This is the second time in twelve months that the Federal government has been court ordered to release documents to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Those documents prove horrific abuses that resulted in several convictions of the administrators of the school. Such abuse includes sexual abuse, forcing children to eat their own vomit and electrocuting children as young as six years old.
What is most disturbing is perhaps the amount of time and tax payers money the Federal government has spent actively trying to suppress this information from coming out.
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.
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.
Effects on Students, Communities and Subsequent Generations
Some effects on students of residential schools include an enormous overwhelming and lasting feeling of loss – loss of identity, family, language, culture and spirituality. Many also experience a deep and enduring sense of shame regarding their culture. Many survivors never got over the traumatic aftermath of residential schools. Ojibway elder Wilmer F. Nadjiwon says of his 1930-1935 experience at the Spanish Residential School,
“The effects of going to Spanish were worse than the post traumatic effects of a soldier on the battlefield; I know… I was there, and soldiered as an infantryman for most of the Italian Campaign in World War II. When I returned to Canada, I brought some of the battlefield demons with me and they were hard to chase from my mind, but I was eventually able to forget them. Not so when it came to the residential school. The life I had for most of six years in the Spanish Residential School cannot be erased. The injustice of the way I was used (sexually) in those years has left me an emotional cripple.”
The effects of the traumas experienced by residential school survivors affected not only the individuals who attended but generations of entire communities and nations as well.
Residential schools, were an assault on Indigenous family units and disrupted the bonds between families and communities. Removal of children from their families and communities prevented the necessary communication of traditional education and distorted their ability to form interpersonal relationships. The immense traumas they endured created intergenerational cycles of abuse and social and familial dysfunction which are still present in many First Nations communities.
To cope with traumas, alcohol and substance abuse became common among survivors and has also had lasting intergenerational effects including widespread lateral violence. Suicide, depression and poverty in First Nations communities are disproportionately high.
Lack of good parenting skills (caused by being denied an invaluably instructive family life) has contributed to disproportionately high numbers of children being taken by child welfare services. Currently, there are more Indigenous children in care than at the peak of the residential school era. The issue of Indigenous children being taken into care at high rates is certainly not entirely due to bad parenting. Racism, colonialism and misunderstandings of First Nations culture have all contributed as well.
Many children left school not able to gain employment as adults, thus leading to the impoverishment of Aboriginal communities and has contributed to poverty, crime and incarcerations and has persisted for generations.
The residential school system was not solely responsible for the current state of suffering in Aboriginal communities and individuals, but it did play a major role. Of the many colonizing elements Canada has imposed, the residential school system was the most damaging to Indigenous peoples. The system has been deemed cultural genocide by some scholars because groups were targeted, not just individuals.
A Closer Look at Apologies
In 1986, the United Church officially apologized for its role in the residential school system and the harm it caused. The Anglican Church apologized in 1993, the Presbyterian Church apologized in 1994, the RCMP apologized for its role in 2004, the Federal government apologized in 2008 and in 2009 Pope Benedict XVI didn’t apologize for the Catholic church’s role but instead, expressed “sorrow” for the abuses that occurred at the Roman Catholic run residential schools.
There has been skepticism regarding the sincerity of the federal government’s apology and speculation that Stephen Harper merely apologized for the sake of Canada’s self-image and international reputation. Furthermore, The Indian Act’s continuing legislated extermination leading to the assimilation of First Nations people in legal terms is counter to Canada’s constitutional commitments and Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology for residential schools.
The Path Toward Reconciliation
In taking steps toward true reconciliation, injustices experienced by Indigenous peoples need to become viewed as ongoing, not ‘historical.’ The peculiar view that the past is somehow completely detached from and does not inform the present directly stifles progress toward attaining a just relationship. Indeed, the colonial Indian Act is still in place and so it cannot be said that injustices remain in a separate realm of history.
According to university professor and co-author of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Taiaiake Alfred, the main challenges to reconciliation is denial and entitlement. He says,
“The colonizers who refuse to acknowledge their privilege and inheritance of wrongs are practicing another form of selfishness and hypocrisy – they claim the right and privilege of indignation and the power to judge those cruder colonizers among them and attempt to use this rhetorical posture to release themselves of their own responsibility for the colonial enterprise, both historically and in the way it has affected their own lives, their families’ privilege and their communities’ formation.”
Alfred describes reconciliation as,
“The logic of reconciliation as justice is clear: without massive restitution, including land, financial transfers, and other forms of assistance to compensate for past harms and continuing injustices committed against our peoples, reconciliation would permanently enshrine colonial injustices and is itself a further injustice.” Reconciling sovereignties would also allow for Aboriginal peoples to fully engage in their political and economic development and move beyond the legacy of colonialism by taking control over their own affairs.
In 2007, after multi-year negotiations resulted in a $1.9 billion victim compensation plan, funding was set up for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (established in 1998 as part of the Gathering Strength — Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation’s eleven year mandate ended in 2009) Provided that victims met the required criteria, a payment of up to $10,000 for one year of attendance with an additional $3,000 for each additional year was offered.
A full disclosure of the abuses of the residential school system must be done to facilitate reconciliation efforts, however the Federal government purposely withheld documents from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but in January of 2013, they were court ordered to release them. Today, ten months after the court order, the Federal government still has not released the documents.
Paulette Regan, a non-Indigenous Canadian and author of ‘Unsettling the Settler Within’ gives a call to action for all non-Indigenous Canadians,
“As Canadian citizens, we are ultimately responsible for the past and present actions of our government. To those who say we cannot change the past, I say that we can learn from it. We can better understand how a problematic mentality of benevolent paternalism became a rationale and justification for acquiring Indigenous lands and resources, and drove the creation of prescriptive education policies that ran counter to the treaty relationship. Equally importantly, we can explore how this mentality continues to influence Indigenous-settler relations today. Failing to do so will ensure that, despite our vow of never again, Canada will create equally destructive policies and practices into the future.”
In conclusion, after exploring much of the currently available literature on residential schools, it can be said that the schools have caused widespread and intergenerational harm to all Aboriginal peoples and have negatively impacted virtually every aspect of Aboriginal lives. Although the residential school system has not erased Aboriginal cultures and languages entirely, the system’s role in the larger colonial scheme to displace Indigenous peoples and relegate them to the lower classes of society have been successful however. In moving toward the path of reconciliation, it must be understood that colonization is still unfolding in Canada and that injustices are not historic but actually entrenched in the current system. And while small but difficult steps have been taken toward the goal of reconciliation, there remains a great deal more for Canada as a whole to do politically and socially.