Chapter 6: A Questionable Education
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What was being taught in the classroom?
As late as 1950, according to an Indian Affairs study, over 40 per cent of the teaching staff had no professional training. Until the early 1950s, students in residential schools spent, at best, half of their school day on academic subjects and the remainder doing manual work and receiving religious instruction (Persson, 1986). In theory, academic instruction was available to the grade 9 level, but very few students ever went that far. Instead, they received vocational training, which centred on animal husbandry, homemaking, or common labour. Since many schools were chronically underfunded, however, many students soon found themselves applying these skills in ways that effectively subsidized the schools. For example, students might grow and sell produce at local markets. Or boys would be hired out as labourers under the guise of "outing" or "apprenticeship" programs, while female students were put to work in private homes.
Shirley Williams, who attended St. Joseph's Residential School in Spanish River, Ontario recalls:
It is a misconception that Aboriginal children arrived at the residential schools uneducated. They had received a previous education from their parents and Elders that enabled them to thrive in Aboriginal cultures.
Traditionally, Aboriginal children begin their education at birth, when they learn how to be members of their communities. Traditions and ceremonies play a significant role in helping them develop the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of their identities. Contrary to the European model of corporal punishment, native education favours guidance and mentoring, an approach that respects the integrity and sanctity of the child. The three Ls of Looking, Listening, and Learning also emphasize experiential learning, and storytelling conveys cautionary messages meant to regulate bad behaviour. Aboriginal children would have felt violated by the harsh methods and rigid structure of the residential schools.