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OP-ED: The horrors of the past

  • Published at 09:37 pm July 24th, 2021
Canada school site
The main administrative building at the Kamloops Indian Residential School is seen in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada circa 1970 Reuters

A richer world removes that horror as a common experience

We forget how bad the past was – we just do, because it is human to do so, tend to think that history was like today.

This means that we forget how appalling, by today's standards, so much of the past was.

An example of this is the series of stories going on in Canada about deaths at the schools for First Nations – the native inhabitants before the Europeans arrived.

From the late 19th century (about 1890 or so) up to the late 20th (most closed by 1970 or so) the Catholic Church ran residential schools for the children of those First Nations.

The idea was that those who lived out in the wilds would be brought into a central point and there taught to be “civilized.”

This does not meet our current standards of how to treat other cultures but that is a slightly different story.

The current series of stories are about graves, mass burial grounds, being found at the locations of those schools.

Children died at those schools, were buried there and that is the scandal today.

This is not to try to diminish the pain of a parent who lost a child in this process.

Nor is it to try and insist that such schools were perfect, nor even desirable.

It is entirely true that 150,000 children went through them and the current estimate is that around 4,000 of them died.

However, it does need to be said that depending upon which date in the past we try to look at this is either a low rate, normal, or high.

If we look at the standards of the 1890s, when the schools were first set up, this is a low rate.

If we think about 1970, or try to compare it to today, this is a horribly high number of children and a portion of them.

What gets missed is, as above, just how appalling the past was by the standards of today.

For the grisly truth is that, in every society we have been able to study, the long term average was that about a quarter of children died before their first birthday and another quarter died before their 15th.

This was true of the Roman Empire, classical China, 17th century England and even of our close relatives, the other Great Apes.

Comparing this to schools is a little difficult as our normal studies are those two age groups: the first 12 months and then second to fifteenth years.

Schools such as these being discussed took children at the age of five. And yet look at that 4,000 deaths again.

That is 2.6% of those who went through the schools.

This is not to say that parents just didn't care about their children.

Or that death was so common that it did not hurt, or no one mourned.

It is thought to insist that the past was so terrible, precisely because so many parents had to bury in that small coffin. The pain and grief was widespread and common.

The average death rate was 25% of all youths, these schools 2.6%.

That is a tenfold difference to the credit of the schools, except not quite, because these death rates started to decline in the rich countries in the late 19th century.

It was not medical care – that came later – it was the basics like drains, sewers and municipal water systems.

Those are the things which have had the biggest impact upon human health and mortality in all of history.

It was not until the 1940s that we had useful antibiotics and general vaccinations for childhood diseases really only in the 1960s.

Yes, smallpox was beaten earlier but measles and tuberculosis really in my own lifetime.

By the standards of the 1890s only 2.6% youth (that is, not infants, but children 1 to 15 years old) deaths would have been an astonishingly good result.

By the standards of the 1960s, when the schools generally closed, that would have been a bad result.

By the standards of today in a rich country it is an appalling outcome.

This is why so much is being made of it now, because we are judging that past by the standards of today.

Again we have this problem in discriminating between infant and youth deaths but generally, over history, that total under-15 death rate has been about half each, half babies and half children.

So, if we look back to 1960 Canada we can see that about 4% of all children died, as children, which is about the same rate as today in Bangladesh.

Back in 1960 in Bangladesh it was about 25%. 2.6% of children dying in residential schools is not, in fact, by historical standards, a bad outcome.

We can still argue, shout even, that attempting to wipe out native cultures was a bad idea.

We can still mourn those who died just as their parents did.

But the real lesson here is that we should not judge that past by the standards of today.

For the past was, by our standards, a horror of desperate poverty and the graves and bodies of children piled high as a result.

If anyone ever wants an example of the value of economic development this is the one to offer.

It used to be that parents would expect – it was just as painful for them, just as grief striking – to have to bury at least one if not more of their children.

A richer world removes that horror as a common experience.

That change alone justifies an awful lot, no?  



The author is a senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London

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