention, whatever that is. I doubt any such correlation can be made.

You also equate state intervention with corruption and abuse of power. But the successful countries within Europe, even those without oil, prove that such causal inference cannot be universally made. Curruption is an artefact of society in general, not of politics in particular. Politics is only a breeding ground but, following Henry, by no means the only one.

Back on topic, although admittedly with no clue of the Canadian case, I don't think past mistakes can be philosophically abused to make a case for not trying better in future. Nor is there any proof that command systems are likely to produce greater failures than decentralised ones. The body politic is just as adaptive as its constituents. And for every national military failure I can name you at least one guerilla induced genocide. You're analysing the problem with a false dichotomy.


Trying reading The European Unemployment Dilemma by Ljungqvist and Sargent.

Of course it's not as clear or as simple as all welfare bad, laissez-faire good. Read what I wrote about the comparison to Silicon Valley. But carefully read the paper above and you see the direction. BTW, starting a business and other forms of economic freedom are actually quite high in places like Norway.

What I object to is the characterization that the welfare state is not capable of causing immense harm. The treatment of Aboriginals is just one. Closed borders is another. There is a large incentive to capture government and the operations of the welfare state. Just look at the tax code to see the fingerprints of all the rent seekers and special interests who've captured their slice.

Avon is a libertarian. I don't think I need to say anything more about his idiosyncratic take on world history.


Nice shot of bulverism.

Avon -

Please try to stay on-topic, and please keep the tone of discussion civil.


Nowhere in my comments have I not been civil. When someone says that you are wrong because you are a libertarian, that is bulverism: E.g., "You *would* say that because you're a man, a women, a communist, a libertarian, etc." That is a factual way to describe the comment by ScentOfViolets. It’s not uncivil to label behaviour correctly. There is far, far, too much bulverism in public discourse.

As far as being on topic, I thought your post was well written and an excellent discussion point. I think it highlights really important issues and not just about current and past Aboriginal policy. You ask about education policies in general and policies that we think are great now but that future generations will come to regret. It’s a very honest way to think about the world. I wanted to point out that problems we see with benevolent-social-planner-turned-engineer in education is reflective of the apparatus of the modern welfare state. We may come to regret social housing, government monopoly in education, minimum wage, foreign entanglements, supply management, tariffs, and especially closed borders as much or more than our poor record with Aboriginals.

Frances, I'd suggest that what you call perverse incentives and unintended consequences were actually features, not bugs. The system mostly worked as designed. That's what makes it so sickening. Luckily, in typical Canadian fashion we couldn't quite get over the finish line. It wasn't completely effective. So thanks to our own mediocrity we're only guilty of attempted genocide and not successful genocide.

Avon, Stop. For the sake of basic decency and empathy, just stop. In no way are minimum wage and supply management of milk moral outrages of the same scope and scale as attempted genocide. They just aren't.


It’s you who is using hyperbole, not me.

First, I am not sure what you mean by typical Canadian mediocrity. Canada didn’t look so mediocre in building a transcontinental railway, taking one of the 5 beaches on D-day and helping to liberate Europe. We didn’t look mediocre in Korea either. So, I’m not sure what you mean by “our own mediocrity”.

Second, it is “dog-whistle” revisionist history to claim that Canada had a genocide program but was too lazy to carry it out. That’s offensive. Canada never looked to exterminate the Aboriginal peoples of Canada. Our dealings have not been fair, our treatments have bounced from aggressive resettlement to well meaning but destructive paternalism, but there has never been an attempt to systematically kill all Aboriginal peoples. You debase the seriousness of the Holocaust and the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides to score political outrage points.

Third, minimum wage laws have a long history as a racist weapon against minorities. In 1925, British Columbia passed minimum wage legislation with the explicit intent on pricing unwanted Japanese immigrants out of jobs in the lumbering industry. In that same era a Harvard professor approved of Australia’s minimum wage law as a means to “protect the white Australian’s standard of living from the invidious competition of the colored races, particularly of the Chinese” who were willing to work for less. Careful with the Workers or the World Unite narrative on minimum wage.

Fourth, I didn’t say anything about milk. Supply management goes far deeper than that. Two centuries from now, we may find that our grand “stakeholder management” system managed to shave off 2% of GDP growth. GDP growth is not just about more “stuff”, it’s also about things like finding the cure for cancer. If in the future we find that we delayed humanity the cure for cancer by hundreds years from lack of growth, yes we will come to seriously regret our current policies. Small changes in growth rates really compound over time.

Finally, in the deep future we may come to see closed borders as a policy so repugnant that only the slave trade will have eclipsed it in the wickedness of human cruelty. When I see the humanitarian disaster in Syria and the effect of closed borders, I am not so sure the welfare state does a favour for humanity in the end. Our great great great grandchildren will judge us on that one.

What I object to is the characterization that the welfare state is not capable of causing immense harm.

I don't see that characterisation anywhere. And you're the one who is lumping treatment of aboriginals together with all sorts of other things a state might or might not do. Also, it is a logical fallacy to conclude from the fallibility of an individual institution, say state schools, that the world would be better off without them.

The ultimate factor by which we can influence the quality of schooling and treatment of minorities is the enlightened attitude of those in power, not a utopian plea for the abolishon of power as such.

And there is an innate conflict of interest between the nation state and such complete enlightenment in that a state must define itself in delineation to all that is considered foreign or unpatriotic. In other words, there is necessarily a border to the system we call a nation. The challenge is to make that border as compatible as possible to all ideals we hold which transcend those borders. That is a complex management problem, not a binary question of gvt. vs. no gvt..


Patrick - "Frances, I'd suggest that what you call perverse incentives and unintended consequences were actually features, not bugs"

Yup, there's something to that.

One thing that's really interesting is that the domestic work that the girls did was more marketable and in many ways more necessary to the school's day-to-day operation than the farming work that the boys did (though the farming work did help provide food for the schools - hence the food shortages in the far north where farming was impossible). So you find the schools being really reluctant to give up girls, and making the senior girls spend all day doing laundry and sewing and domestic chores rather than go to school for half the day (though this is reported with great regret). I have to wonder how much of the winding down of the southern residential schools in the 1940s and 50s was due to simple economics - i.e. the introduction of household appliances made it impossible to sell the girls' laundry and domestic work services any more, likewise the boys' farm labour wasn't competitive after chemical pesticides, mechanization had started to transform farming. Plus growing your own food on marginal land didn't make sense once the cost of transporting food started to fall. I wish I knew whether or not someone had written about it! The annual reports submitted give the school's expenditures, but don't report the revenue from sales of the children's work, and also don't really convey a sense of how fiscally constrained the schools were.

Avon - thank you for your civil and on-topic response!


I’m not arguing for anarchy – government has an important role in society. And I am not suggesting a Utopian solution. As Kant said, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” But I don’t want to wait for, as you put it “the enlightened attitude of those in power”. I don’t want to wait for Superman – he many never come.

We have come to recognize the great harm the state can do by the need for a constitution, which limits the power of the state. The freedom of speech is not the freedom from consequence – if you say racist things as the owner of an NBA team, expect to be kick out of the franchise. What the freedom of speech means is that the state can’t prosecute you for saying offensive things. If you ask people if freedom of speech is a good idea, the vast majority of Canadians will say yes, but nevertheless we still need the rule to stop the state from taking it away. I can assure you that if we didn’t have the rule on free speech, some government would eventually abuse us. It’s just so tempting to silence your opponents especially when the vast majority of the voting public detests the speech of some vast minority. The same goes for the rest of the constitution – the protections against unreasonable search and seizure, the right to a fair trail etc. All these restriction are in place because we recognize that the state’s monopoly on violence cuts both ways.

I would like to see the same kinds of restrictions in place in the economic realm. Economic freedom is more important than political freedom. Our political freedoms are really only made possible by our economic freedoms – if the state owns all the means of production, dissent becomes impossible. It has been very difficult for Aboriginals in Canada to dissent by voluntarily not participating in grand state programs like residential schooling because they have been treated as wards of the state since Confederation. Let’s have the the government restricted to pure public goods (which includes poverty relief), with serious cost-benefit analysis, and transparent and targeted regulation and then just let people explore their similarities and differences without the “expert social engineers” in government.

Avon, I'm comfortable that the historical record supports the term 'genocide'.

No need to go into full defence mode. Nobody is accusing you, personally of anything.

Avon, nowhere did I argue against the rule of law, nor against a hierarchy of rules from the constitution (or international law) downwards. According to the article linked to in Frances' post though, the schools started out as church franchises and only later became a sort of PPP. Now, either you're saying indigenous people should be exempt from compulsory schooling, so that they could have opted out what was clearly an abusive system, or you're saying there cannot be abuse by clerics, simply by definition.

In my part of the world, some religious orders (such as the Oblate Fathers) did their best to meliorate a bad system and are still respected. Abuse,whether by an individual or a system, toward an individual or a group, is a choice.

@ Jacques
I agree.

@ Avon,
This sums up my position quite nicely:


"Now, either you're saying indigenous people should be exempt from compulsory schooling, so that they could have opted out what was clearly an abusive system, or you're saying there cannot be abuse by clerics, simply by definition."

So which would have been better - to allow Aboriginals to opt out of compulsory education or force them into government schools? Remember, this isn't Europe - many of the Aboriginal peoples lived in remote areas - the same distance that London is to Moscow as Toronto was from where the lived and spread over an area larger than Western Europe. Given the resources of the state or how much the state was willing to commit, compulsory education meant shipping those children to residential schools. I'm on the side of freedom.


Oliver, you either organize economic activity through prices or through the barrel of a gun. There are no other options. No guns is anarchy, all guns is a totalitarian police state. The debate is where to circumscribe guns. I want to make the gun part as small as practicable.

you either organize economic activity through prices or through the barrel of a gun.

That sounds like a choice between utopia and dystopia to me. But I think it's clear by now where we both stand and that there's probably not enough common ground to justify further pixel spilling. Thanks for engaging!

Maybe the hubris in this situation isn't connected directly to big government social planning as much as it is to rapid/revolutionary policy implementation. The social planners that Avon mentions want to expand the role of government in people's lives and the progressives that Nick mentions want to replace traditional social norms, but both endeavors can be attempted in an evolutionary step-by-step process or in a revolutionary great leap forward. Maybe the latter is where most of the hubris comes into play.

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