Residential Schools – An Introduction
The purpose of the following series of blog posts is to give an understanding of the residential school system in Canada by exploring currently accessible literature. I will explain what the residential school system was, what occurred there and will offer a brief description the effects of the system on individuals, their communities and nations. Then, I will enumerate and trace some of the racist ideologies and theories that lead to colonial policies and the residential school system. In addition, I will also trace the timeline of apologies for the residential school system and describe the skepticism regarding the sincerity of those apologies. Finally, I will trace reconciliation efforts between First Nations peoples and non-Indigenous Canadians, and then discuss other vital agenda raised by First Nations that have not yet been included in ongoing reconciliation efforts.
It is noteworthy that many documents revealing information pertinent to the residential school experience have yet to be released by the Canadian federal government (they are actually being withheld from the public despite being court ordered to release them), and therefore, this blog is based on material that is available at this present time.
From 1879 until 1996, approximately 150,000 Aboriginal students attended federally funded and church run ‘Indian residential schools’ in Canada. There were more than 130 schools across the country and were located in all territories and provinces except New Brunswick, NFLD and PEI. However, some residential schools existed prior to Confederation and actually began in the French colonies at the beginning of the 17th century.
The Christian denominations that were responsible for the administration of residential schools included Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Baptist and the Salvation Army.
The schools were institutions committed to the forced assimilation of Aboriginal peoples into Euro-Canadian society. Horrible abuses occurred there and so they’ve been described as “places of disease, hunger, overcrowding and despair.” While not all children in residential schools experienced horrific abuses and actually partially benefitted from being taken from dysfunctional or impoverished families, one must remember that it was colonial forces that created the unfair reserve system and entrenched poverty to begin with. Also, while there are stories of a few children who did not suffer deep and lasting trauma, they are rare exceptions to the rule. They must not overshadow or obscure the truth – that residential schools were designed to deeply damage not just individuals, but families, communities and entire Indigenous nations.
While not all Aboriginal people attended the Indian Residential Schools, all Aboriginal peoples (First Nations, Metis and Inuit) have been adversely affected by the system to varying degrees. Although I believe attention and study of the three broad and diverse Aboriginal groups is deserved and necessary, for the purpose of this blog, I will primarily focus on First Nations, as I will delve into some discussion of the Indian Act which is legislation First Nations peoples are exclusively legally subject to.
The Early Years of the Residential School System
Contrary to what some believe, Aboriginal families wanted to send their children to schools, so that their communities could benefit from European knowledge, trade and agricultural skills. Indeed, at the time of signing treaties with Europeans, First Nations insisted that Europeans provide schools to facilitate trade and good relations – however those schools were meant to be located on Indigenous territory so families could still raise their children. Any support in favour of residential schools quickly diminished once it became apparent how detrimental they were to the students and to their communities.
Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott favoured the idea of residential schools over day schools and expressed his concerns that the children would “relapse to the level of reserve as soon as they came into contact with their parents.” Nichoals Flood Davin expressed similar concerns after viewing the American system. He wrote, “The wigwam was stronger than the influence of the school,” and so it was suggested that residential schools be built great distances from reserves where the children would be completely inaccessible to their parents.
When the residential schools officially opened, they were instantly confronted with a challenge that would continue for a number of years: an inadequate supply of students and very few graduates. The children often left school early or refused to submit to the rituals of the school such as having their hair cut and attending long hours each day – and so the government threatened their families with reduced food rations. These coercive tactics held very littler power over Native families and thus the officials of schools began to actively push government officials to endorse a mandatory residential school system.
In 1920, Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott made attendance mandatory for all students between the ages of 7-15, although children as young as three were taken. Parents who protested or interfered with the removal of their children were often imprisoned.
The purpose of the residential schools was cultural erasure and complete assimilation into Euro-Canadian society while to facilitating theft of Indigenous lands and relegating Indigenous peoples to the lower classes within the imposed capitalist system.
As Duncan Campbell Scott stated in 1920, “I want to get rid of the Indian problem … 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” The residential school system was part of a part a larger deliberate, aggressively systemic effort to “kill the Indian in the child” and education was believed to create the pacification of Indigenous peoples – which, it was hoped would to create favourable conditions for easy European settlement into First Nations Territory.