Rashomonitoba - Macleans.ca

Rashomonitoba

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The Manitoba government has completed its independent review of abusive practices at the Cathedral Valley Group Home (1971-83) near Grandview. Barry Tuckett’s report is an impressive work of historical inquiry, but it is, perhaps inherently, somewhat unsatisfying. The government, clearly eager to quell the entreaties of former residents at the work farm for troubled and delinquent children, immediately endorsed the report; its family services minister also issued an apology “to those harmed by their residency.”

This is perfectly in tune with the infinite-apologies Zeitgeist, but what, specifically, has been accomplished—and what, exactly, is being apologized for? Tuckett’s interviews with ex-residents and CVGH workers establish fairly firmly that proprietor Henry “Red” Blake used corporal punishment on the children in his care. There is general agreement that power belts from farm equipment were used to beat misbehaving kids on the hands and buttocks. But then, the same thing was happening in public schools across the country at the same time.

There is also general agreement on the incidence of occasional sexual abuse of younger kids at the farm by older ones—a problem attributable, perhaps, to understaffing and sometimes slightly crowded conditions at the CVGH. (The farm seems to have received fairly steady oversight from the social workers of the day, but it also seems to have become a public child-welfare facility gradually and inadvertently, almost by accident, without much attention to standards.) The Manitoba government is not admitting any financial liability as part of its “apology”, and the wilder accusations of sexual abuse by Blake himself, and of children being used as “slave labourers”, are not substantiated by the report. Indeed, some readers might regard the report as a near-refutation of those accusations, even as it serves as the occasion for a rehashing of them in the newspapers.

One of the greatest difficulties in trying to estimate the harm caused by the CVGH is that Blake’s wife was shot and killed by one of the children in 1977. All of the youths who were assigned to the farm were troubled when they arrived, and the murder of Phyllis Blake must have been nearly the worst thing that could have happened, under the circumstances. Some of the difficulties that residents have experienced in later life are attributable to post-traumatic effects of that incident, rather than to abuse. The boys called Mrs. Blake “Mom”, suggesting that she provided an emotional refuge from her husband, a tough, whistle-blowing taskmaster given to favouritism and inconsistency. (Some interviewees spoke warmly to Tuckett about Blake’s cash gifts and generous gestures, however, and one named a son after him.)

It is a strange and heartbreaking story that emerges from Tuckett’s presentation, which is founded on an incomplete and inconsistent record much marred by time. CVGH wasn’t an Indian residential school, but it was an environment where aboriginal children were segregated from their families, were encouraged to follow white cultural models, and were denied the use of their first language—a disciplinary expedient that would allegedly have deranging effects on their identity later. The report thus provides indirect insight, based on an unusually broad and serious factual foundation, into the ways that earlier residential schools must have warped and injured the spirits of vulnerable aboriginal youths.

I fear it also provides a serious implicit condemnation of the Boy Scouts, that strange paramilitary relic of imperialism. Henry Blake was involved in Scouting from the time of his own boyhood onward. The CVGH, at first merely a private home in the boonies, was built with the help of Scouts from his Winnipeg troop. (This passing detail is really one of the more jaw-dropping facts in the report. I trust that there are ethical rules in place today to prevent Scoutmasters from having their charges build a house for them?) Basically, Blake seems to have been a Scoutmaster who took the whole thing too seriously, believing that it could be a profession rather than just a hobby and that the ethos of the Scouts could literally save wayward boys.

By any estimate, he got in over his head. It led to the murder of his wife, several broken lives, and millions of dollars in costs to today’s Manitoba taxpayer. And that’s just a tentative subtotal; the final reckoning in the courts still remains.