Chapter 4: School Life & Survivor Stories
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What was life like for Thomas Moore? Imagine the world from his perspective...
"My people have always lived here. My father and grandfather have hunted on this land for as long as I can remember. But now a new thunder shakes the ground, a train that has driven the great buffalo herds away, and white men have come to tell my family we have to move to a "reserve" far away from the land of our ancestors. Men called "Indian Agents" are everywhere. They tell us what to do and call us "savages" - even the elders. They will not let us have our ceremonies. Those who disobey are put in jail. My mother tells me that I will be going to school far away and that I will live there until next summer. She says that I must learn the language and ways of the white man - so that I can understand them and help our people. I have many questions about the school, but my mother tells me only to be brave, to watch and listen, and to remember my people. I know that my mother is worried. She does not trust the Indian Agents."
The first half of the twentieth century saw a number of legislated changes to the residential school system. Key among them included:
In 1920, federal legislation made it mandatory for every Indian child to be sent to residential schools upon reaching seven years of age.
In 1933, residential school principals are made the legal guardians of all native students, under the oversight of the federal Department of Mines and Resources. Every native parent is forced by law to surrender legal custody of their children to the principal or face imprisonment.
Life at Residential Schools
The journey to residential schools was often a long one, particularly for Aboriginal children who came from communities that were thousands of miles away. Some could walk to the schools, but many others arrived by wagon, train, boat, or, in later years, by bus. When they remember that long journey, many Survivors recall feeling like they were walking into a prison. When they entered the schools, they were robbed of their identities: their hair was cut and de-loused, they were stripped of their garments and possessions and clothed in uniforms, and they were called by "Christian" names or by numbers instead of their own names. For the few students who had been prepared by their parents, the schools may have initially appeared less ominous, but for those who were taken to the schools by force, the experience was all the more traumatic.
Shirley I. Williams, Ojibway, attended St. Joseph's Residential School in Spanish River, Ontario, at the age of 10. She is now Professor Emerita and Ojibway Elder in the Department of Native Studies at Trent University, Peterborough.
When ten-year-old Shirley Pheasant (Williams) entered the St. Joseph's Boarding School at Spanish River, Ontario, in 1949, she could only speak her Native language, Ojibway. Shirley remembers what it was like when she first arrived: