Chapter Two - Implementation
Page 3 of 7
Between the opening of the first residential schools in 1840, and final closure of the last residential school in 1998, approximately 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit students attended the various schools across Canada. Most of these students were children from First Nations communities.
The Indian Act of 1876 had entrusted the care of all Aboriginal peoples in Canada to the federal government. This included the education of Aboriginal children. However, the government's concept of what such an education should be was shaped by flawed reasoning. The residential school system was based on the assumption that Aboriginal people needed to be brought into the modern world, and that they needed and wanted to become part of the dominant culture. School children were removed from their parents, families, and communities in an effort to restrict their "savage" culture and language, and to assimilate them into the Canadian way of life.
However, because assimilation fundamentally "failed to cherish" Aboriginal children, it was a doomed undertaking. The plan to enable young Aboriginal people for the modern world left them culturally disabled, and they were left "stranded between cultures, deviants from the norms of both."
First Nations Students
According to Duncan Campbell Scott, the Indian problem needed to be corrected through education. This was the only way, he argued, that a savage, backward people could be brought up-to-date and find a place in modern society. He concluded that Aboriginal children needed to be removed from the negative influence of their homes and families, and immersed in the modern culture they were destined to become part of.
Other government officials agreed with Scott. In advocating an off-reserve school system, for example, Nicholas Davin recommended that children "should be removed from their homes, as the influence of the wigwam was stronger than that of the [day] school, and be kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions - the residential school - where they would receive the 'care of a mother' and an education that would fit them for a life in a modernizing Canada."
The reality of the residential school system was far from this maternal ideal. It had been haphazardly thrown together, and was mismanaged by both the government and church organizations who "did not, in any thoughtful fashion, care for the children they presumed to parent." School buildings had been similarly constructed with substandard materials, and students found themselves in overcrowded living conditions, where they were poorly fed, poorly dressed, and exposed to numerous diseases.
The objective of the residential school system - to civilize the Indians - was inherently violent because it could only be achieved by disrupting and destroying Aboriginal ways and cultures. The primary method for accomplishing this cultural erasure was to remove all Aboriginal languages from the schools, in favour of English (or English and French, in the case of Québec). Yet language instruction was poor, as the majority of teachers in the schools lacked any formal training, while others did not even have high school diplomas.
Language became associated with punishment when students were disciplined for speaking their own Aboriginal languages. In fact, children were punished for any violation of the many rules that regulated life in the residential schools. Strict daily routines were developed to prevent students from running away, a frequent occurrence in the early days of the school system. Any deviation from this routine was severely reprimanded.
Unofficial policy stipulated that any means necessary should be used to keep the children compliant with the rules (including corporal punishment), and so students were disciplined in a number of ways. Children were denied food, they were placed in confinement, and they were lectured about proper behaviour. Researchers and ethnographers have documented "cases of children being beaten, confined in dark closets, sexually assaulted, or forced to remain kneeling with arms outstretched for a prolonged period of time."
Punishments escalated into instances of outright physical and psychological abuse. Children were publicly ridiculed, starved, whipped, and beaten, sometimes even to the point where they needed hospital care for their injuries. In addition to the unchecked physical abuse that occurred in the schools, Aboriginal students also endured various forms of psychological abuse. They were forced to cut their hair, wear inadequate clothes, and brothers and sisters were separated because of the school policy of keeping boys and girls apart. In such an alien and hostile environment, the students found themselves overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness and despair.
The situation was made even worse by the deplorable condition of the buildings. The poorly designed and constructed school buildings were lethal. Schools had no fire escapes, and their steep and narrow staircases would prevent students from safely evacuating the buildings in an emergency. Heating and ventilation were also inadequate, with indoor temperatures below freezing in the winter, and sweltering in the summer. Overcrowded dormitories became breeding grounds for diseases that the Aboriginal students had no immunity against. Because they came from a lifestyle that was lived primarily outdoors, the children were ill-suited for living in close quarters inside, sometimes for months at a time. While no exact numbers were kept on the number of children who died from diseases in the residential schools, the numbers are certainly in the thousands.
To escape this torture, some children ran away. However, they were often too ill-clothed or physically weakened from a poor diet to survive the long journeys home. In 1902, Duncan Sticks died of exposure when he fled from Williams Lake Industrial School, and many years later in 1937, four boys wearing lightweight summer clothes were found frozen to death after running away from the Lejac School.
Unlike its legal commitment to provide education for First Nations and Inuit children, the Canadian government was not similarly bound to the education of Métis children. This role was quickly and easily filled by the Roman Catholic Church, already a strong presence with the Métis because of their French Catholic heritage. The religious connection between the Métis and the church proved serendipitous for filling up the spaces in the Catholic-run schools. It also proved financially advantageous, because enrolment was the main source of funding for the schools.
However, military conflict between the Métis and the federal government eventually made it prudent for the government to be able to monitor the activities of the Métis people. Therefore, after the battle of Batoche in 1885, the government formed the Halfbreed Commission. The Commission used the schools as a way of monitoring the outcast group of Métis, in some instances even using the schools to help control larger Métis communities.
Official policies regarding Métis children differed across the country. The Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Hayter Reed, did not want to financially support the education of Métis children. However, desperate for funding, some schools accepted Métis children if there were insufficient First Nations children to fill the enrolment lists. At some schools, concerned administrators petitioned the government to remove Métis children living in poverty on the road allowances from their homes and into the schools. In other cases, Métis children were admitted to the schools based on their parents' ability to pay for their keep, either through settlement funds or through a work-for-education arrangement. Parents would work on the school farms or do general maintenance as a form of tuition for their children.
The government eventually devised a classification system for the Métis people, which sorted them into categories that were based on their ties to First Nations groups. This system reflected a hierarchy of race and class: "The closer the government thought the Métis were to First Nations communities, in a geographical or societal sense, the lower class of person they were thought to be. This lower class had priority over other Métis when being considered for admission to residential schools to ensure that the outcasts and menaces of society, living like Indians, were civilized."
The distinction between Métis and First Nations peoples was often based on physical appearances, where lighter skinned Métis children were considered higher class than darker skinned First Nations children. In addition, the Métis children had other desirable attributes that separated them from their First Nations counterparts: their French Catholic heritage meant that the Métis children were typically fluent in English and French, and they had a background in Christian religious practices.
However, a lighter skin did not mean less abuse. Métis students endured the same kinds of physical and psychological abuses suffered by First Nations students. Métis Survivors also recall incidents of verbal abuse, where their teachers would call them names that ridiculed their Aboriginal heritage.
The one comfort available to Métis students was the Roman Catholic faith that was practised in the schools. This mirrored the religious teachings in their homes, and provided familiarity and spiritual support in an otherwise alien and hostile school environment. However, it was a deceptive support system, because the schools ultimately succeeded in teaching Métis students to be ashamed of themselves, their parents, and their heritage. This situation was particularly difficult, because the Métis students were generally ashamed of only one of their parents.
As residential schools began to close in southern parts of Canada, other schools began to open in the far north. A missionary school was the first northern school to appear in 1951, and from 1955 to 1970 when the federal government was responsible for the school system, this number grew to 26.
Designed for Inuit children, these new schools were called day schools (not residential schools), although they had hostels for students who were unable to return to their families at the end of each school day. However, the day school system and its outcome was similar to that of the residential school system further south, affecting an estimated number of 6,877 Inuit students.
The schools responded to the demands of mainstream Canadian society, which was moving into the northern regions of the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Western industrialization and technology were eroding traditional Inuit ways of life, and settlements and towns were threatening a nomadic relationship with the land. To enable Inuit children to function in this changing environment, the government reasoned that a new education system was needed, and that English instruction would best prepare young Inuit to function in the new economy of the north. Inuktitut was then restricted to "religious instruction and social activities."
Inuit students suffered abuses similar to those inflicted upon the First Nations students in the southern schools. Because corporal punishment was a generally accepted form of discipline in western culture, the physical abuse of students was not seen as particularly excessive and therefore, nothing was done about it. Nor was anything done about psychological forms of punishment, even though they had their own negative impacts on young students. At Chesterfield Inlet Residential School, for example, female students had their hair cut severely short as a form of punishment.
Several of the northern schools also reported instances of sexual abuse, including the distribution of pornographic materials, sexually transmitted diseases, and prostitution. However, the schools protected the staff members who were accused of these crimes, and the students' allegations were generally ignored.
One significant difference in the northern school system was that its teachers were all highly qualified and well-educated, many of them graduating from universities in Alberta. Yet the government's school policy was still problematic. Teachers received no instruction in Inuit culture, despite the government's preference for teachers who had some background knowledge that would give them a better understanding of their students. And Inuit elders and traditional teachings were forbidden in the schools, despite the fact that they had this "better understanding" of the students.
Today, many of the former students of the Inuit residential school system claim that they benefitted from the education they received. However, that education did not come without a cost. These students paid a severe price that included physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, as well as the loss of culture, loss of family, and loss of self. These former students are referred to as "the lost generation, [those] Inuit who went through the residential school system [and who] survived rapid cultural change that was unprecedented in their history."
Whether they were First Nations, Métis, or Inuit, all of the children who attended residential schools share a legacy of harm and negativity that has profoundly affected them, their families, and subsequent generations. In Canada, then and now, Aboriginal children and adults alike "have paid a high price, both individually and collectively, for the government's misguided experiment in cultural assimilation." For healing and recovery to occur in Aboriginal communities, the effects of the residential schools must be explored by all members of society.
For many years after the closure of the residential schools, Survivors have suffered silently, carrying the burden of the atrocities inflicted upon them by a government that was contractually bound to protect and defend them. It is this betrayal of trust between Aboriginal children, their families, and their communities, and the Canadian government that can never be truly rectified.