Residential Schools – Isolation, Assimilation, Abuse, Death and Experimentation
The residential school system removed generations of children from their families and communities and alienated them from their languages, cultures and spiritualities. The children were forced into assimilation and were imposed with foreign languages, religions, values and foreign patriarchal views regarding gender roles. Children were forbidden to speak their languages or to practice cultural traditions at schools and in public places. They were indoctrinated with the ideas of superior Caucasian life and the evils of First Nations languages and cultures. Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission claimed that by creating the residential school system, Canada is guilty of genocide. He said, “The United Nations defines genocide to include the removal of children based on race, then placing them with another race to indoctrinate them.”
Violent discipline including brutal beatings, with weapons like nail studded belts were widely used to suppress their Indigenous languages and for practicing their traditions. Torture was also not uncommon in residential schools. For example, students who attempted to run away from the Shubenacadie School, were tied to chairs and locked in closets for days without permission to use the bathroom.
Hundreds of students at the Brandon school were forced to ingest such things as milk and manure mixtures, and porridge containing insects and bird droppings. At the Brantford school, children were dreadfully and chronically malnourished and routinely forced to eat pig swill and had their faces rubbed in human excrement as punishment. At St. Anne’s school in Fort Albany, children were forced to eat their own vomit and were electrocuted in an electric chair for the purpose of their teachers’ amusement. A survivor of the Williams Lake Residential School recalls, “they gave us bad food… the meat was rotten, and had a bad smell and taste…when I did not eat it they gave it to me again for the next meal.”
It was routine for students who attended the Alberni School and Coqualeetza school to have sewing pins pushed through their tongues into the bottoms of their mouths by their teachers when they spoke their Indigenous language of Tseshaht. Rape was rampant in the schools all over the country, victims were both male and female and staff of both genders committed the crimes. After being raped by male staff members, some girls were further traumatized by forced abortions.
Psychological and emotional abuse includes the very common practice for children to be subject to unspeakable humiliation as they were deliberately made to feel ashamed of their traditional ways. Even though traditionally, Indigenous peoples had better hygiene than settlers, Indigenous peoples were still viewed as dirty because of their darker skin. Children were taught to be ashamed of their dark skin that their skin would never be clean enough because they were part of a dirty race. Teachers assumed that all Indians were lice infested and so they often shaved children’s heads and powdered them with DDT (now widely known to be an incredibly toxic and cancer causing chemical). Lack of love and affection from family was also extremely painful and emotionally harmful to the children.
Children were subject too many forms of neglect including being provided with ill fitted and tattered clothing and shoes. A former Shubenacadie School student’s feet became permanently crooked and deformed from wearing the one pair of ‘old ladies’ shoes she was given.
Other forms of neglect widely observed in most residential schools were being chronically malnourished, being forced to live in deplorably unsanitary and inadequate housing as well as being denied medical services.
Many child deaths occurred due to the willful neglect of health caused by overcrowding where preventable diseases such as tuberculosis claimed the lives of many. Murders of children have also been documented – by beating, poisoning, hanging and strangulation. At this particular period in time, available records do not allow an accurate account of how many children died. Deaths were not only common, but they were expected as many residential schools had graveyards for the children located on site. In certain schools, at certain times, the death toll exceeded 50 per cent. In 1910, for example, approximately half of the students sent to the Duck Lake Residential School died and the File Hills School reported a death rate of sixty-nine percent. So far, in the province of British Columbia alone, it is known that 4,100 children died in residential schools, as the TRC continues to uncover the truth, that number continues to increase.
In taking children from healthy traditional living conditions, subjecting them to horrible neglect, and confining them to badly constructed and unmaintained schools churches, the Department of Indian Affairs and Federal government were all complicit in the disease and deaths of the children.
Grants which provided funding to schools were given on a per-capita basis and so overcrowding which spread disease was encouraged by school principals. It is known that healthy children were forced to remain within close proximity to those infected with TB and medical services were purposely denied to ill and dying children.
In 1908 – a lawyer named S.H. Blake, conducted an investigation of Anglican mission work, he revealed, “The appalling number of deaths among the younger children appeals loudly to the guardians of our Indians. In doing nothing to obviate the preventable causes of death brings the Department within unpleasant nearness to the charge of manslaughter.” Neil Walker, Indian Affairs superintendent, outraged by the deaths caused by willful neglect said in 1948, “If I were appointed by the Dominion Government for the express purpose of spreading tuberculosis, there is nothing finer in existence than the average Indian residential school.”
Enormous death tolls were explained away by assertions that TB was hereditary in the biologically inferior Indigenous peoples and granted the government and churches temporary avoidance of responsibility for the suffering and deaths of the children. Certain physicians such as Dr. P.H. Bryce’s passionate opposition to the assertions of hereditary TB in 1914 were ignored for decades while the death toll continued to climb.
In addition to the horrific abuses, preventable deaths and murder of Aboriginal children in residential schools, certainly some of the most disturbing and shocking truths about what occurred there are the sexual sterilization programs and nutrition and medical experiments conducted on the children. In the 1940s and 1950s, Aboriginal children were purposely starved and used as nutritional test subjects. Recently surfaced records indicate that at least 1,300 Aboriginal children who attended residential schools in Nova Scotia, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia were also subject to inhumane and unethical medical experimentation.
Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Bill Erasmus said recently,
“The federal documents show that the government either doesn’t know what’s in its own records or that there may be an effort to actually suppress information… We believe that what’s already been exposed represents only a fraction of the full, true and tragic history of the residential schools. There are no doubt more revelations buried in the archives. The conditions at the Residential Schools were so unbearable, some children ran away, others attempted or committed suicide.
Not all staff were abusive, but many were unqualified to teach. They worked long hours and for low wages. However, even if the children were lucky enough to have benevolent teachers, the children still received an inadequate education. To minimize costs, the federal government employed unqualified church staff and in 1950 – over 40% of the teaching staff admitted to having no professional training. When students returned to their reservations, due to their substandard education and training many students we unable to help their communities emerge from poverty. Those who left reserves to live in cities also found it difficult to succeed due to overt racism.
Literacy was not a focus of the curriculum for First Nations children until the passing of the 1876 Indian Act. Trades like carpentry and blacksmithing were sometimes offered for boys and domestic tasks were studied by girls. Literacy was also generally viewed as undesirable by the provision that any member who graduated university would become enfranchised and would thus lose their Indian status.
After several decades, doubt of the effectiveness of residential schools spread even to the Federal government. Between 1946 and 1948, a Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons on the Indian Act asked that mandatory attendance at residential schools be abolished. The Catholic Church, however, fought against abolition, since it would entail a new law which required Indian parents to give their written permission for their child’s attendance. Priests and administrators often forged admission forms, marking them with an ‘X’ in the place of parents’ consent.