Chapter 3: Residential Schools as Policy
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Before long, the government began to hear many serious and legitimate complaints from parents and native leaders: The teachers were under-qualified, with an emphasis on religious zeal. Religious instruction was divisive. And there were allegations of physical and sexual abuse. These concerns, however, were of no legal consequence. Under the Indian Act, all Aboriginal people were by legal definition wards of the state. School administrators were assigned guardianship, which meant they received full parental rights. The complaints continued. School administrators, teachers, Indian agents, and even some government bureaucrats started to express their concerns. All of them called for major reforms to the system.
For the most part, government and church officials managed to ignore these opposing voices. However, the health reports from the schools could not be as easily dismissed. The ongoing outbreaks of tuberculosis at the schools were taking a toll on the students' lives. This disease spread quickly through the poorly ventilated and overcrowded school dormitories, and the malnourished and physically weakened Aboriginal students easily succumbed to the infection. Thousands of residential school children died from tuberculosis and from the many other ailments they contracted at the schools.
Unfortunately, many children would die before the government finally intervened in 1909 by sending Dr. Peter Bryce to assess the health situation at the schools. Dr. Bryce was the Medical Inspector for the Department of Indian Affairs, and he did not attempt to disguise the horror of what he found. In his official report, Bryce called the tuberculosis epidemic a "'national crime' ... [and] the consequence of inadequate government funding, poorly constructed schools, sanitary and ventilation problems, inadequate diet, clothing and medical care." (A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986, p. 75.) He calculated mortality rates among school age children as ranging from 35% and 60%.
Not everyone welcomed Dr. Bryce's report, or indeed, the similar such findings > of others. His requests for additional funds to address some of the basic health concerns were denied. And his incriminating report was suppressed by Duncan Campbell Scott, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, who then also terminated the position of Medical Inspector. Clearly, the health of Aboriginal school children was not going to be made a priority.
Instead, Duncan Campbell Scott turned his attention to negotiating a joint agreement between the federal government and the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches. This agreement established the structure and mandate for what would now be termed "Indian Residential Schools," and the contractual obligations of the churches responsible for running them. The new "residential" schools would focus on primary education in an effort to forcefully civilize and Christianize Indian children. Although the change in name may have made for good public relations, the abusive treatment of Aboriginal children continued, and the epidemics that were killing them did not subside. Duncan Campbell Scott was determined to find a "final solution to the Indian Problem." He explained:
"I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone... Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department"