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The history

[IMAGE: A group of students and parents from the Saddle Lake Reserve, en route to the Methodist-operated school in Red Deer, Alberta. Woodruff, Library and Archives Canada, PA-040715.]

It can start with a knock on the door one morning. It is the local Indian agent, or the parish priest, or, perhaps, a Mounted Police officer. The bus for residential school leaves that morning. It is a day the parents have long been dreading. Even if the children have been warned in advance, the morning’s events are still a shock. The officials have arrived and the children must go.

For tens of thousands of Aboriginal children for over a century, this was the beginning of their residential schooling. They were torn from their parents, who often surrendered them only under threat of prosecution. Then, they were hurled into a strange and frightening place, one in which their parents and culture would be demeaned and oppressed.

For Frederick Ernest Koe, it started when the Anglican minister and the Mounted Police arrived with a message that he had to leave his parents’ home in Aklavik in the Northwest Territories that morning. “And I didn’t get to say goodbye to my dad or my brother Allan, didn’t get to pet my dogs or nothing.”1

The day she left for the Lestock, Saskatchewan, school, Marlene Kayseas’s parents drove her into the town of Wadena. “There was a big truck there. It had a back door and that truck was full of kids and there was no windows on that truck.”2 Larry Beardy travelled by train from Churchill, Manitoba, to the Anglican residential school in Dauphin, Manitoba—a journey of 1,200 kilometres. As soon as they realized that they were leaving their parents behind, the younger children started crying. At every stop, the train took on more children and they would start to cry as well. “That train I want to call that train of tears.”3 Florence Horassi was taken to the Fort Providence, Northwest Territories, school in a small airplane. On its way to the school, the plane stopped at a number of small communities to pick up students. “When the plane took off, there’s about six or five older ones, didn’t cry, but I saw tears come right out of their eyes. Everybody else was crying. There’s a whole plane crying. I wanted to cry, too, ’cause my brother was crying, but I held my tears back and held him.”4

The arrival at school was often even more traumatizing than the departure from home or the journey. Lily Bruce’s parents were in tears when they left her and her brother at the Alert Bay, British Columbia, school.5 At Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta, Vitaline Elsie Jenner fought to stay with her mother. “I was screaming and hollering. And in my language I said, ‘Mama, Mama, kâya nakasin’ and in English it was, ‘Mom, Mom, don’t leave me.’ ’Cause that’s all I knew was to speak Cree. And so the nun took us.”6

Nellie Ningewance was raised in Hudson, Ontario, and went to the Sioux Lookout, Ontario, school in the 1950s and 1960s. “When we arrived we had to register that we had arrived, then they took us to cut our hair.”7 Bernice Jacks became very frightened when her hair was cut on her arrival at a school in the Northwest Territories. “I could see my hair falling. And I couldn’t do nothing. And I was so afraid my mom … I wasn’t thinking about myself. I was thinking about Mom. I say, ‘Mom’s gonna be really mad. And June is gonna be angry. And it’s gonna be my fault.’”8

Marthe Basile-Coocoo recalled feeling a chill on first seeing the Pointe Bleue, Québec, school.

It was something like a grey day, it was a day without sunshine. It was, it was the impression that I had, that I was only six years old, then, well, the nuns separated us, my brothers, and then my uncles, then I no longer understood. Then that, that was a period there, of suffering, nights of crying, we all gathered in a corner, meaning that we came together, and there we cried. Our nights were like that.9

Pauline St-Onge was traumatized by just the sight of the Sept-Îles school in Québec. She fought back when her father tried to take her into the school. “I thought in my child’s head I said: ‘you would … you would make me go there, but I will learn nothing, nothing, nothing.’”10

Campbell Papequash was taken, against his will, to residential school in 1946. “And after I was taken there they took off my clothes and then they deloused me. I didn’t know what was happening but I learned about it later, that they were delousing me; ‘the dirty, no-good-for-nothing savages, lousy.’”11

[IMAGE: “The only building that I knew up to that time, that moment in my life was the one-storey house that we had. And when I got to the residential school, I seen this big monster of a building, and I’ve never seen any buildings that, that large, that high.” – Calvin Myerion, Brandon, Manitoba, school. United Church of Canada Board of Home Missions, 86.158P/ 22N.]

Roy Denny was perplexed and frightened by the clothing that the priests and sisters wore at the Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, school. “We were greeted by this man dressed in black with a long gown. That was the priest, come to find later. And the nuns with their black, black outfits with the white collar and a white, white collar and, like a breastplate of white.”12 Calvin Myerion recalled being overwhelmed by the size of the Brandon, Manitoba, school. “The only building that I knew up to that time, that moment in my life was the one-storey house that we had. And when I got to the residential school, I seen this big monster of a building, and I’ve never seen any buildings that, that large, that high.”13 Archie Hyacinthe compared the experience to that of being captured and taken into captivity. “That’s when the trauma started for me, being separated from my sister, from my parents, and from our, our home. We were no longer free. It was like being, you know, taken to a strange land, even though it was our, our, our land, as I understood later on.”14 When she first went to the Amos, Québec, school, Margo Wylde could not speak any French. “I said to myself, ‘How am I going to express myself? How will I make people understand what I’m saying?’ And I wanted to find my sisters to ask them to come and get me. You know it’s sad to say, but I felt I was a captive.”15

[IMAGE: Boys at the Sioux Lookout, Ontario, school in the 1930s in their school uniforms. General Synod Archives; Anglican Church of Canada; P75-103-S7-127.]

On their arrival at residential school, students often were required to exchange the clothes they were wearing for school-supplied clothing. This could mean the loss of homemade clothing that was of particular value and meaning to them. Murray Crowe said his clothes from home were taken and burned at the school that he attended in northwestern Ontario.16 When Wilbur Abrahams’s mother sent him to the Alert Bay school in British Columbia, she outfitted him in brand-new clothes. When he arrived at the school, he was told to hand in this outfit in exchange for school clothing. “That was the last time I saw my new clothes. Dare not ask questions.”17 Martin Nicholas of Nelson House, Manitoba, went to the Pine Creek, Manitoba, school in the 1950s. “My mom had prepared me in Native clothing. She had made me a buckskin jacket, beaded with fringes.… And my mom did beautiful work, and I was really proud of my clothes. And when I got to residential school, that first day I remember, they stripped us of our clothes.”18 On her arrival at the Presbyterian school in Kenora, Ontario, Lorna Morgan was wearing “these nice little beaded moccasins that my grandma had made me to wear for school, and I was very proud of them.” She said they were taken from her and thrown in the garbage.19

Gilles Petiquay, who attended the Pointe Bleue school, was shocked by the fact that each student was assigned a number. “I remember that the first number that I had at the residential school was 95. I had that number—95—for a year. The second number was number 4. I had it for a longer period of time. The third number was 56. I also kept it for a long time. We walked with the numbers on us.”20

Older brothers were separated from younger brothers, older sisters were separated from younger sisters, and brothers and sisters were separated from each other. Wilbur Abrahams climbed up the steps to the Alert Bay school behind his sisters and started following them to the girls’ side of the school. Then, he felt a staff member pulling him by the ear, telling him to turn the other way. “I have always believed that, I think at that particular moment, my spirit left.”21

When Peter Ross was enrolled at the Immaculate Conception school in Aklavik, Northwest Territories, it was the first time he had ever been parted from his sisters. He said that in all the time he was at the school, he was able to speak with them only at Christmas and on Catholic feast days.22 Daniel Nanooch recalled that he talked with his sister only four times a year at the Wabasca, Alberta, school. “They had a fence in the playground. Nobody was allowed near the fence. The boys played on this side, the girls played on the other side. Nobody was allowed to go to that fence there and talk to the girls through the fence or whatever, you can’t.”23

[IMAGE: The strict segregation of the sexes at the schools meant that brothers and sisters were quickly separated from one another. General Synod Archives, Anglican Church of Canada, P7538-635.]

The only reason Bernice Jacks had wanted to go to residential school was to be with her older sister. But once she was there, she discovered they were to sleep in separate dormitories. On the occasions when she slipped into the older girls’ dormitory and crawled into her sister’s bed, her sister scolded her and sent her away: “My sister never talked to me like that before.”24 Helen Kakekayash’s older sister tried to comfort her when she first arrived at the McIntosh, Ontario, school. She recalled that “she would try to talk to me, and she would get spanked.”25 Bernard Catcheway said that even though he and his sister were both attending the Pine Creek school, they could not communicate with each other. “I couldn’t talk to her, I couldn’t wave at her. If you did you’d get, you know a push in the head by a nun.”26 On her second day at the Kamloops school in British Columbia, Julianna Alexander went to speak to her brother. “Did I ever get a good pounding and licking, get over there, you can’t go over there, you can’t talk to him, you know. I said, ‘Yeah, but he’s my brother.’”27

Taken from their homes, stripped of their belongings, and separated from their siblings, residential school children lived in a world dominated by fear, loneliness, and lack of affection.

William Herney, who attended the Shubenacadie school in Nova Scotia, recalled the first few days in the school as being frightening and bewildering. “Within those few days, you had to learn, because otherwise you’re gonna get your head knocked off. Anyway, you learned everything. You learned to obey. And one of the rules that you didn’t break, you obey, and you were scared, you were very scared.”28 Raymond Cutknife recalled that when he attended the Hobbema school in Alberta, he “lived with fear.”29 Of his years in two different Manitoba schools, Timothy Henderson said, “Every day was, you were in constant fear that, your hope was that it wasn’t you today that we’re going to, that was going to be the target, the victim. You know, you weren’t going to have to suffer any form of humiliation.”30 Shirley Waskewitch said that in Kindergarten at the Catholic school in Onion Lake, Saskatchewan, “I learned the fear, how to be so fearful at six years old. It was instilled in me.”31

At the Fort Alexander, Manitoba, school, Patrick Bruyere used to cry himself to sleep. “There was, you know, a few nights I remember that I just, you know, cried myself to sleep, I guess, because of, you know, wanting to see my mom and dad.”32 Ernest Barkman, who attended the Pine Creek school, recalled, “I was really lonely and I cried a lot, my brother who was with me said I cried a lot.”33 Paul Dixon, who attended schools in Québec and Ontario, said that at night, children tried to weep silently. “If one child was caught crying, eh, oh, everybody was in trouble.”34 Betsy Annahatak grew up in Kangirsuk, in northern Québec, which was then known as Payne Bay. When her parents were on the land, she lived in a small hostel in the community. “When one person would start crying, all the, all the little girls would start crying; all of us. We were different ages. And we would cry like little puppies or dogs, right into the night, until we go to sleep; longing for our families.”35

Students’ hearts were hardened. Rick Gilbert remembered the Williams Lake, British Columbia, school as a loveless place. “That was one thing about this school was that when you got hurt or got beat up or something, and you started crying, nobody comforted you. You just sat in the corner and cried and cried till you got tired of crying then you got up and carried on with life.”36 Nick Sibbeston, who was placed in the Fort Providence school in the Northwest Territories at the age of five, recalled it as a place where children hid their emotions. “In residential school you quickly learn that you should not cry. If you cry you’re teased, you’re shamed out, you’re even punished.”37 One former student said that during her time at the Sturgeon Landing school in Saskatchewan, she could not recall a staff member ever smiling at a child.38 Jack Anawak recalled of his time at Chesterfield Inlet, in what is now Nunavut, in the 1950s that “there was no love, there was no feelings, it was just supervisory.”39 Lydia Ross, who attended the Cross Lake school in Manitoba, said, “If you cried, if you got hurt and cried, there was no, nobody to, nobody to comfort, comfort you, nobody to put their arms.”40 Stephen Kakfwi, who attended Grollier Hall in Inuvik and Grandin College in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, said this lack of compassion affected the way students treated one another. “No hugs, nothing, no comfort. Everything that, I think, happened in the residential schools, we picked it up: we didn’t get any hugs; you ain’t going to get one out of me I’ll tell you that.”41 Victoria McIntosh said that life at the Fort Alexander, Manitoba, school taught her not to trust anyone. “You learn not to cry anymore. You just get harder. And yeah, you learn to shut down.”42

These accounts all come from statements made by former residential school students to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. These events all took place in Canada within the realm of living memory. Like previous generations of residential school children, these children were sent to what were, in most cases, badly constructed, poorly maintained, overcrowded, unsanitary fire traps. Many children were fed a substandard diet and given a substandard education, and worked too hard. For far too long, they died in tragically high numbers. Discipline was harsh and unregulated; abuse was rife and unreported. It was, at best, institutionalized child neglect.

The people who built, funded, and operated the schools offered varying justifications for this destructive intrusion into the lives of Aboriginal families. Through it, they wished to turn the children into farmers and farmers’ wives. They wanted the children to abandon their Aboriginal identity and come to know the Christian god. They feared that if the children were not educated, they would be a menace to the social order of the country. Canadian politicians wished to find a cheap way out of their long-term commitments to Aboriginal people. Christian churches sought government support for their missionary efforts. The schools were part of the colonization and conversion of Aboriginal people, and were intended to bring civilization and salvation to their children. These were the rationales that were used to justify making the lives of so many children so unhappy.

The imperial context

The whole part of the residential school was a part of a bigger scheme of colonization. There was intent; the schools were there with the intent to change people, to make them like others and to make them not fit.

And today, you know, we have to learn to decolonize.

— Shirley Flowers, Statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.43

The mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada requires it to report on “the history, purpose, operation and supervision” of Canada’s residential schools. These schools were part of a process that brought European states and Christian churches together in a complex and powerful manner. The history of the schools can be best understood in the context of this relationship between the growth of global, European-based empires and the Christian churches. Starting in the sixteenth century, European states gained control of Indigenous peoples’ lands throughout the world. It was an era of mass migration. Millions of Europeans arrived as colonial settlers in nearly every part of the world. Millions of Africans were transported in the European-led slave trade, in which coastal Africans collaborated. Traders from India and China spread throughout the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, bringing with them indentured servants whose lives were little different from those of slaves.44 The activities of explorers, farmers, prospectors, trading companies, or missionaries often set the stage for expansionary wars, the negotiation and the breaking of Treaties, attempts at cultural assimilation, and the exploitation and marginalization of the original inhabitants of the colonized lands.45 Over time, Indigenous children in places as distant from one another as East Africa, Australia, and Siberia would be separated from their parents and sent to residential schools.46

[IMAGE: By the end of the nineteenth century, the British Empire spanned the globe. This map was intended to convince Britons of the benefits of empire. In it, Canada was primarily valued for its farmland and as a captive market for British goods. Library and Archives Canada, NMC8207, e011076405-v8.]

The spread of European-based empires was set in motion in the fifteenth century when the voyages of maritime explorers revealed potential sources of new wealth to the monarchs of Europe. The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs and the Incas gave Spain, and ultimately all of Europe, access to the resources of North and South America. This not only enriched the Old World, but it also unleashed an unceasing wave of migration, trade, conquest, and colonization.47 It marked the beginning of the creation of a European-dominated global economy. Although it was led initially by Spain and Portugal, this era of imperial expansion came to be directed by Holland, France, and, in the end, most stunningly by Britain.48

Empires were established militarily. They engaged in extensive and violent wars with one another, maintained a military presence on their frontiers, and conducted innumerable military campaigns to put down nationalist uprisings.49 Colonies were established to be exploited economically. The benefits of empire could come directly as taxes, as precious metals, or as raw materials for industries in the homeland. Colonies often were required to purchase their imports solely from the homeland, making them a captive market.50

The mere presence of Indigenous people in these newly colonized lands blocked settler access to the land.51 To gain control of the land of Indigenous people, colonists negotiated Treaties, waged wars of extinction, eliminated traditional landholding practices, disrupted families, and imposed a political and spiritual order that came complete with new values and cultural practices.52 Treaty promises often went unfulfilled. United States General William Tecumseh Sherman is quoted as having said, “We have made more than one thousand treaties with the various Indian tribes, and have not kept one of them.” In commenting on Sherman’s statement in 1886, C. C. Painter, a critic of American Indian policy, observed that the United States had

never intended to keep them. They were not made to be kept, but to serve a present purpose, to settle a present difficulty in the easiest manner possible, to acquire a desired good with the least possible compensation, and then to be disregarded as soon as this purpose was tainted and we were strong enough to enforce a new and more profitable arrangement.53

The outcome was usually disastrous for Indigenous people, while the chief beneficiaries of empire were the colonists and their descendants. Many of the colonies they settled grew to be among the most prosperous societies in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century world.54 Settler colonies often went on to gain political independence. In the case of Canada and the United States of America, these newly created nations spread across North America. As they expanded, they continued to incorporate Indigenous peoples and their lands into empires. Colonialism remains an ongoing process, shaping both the structure and the quality of the relationship between the settlers and Indigenous peoples.

At their height, the European empires laid claim to most of the earth’s surface and controlled the seas.55 Numerous arguments were advanced to justify such extravagant interventions into the lands and lives of other peoples. These were largely elaborations on two basic concepts: 1) the Christian god had given the Christian nations the right to colonize the lands they ‘discovered’ as long as they converted the Indigenous populations; and 2) the Europeans were bringing the benefits of civilization (a concept that was intertwined with Christianity) to the ‘heathen.’ In short, it was contended that people were being colonized for their own benefit, either in this world or the next.

In the fifteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church, building on the traditions of the Roman Empire, conceived of itself as the guardian of a universal world order.56 The adoption of Christianity within the Roman Empire (which defined itself as ‘civilized’) reinforced the view that to be civilized was to be Christian. The Catholic papacy was already playing a role in directing and legitimizing colonialism prior to Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the Americas in the 1490s, largely by granting Catholic kingdoms the right to colonize lands they ‘discovered.’57 In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the first of four orders, referred to as “papal bulls” (a term that takes its name from the Latin word for the mould used to seal the document), that granted most of North and South America to Spain, the kingdom that had sponsored Columbus’s voyage of the preceding year. These orders helped shape the political and legal arguments that have come to be referred to as the “Doctrine of Discovery,” which was used to justify the colonization of the Americas in the sixteenth century. In return, the Spanish were expected to convert the Indigenous peoples of the Americas to Christianity.58

Other European rulers rejected the Pope’s ability to give away sovereignty over half the world.59 But they did not necessarily reject the Doctrine of Discovery—they simply modified it. The English argued that a claim to ‘discovered lands’ was valid if the ‘discoverer’ was able to take possession of them.60 Harman Verelst, who promoted the colonization in the eighteenth century of what is now the southern coast of the United States, wrote that “this Right arising from the first discovery is the first and fundamental Right of all European Nations, as to their Claim of Lands in America.”61 This Doctrine of Discovery was linked to a second idea: the lands being claimed were terra nullius—no man’s land—and therefore open to claim. On the basis of this concept, the British government claimed ownership of the entire Australian continent. (There, the doctrine of terra nullius remained the law until it was successfully challenged in court in 1992.)62 Under this doctrine, imperialists could argue that the presence of Indigenous people did not void a claim of terra nullius, since the Indigenous people simply occupied, rather than owned, the land. True ownership, they claimed, could come only with European-style agriculture.63

[IMAGE: A Church Missionary Society school, in Freetown, Sierra Leone. In the nineteenth century, European-based missionary societies established residential schools around the world in an effort to spread the Christian gospel and civilize the ‘heathen.’ Mary Evans Picture Library, 10825826.]

Underlying these arguments was the belief that the colonizers were bringing civilization to savage people who could never civilize themselves. The ‘civilizing mission’ rested on a belief of racial and cultural superiority. European writers and politicians often arranged racial groups in a hierarchy, each with their own set of mental and physical capabilities. The ‘special gifts’ of the Europeans meant it was inevitable that they would conquer the lesser peoples. Beneath the Europeans, in descending order, were Asians, Africans, and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia. Some people held that Europeans had reached the pinnacle of civilization through a long and arduous process. In this view, the other peoples of the world had been held back by such factors as climate, geography, and migration. Through a civilizing process, Europeans could, however, raise the people of the world up to their level. This view was replaced in the nineteenth century by a racism that chose to cloak itself in the language of science, and held that the peoples of the world had differing abilities. Some argued that, for genetic reasons, there were limits on the ability of the less-developed peoples to improve. In some cases, it was thought, contact with superior races could lead to only one outcome: the extinction of the inferior peoples.64

These ideas shaped global policies towards Indigenous peoples. In 1883, Britain’s Lord Rosebery, a future British prime minister, told an Australian audience, “It is on the British race, whether in Great Britain, or the United States, or the Colonies, or wherever it may be, that rest the highest hopes of those who try to penetrate the dark future, or who seek to raise and better the patient masses of mankind.”65 Residential schools were established in the shadow of these ideas. In the year that Rosebery gave this speech, the Canadian government opened its first industrial residential school for Aboriginal people at Battleford on the Canadian Prairies.66

The Christian churches not only provided the moral justification for the colonization of other peoples’ lands, but they also dispatched missionaries to the colonized nations in order to convert ‘the heathen.’ From the fifteenth century on, the Indigenous peoples of the world were the objects of a strategy of spiritual and cultural conquest that had its origins in Europe. While they often worked in isolation and under difficult conditions, missionaries were representatives of worldwide organizations that enjoyed the backing of influential individuals in some of the most powerful nations of the world, and which came to amass considerable experience in transforming different cultures.67 Residential schools figured prominently in missionary work, not only in Canada, but also around the world.

Christian missionaries played a complex but central role in the European colonial project. Their presence helped justify the extension of empires, since they were visibly spreading the word of God to the heathen. If their efforts were unsuccessful, the missionaries might conclude that those who refused to accept the Christian message could not expect the protection of the church or the law, thus clearing the way for their destruction.68 Although missionaries often attempted to soften the impact of imperialism, they were also committed to making the greatest changes in the culture and psychology of the colonized. They might, for example, seek to have traders give fair prices and to have government officials provide relief in times of need, but they also worked to undermine relationships to the land, language, religion, family relations, educational practices, morality, and social custom.69

Missionary zeal was also fuelled by the often violent division that had separated the Christian world into Catholic and Protestant churches. Both Catholics and Protestants invested heavily in the creation of missionary organizations that were intended to engage overseas missionary work. The most well-known Catholic orders were the Franciscans, the Jesuits, and the Oblates. The Oblates originally focused their attention on the poor and working classes of France, but from the 1830s onwards, they engaged in overseas missionary work. They established themselves in eastern Canada, the Pacific Northwest, Ceylon, Texas, and Africa.70 The Oblates administered a majority of the Roman Catholic residential schools in Canada. They could not have done this work without the support of a number of female religious orders, most particularly the Sisters of Charity (the Grey Nuns), the Sisters of Providence, the Sisters of St. Anne, and the Missionary Oblate Sisters of the Sacred Heart and of Mary Immaculate.

The British-based Church Missionary Society was also a global enterprise. By the middle of the nineteenth century, this Anglican society had missions across the globe in such places as India, New Zealand, West and East Africa, China, and the Middle East. The society’s Highbury College in London provided missionaries with several years of training in arithmetic, grammar, history, geography, religion, education, and the administration of schools.71 By 1901, the Church Missionary Society had an annual income of over 300,000 pounds. It used this money to support 510 male missionaries, 326 unmarried females, and 365 ordained pastors around the world.72

The Catholics and Anglicans were not the only European-based missionary societies to take up work in Canada. Presbyterians and Methodists, originally drawing support from the United Kingdom, undertook missionary work among Aboriginal people in the early nineteenth century. On the coast of Labrador, members of the Moravian Brotherhood, an order that had its origins in what is now the Czech Republic, carried out missionary work from the early eighteenth century onwards.73 Protestant missionary work also depended on the often underpaid and voluntary labour of missionary wives and single women who had been recruited by missionary societies.

Missionaries viewed Aboriginal culture as a barrier to both spiritual salvation and the ongoing existence of Aboriginal people. They were determined to replace traditional economic pursuits with European-style peasant agriculture. They believed that cultural transformation required the imposition of social control and separation from both traditional communities and European settlements. In the light of these beliefs, it is not surprising that they were proponents of an educational world that separated children from the influences of their families and cultures, imposed a new set of values and beliefs, provided a basic elementary education, and created institutions whose daily life reflected Europe’s emerging work discipline. In short, they sought to impose the foreign and transforming world of the residential school.

Colonization was undertaken to meet the perceived needs of the imperial powers. The justification offered for colonialism—the need to bring Christianity and civilization to the Indigenous peoples of the world—may have been a sincerely and firmly held belief, but as a justification for intervening in the lives of other peoples, it does not stand up to legal, moral, or even logical scrutiny. The papacy had no authority to give away lands that belonged to Indigenous people. The Doctrine of Discovery cannot serve as the basis for a legitimate claim to the lands that were colonized, if for no other reason than that the so-called discovered lands were already well known to the Indigenous peoples who had inhabited them for thousands of years. The wars of conquest that took place to strip Indigenous peoples of their lands around the globe were not morally just wars; Indigenous peoples were not, as colonists often claimed, subhuman, and neither were they living in violation of any universally agreed-upon set of values. There was no moral imperative to impose Christianity on the Indigenous peoples of the world. They did not need to be ‘civilized’; indeed, there is no hierarchy of societies. Indigenous peoples had systems that were complete unto themselves and met their needs. Those systems were dynamic; they changed over time and were capable of continued change.74 Taken as a whole, the colonial process relied for its justification on the sheer presumption of taking a specific set of European beliefs and values and proclaiming them to be universal values that could be imposed upon the peoples of the world. This universalizing of European values—so central to the colonial project—that was extended to North America served as the prime justification and rationale for the imposition of a residential school system on the Indigenous peoples of Canada.

Residential schools in pre-Confederation Canada

In Canada, residential schooling was closely linked to colonization and missionary crusades. The first boarding school for Aboriginal people in what is now Canada was established in the early seventeenth century near the French trading post at the future site of Québec City. At this Roman Catholic school, missionaries hoped to both ‘civilize’ and ‘Christianize’ young Aboriginal boys.75

[IMAGE: Kahkewaquonaby (Sacred Feathers), also known as Peter Jones, in 1832. He was an Ojibway chief who worked with Methodist officials to establish the Mount Elgin residential school in Muncey, Ontario. Toronto Public Library, X2-25.]

The school was a failure: parents were reluctant to send their children, and the students were quick to run away and return home.76 Later efforts in New France met with no greater success.77 After the British conquest of New France in 1763, the idea of residential schooling lay dormant until the early nineteenth century. In the first decade of that century, the New England Company, a British-based missionary society, funded a boarding school operation in Sussex Vale, New Brunswick. The goals were to teach young Mi’kmaq and Maliseet children trades and to convert them to Protestantism.78 In the 1820s, John West, an Anglican missionary from England, opened a boarding school for Aboriginal students at Red River.79 Although these efforts also failed to take root, in 1834, the Mohawk Institute, a mission school on the Grand River in what is now Ontario, began taking in boarders.80 This school would remain in operation until 1970.81

In 1847, Egerton Ryerson, the superintendent of schools for Upper Canada, recommended the establishment of residential schools in which Aboriginal students would be given instruction in “English language, arithmetic, elementary geometry, or knowledge of forms, geography and the elements of general history, natural history and agricultural chemistry, writing, drawing and vocal music, book-keeping (especially in reference to farmers’ accounts) religion and morals.”82 This he thought of as “a plain English education adapted to the working farmer and mechanic. In this their object is identical with that of every good common school.” Pupils should be “taught agriculture, kitchen gardening, and mechanics, so far as mechanics is connected with making and repairing the most useful agricultural implements.”83

After the release of Ryerson’s report, Methodist missionaries operated a number of boarding schools in southern Ontario in the 1850s.84 One of them, the Mount Elgin school at Munceytown (later, Muncey), did not close until 1946.85 The first of what would be a string of Roman Catholic residential schools in what is now British Columbia opened in the early 1860s.86 A school in Fort Providence in what is now the Northwest Territories began taking in students in 1867.87

The colonization of the Northwest

After the Canadian state was established in 1867, the federal government began making small per-student grants to many of the church-run boarding schools. Federal government involvement in residential schooling did not begin in earnest until the 1880s. The catalyst for this expansion was the 1870 transfer of much of contemporary Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, northern Québec, northern Ontario, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the Canadian government. The following year, British Columbia was brought into Confederation by the promise of a continental rail link.

Canadian politicians intended to populate the newly acquired lands with settlers from Europe and Ontario. These settlers were expected to buy goods produced in central Canada and ship their harvests by rail to western and eastern ports and then on to international markets. Settling the “Northwest”—as this territory came to be known— in this manner meant colonizing the over 40,000 Indigenous people who lived there.88

The Rupert’s Land Order of 1870, which transferred much of the Northwest to Canadian control, required that “the claims of the Indian tribes to compensation for lands required for purposes of settlement will be considered and settled in conformity with the equitable principles which have uniformly governed the British Crown in its dealings with the aborigines.”89 These principles had been set down in the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which placed limits on the conditions under which Aboriginal land could be transferred. “If at any Time any of the Said Indians should be inclined to dispose of the said Lands,” they could do so, but land could be sold only to the Crown, and the sale had to be at a meeting of Indians that had been held specifically for that purpose.90 The Royal Proclamation, in effect, ruled that any future transfer of ‘Indian’ land would take the form of a Treaty between sovereigns.91 In this, it stands as one of the clearest and earliest expressions of what has been identified as a long-standing element of Canadian Aboriginal policy.92

[IMAGE: The signing of Treaty 1 at Lower Fort Garry, 1871. To gain control of the land of Indigenous people, colonists negotiated Treaties, waged wars of extinction, eliminated traditional landholding practices, disrupted families, and imposed new political and spiritual order that came complete with new values and cultural practices. Provincial Archives of Manitoba, N11975.]

To enable the colonization of the Northwest, in 1871, the federal government began negotiating the first in a series of what came to be termed as “Numbered Treaties” with the First Nations of western and northern Canada. The only alternative to negotiating Treaties would have been to ignore the legal obligations of the Rupert’s Land Order and attempt to subdue the First Nations militarily, but that would have been a very costly proposition. In 1870, when the entire Canadian government budget was $19 million, the United States was spending more than that—$20 million a year—on its Indian Wars alone. Despite all these pressures, the government took a slow and piecemeal approach to Treaty making.93

Through the Treaties, Aboriginal peoples were seeking agricultural supplies and training as well as relief during periods of epidemic or famine in a time of social and economic transition.94 They saw the Treaty process as establishing a reciprocal relationship that would be lasting.95 The goal was to gain the skills that would allow them to continue to control their own destinies and retain their culture and identity as Aboriginal people. As Ahtahkakoop (Star Blanket) said, “We Indians can learn the ways of living that made the white man strong.”96 The provisions varied from Treaty to Treaty, but they generally included funds for hunting and fishing supplies, agricultural assistance, yearly payments for band members (annuities), and an amount of reserve lands based on the population of the band.97 First Nations never asked for residential schools as part of the Treaty process, and neither did the government suggest that such schools would be established. The education provisions also varied in different Treaties, but promised to pay for schools on reserves or teachers. The federal government was slow to live up to its Treaty obligations. For example, many First Nations were settled on reserves that were much smaller than they were entitled to, while others were not provided with any reserve.98 Some obligations remain unfulfilled to this day. The commitment to establish on-reserve schools was also ignored in many cases. As a result, parents who wished to see their children educated were forced to send them to residential schools.99

The assimilation policy

From the Canadian government’s perspective, the most significant elements in the Treaties were the written provisions by which the First Nations agreed to “cede, release, surrender, and yield” their land to the Crown.100 In the Treaty negotiations, however, federal officials left the impression that the government intended the Treaties to establish a permanent relationship with First Nations. Treaty Commissioner Alexander Morris told the Cree in 1876, “What I trust and hope we will do is not for to-day and tomorrow only; what I will promise, and what I believe and hope you will take, is to last as long as the sun shines and yonder river flows.”101 In reality, the federal government policy was very different from what Morris said. The intent of the government’s policy, which was firmly established in legislation at the time that the Treaties had been negotiated, was to assimilate Aboriginal people into broader Canadian society. At the end of this process, Aboriginal people were expected to have ceased to exist as a distinct people with their own governments, cultures, and identities.

The federal Indian Act, first adopted in 1876, like earlier pre-Confederation legislation, defined who was and who was not an ‘Indian’ under Canadian law.102 The Act also defined a process through which a person could lose status as an Indian. Women, for example, could lose status simply by marrying a man who did not have status. Men could lose status in a number of ways, including graduating from a university. Upon giving up their status, individuals also were granted a portion of the band’s reserve land.103

[IMAGE: This “Sun Dance” ceremony was one of the Aboriginal spiritual practices outlawed by the federal government in the nineteenth century. Library and Archives Canada, Trueman, C-0104106.]

First Nations people were unwilling to surrender their Aboriginal identity in this manner. Until 1920, other than women who involuntarily lost their Indian status upon marriage to a non-status individual, only 250 ‘Indians’ voluntarily gave up their status.104 In 1920, the federal government amended the Indian Act to give it the power to strip individuals of their status against their will. In explaining the purpose of the amendment to a parliamentary committee, Indian Affairs Deputy Minister Duncan Campbell Scott said that “our object 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 that is the whole object of this Bill.”105 The other major element in the bill that Scott was referring to empowered the government to compel parents to send their children to residential schools. Residential schooling was always more than simply an educational program: it was an integral part of a conscious policy of cultural genocide.

Further evidence of this assault on Aboriginal identity can be found in amendments to the Indian Act banning a variety of Aboriginal cultural and spiritual practices. The two most prominent of these were the west-coast Potlatch and the Prairie Thirst Dance (often referred to as the “Sun Dance”).106 Residential school principals had been in the forefront of the campaign to ban these ceremonies, and also urged the government to enforce the bans once they were put in place.107

The Aboriginal right to self-government was also undermined. The Indian Act gave the federal government the authority to veto decisions made by band councils and to depose chiefs and councillors. The Act placed restrictions on First Nations farmers’ ability to sell their crops and take out loans. Over the years, the government also assumed greater authority as to how reserve land could be disposed of: in some cases, entire reserves were relocated against the will of the residents. The Indian Act was a piece of colonial legislation by which, in the name of ‘protection,’ one group of people ruled and controlled another.

The industrial school initiative

It was in keeping with this intent to assimilate Aboriginal peoples and, in the process, to eliminate its government-to-government relationship with First Nations that the federal government dramatically increased its involvement in residential schooling in the 1880s. In December 1878, J. S. Dennis, the deputy minister of the Department of the Interior, prepared a memorandum for Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald on the country’s Aboriginal policy. Dennis advised Macdonald that the long-term goal should be to instruct “our Indian and half-breed populations” in farming, raising cattle, and the mechanical trades, rendering them self-sufficient. This would pave the way “for their emancipation from tribal government, and for their final absorption into the general community.” Dennis argued that residential schools were key to fulfilling these goals. It was his opinion that in a short time, schools might become “self-sustaining institutions.”108

In the following year, Nicholas Davin, a failed Conservative candidate, carried out a brief study of the boarding schools that the United States government had established for Native Americans. He recommended that Canada establish a series of such schools on the Prairies. Davin acknowledged that a central element of the education provided at these schools would be directed towards the destruction of Aboriginal spirituality. Since all civilizations were based on religion, it would be inexcusable, he thought, to do away with Aboriginal faith “without supplying a better [one].” For this reason, he recommended that while the government should fund the schools, the churches should operate them.109

[IMAGE: The Qu’Appelle school at Lebret in what is now Saskatchewan opened in 1884. O.B. Buell, Library and Archives Canada, PA-182246.]

The decision to continue to rely on the churches to administer the schools on a dayto-day basis had serious consequences. The government constantly struggled, and failed, to assert control over the churches’ drive to increase the number of schools they operated. At various times, each denomination involved in school operation established boarding schools without government support or approval, and then lobbied later for per capita funding. When the churches concluded, quite legitimately, that the per capita grant they received was too low, they sought other types of increases in school funding. Building on their network of missions in the Northwest, the Catholics quickly came to dominate the field, usually operating twice as many schools as did the Protestant denominations. Among the Protestant churches, the Anglicans were predominant, establishing and maintaining more residential schools than the Methodists or the Presbyterians. The United Church, created by a union of Methodist and Presbyterian congregations, took over most of the Methodist and Presbyterian schools in the mid-1920s. Presbyterian congregations that did not participate in the union established the Presbyterian Church in Canada and retained responsibility for two residential schools. In addition to these national denominations, a local Baptist mission ran a residence for Aboriginal students in Whitehorse in the 1940s and 1950s, and a Mennonite ministry operated three schools in northwestern Ontario in the 1970s and 1980s. Each faith, in its turn, claimed government discrimination against it. Competition for converts meant that churches sought to establish schools in the same locations as their rivals, leading to internal divisions within communities and expensive duplication of services.

The model for these residential schools for Aboriginal children, both in Canada and the United States, did not come from the private boarding schools to which members of the economic elites in Britain and Canada sent their children. Instead, the model came from the reformatories and industrial schools that were being constructed in Europe and North America for the children of the urban poor. The British parliament adopted the Reformatory Schools Act in 1854 and the Industrial Schools Act in 1857.110 By 1882, over 17,000 children were in Britain’s industrial schools.111 Under Ontario’s 1880 Act for the Protection and Reformation of Neglected Children, a judge could send children under the age of fourteen to an industrial school, where they might be required to stay until they turned eighteen.112 Such schools could be dangerous and violent places. At the Halifax Boys Industrial School, first offenders were strapped, and repeat offenders were placed in cells on a bread-and-water ration. From there, they might be sent to the penitentiary.113 The Canadian government also drew inspiration from the United States. There, the first in a series of large-scale, government-operated, boarding schools for Native Americans opened in 1879 in a former army barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.114

On the basis of Davin’s report and developments in the United States, the federal government decided to open three industrial schools. The first one opened in Battleford in what is now Saskatchewan in 1883. It was placed under the administration of an Anglican minister. The following year, two more industrial schools opened: one at Qu’Appelle in what is now Saskatchewan, and one at High River in what is now Alberta. Both these schools were administered by principals nominated by the Roman Catholic Oblate order. The federal government not only built these schools, but it also assumed all the costs of operating them. Recruiting students for these schools was difficult. According to the Indian Affairs annual report, in 1884, there were only twenty-seven students at the three schools.115

Unlike the church-run boarding schools, which provided a limited education with a heavy emphasis on religious instruction, the industrial schools were intended to prepare First Nations people for integration into Canadian society by teaching them basic trades, particularly farming. Generally, industrial schools were larger than boarding schools, were located in urban areas, and, although church-managed, usually required federal approval prior to construction. The boarding schools were smaller institutions, were located on or near reserves, and provided a more limited education. The differences between the industrial schools and the boarding schools eroded over time. By the 1920s, the federal government ceased to make any distinction between them, referring to them simply as “residential schools.” In justifying the investment in industrial schools to Parliament in 1883, Public Works Minister Hector Langevin argued that

if you wish to educate these children you must separate them from their parents during the time that they are being educated. If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they still remain savages, whereas by separating them in the way proposed, they acquire the habits and tastes—it is to be hoped only the good tastes—of civilized people.116

The federal government entered into residential schooling at a time when it was colonizing Aboriginal lands in western Canada. It recognized that, through the Treaties, it had made commitments to provide Aboriginal people with relief in periods of economic distress. It also feared that as traditional Aboriginal economic pursuits were marginalized or eliminated by settlers, the government might be called upon to provide increased relief. In this context, the federal government chose to invest in residential schooling for a number of reasons. First, it would provide Aboriginal people with skills that would allow them to participate in the coming market-based economy. Second, it would further their political assimilation. It was hoped that students who were educated in residential schools would give up their status and not return to their reserve communities and families. Third, the schools were seen as engines of cultural and spiritual change: ‘savages’ were to emerge as Christian ‘white men.’ There was also a national security element to the schools. Indian Affairs official Andsell Macrae observed that “it is unlikely that any Tribe or Tribes would give trouble of a serious nature to the Government whose members had children completely under Government control.”117 Duncan Campbell Scott succinctly summarized Indian Affairs’ goals for the schools in 1909: “It includes not only a scholastic education, but instruction in the means of gaining a livelihood from the soil or as a member of an industrial or mercantile community, and the substitution of Christian ideals of conduct and morals for aboriginal concepts of both.”118 The achievement of such invasive and ambitious goals would require a substantial level of funding. This was never forthcoming.

Funding: The dream of self-supporting schools

In announcing the construction of the three initial industrial schools, Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney said that although the starting costs would be high, he could see no reason why the schools would not be largely self-supporting in a few years, due to the skills in farming, raising stock, and trades that were being taught to the students.119 In supporting an Anglican proposal for two industrial schools in Manitoba, Indian Affairs Deputy Minister Lawrence Vankoughnet wrote to Prime Minister Macdonald that it would be “well to give a Grant of money annually to each school established by any Denomination for the industrial training of Indian children.” He said that system worked well in Ontario, and it “costs the Government less than the whole maintenance of the School would cost and it enlists the sympathies and assistance of the religious denominations in the education and industrial training of the Indian children.”120

The government believed that between the forced labour of students and the poorly paid labour of missionaries, it could operate a residential school system on a nearly cost-free basis. The missionaries and the students were indeed a source of cheap labour—but the government was never happy with the quality of the teaching and, no matter how hard students worked, their labour never made the schools self-supporting. Soon after the government established the industrial schools, it began to cut salaries.121 Initially, the federal government covered all the costs of operating the industrial schools. In 1891, this policy was abandoned in favour of one by which schools received a fixed amount per student (referred to as a “per capita grant”).122 The system both intensified the level of competition among churches for students and encouraged principals to accept students who should have been barred from admission because they were too young or too sick.123

The government never adequately responded to the belated discovery that the type of residential school system that officials had envisioned would cost far more than politicians were prepared to fund. In the early twentieth century, chronic underfunding led to a health crisis in the schools and a financial crisis for the missionary societies. Indian Affairs, with the support of leading figures in the Protestant churches, sought to dramatically reduce the number of residential schools, replacing them with day schools. The government abandoned the plan when it failed to receive the full support of all the churches involved in the operation of the schools.124 Instead, in 1911, the federal government finally implemented a significant increase to the per capita grant received by boarding schools and attempted to impose basic health standards for the schools. This resulted in a short-term improvement. However, inflation eroded the value of the grant increase, and the grant was actually reduced repeatedly during the Great Depression and at the start of the Second World War.125

Funding for residential schools was always lower than funding for comparable institutions in Canada and the United States that served the general population. In 1937, Indian Affairs was paying, on average, $180 a year per student. This was less than a third of the per capita costs at that time for the Manitoba School for the Deaf ($642.40) and the Manitoba School for Boys ($550). In the United States, the annual per capita cost at the Chilocco Indian Residential School in Oklahoma in 1937 was $350. According to the American Child Welfare League, the per capita costs for wellrun institutions in that country ranged between $313 and $541.126 It would not be until the 1950s that changes were made in the funding system in Canada that were intended to ensure that the schools could recruit qualified teachers and improve the student diets.127 Even these improvements did not end the inequity in residential school funding. In 1966, residential schools in Saskatchewan were spending between $694 and $1,193 a year per student.128 Comparable child-welfare institutions in Canada were spending between $3,300 and $9,855 a year. In the United States, the annual cost of residential care per child was between $4,500 and $14,059.129

[IMAGE: Aboriginal family at the Elkhorn, Manitoba, school. Indian Affairs took the position that once parents enrolled their children in a residential school, only the government could determine when they would be discharged. General Synod Archives, Anglican Church of Canada, P75-103-S8-56.]

Compelling attendance

It was not until 1894 that the federal government put in place regulations relating to residential school attendance. Under the regulations adopted in that year, residential school attendance was voluntary. However, if an Indian agent or justice of the peace thought that any “Indian child between six and sixteen years of age is not being properly cared for or educated, and that the parent, guardian or other person having charge or control of such child, is unfit or unwilling to provide for the child’s education,” he could issue an order to place the child “in an industrial or boarding school, in which there may be a vacancy for such child.”

[IMAGE: The Roman Catholic school in Fort George, Quebec, opened in 1931. Deschâtelets Archives.]

If a child placed in the school under these regulations left a residential school without permission, or did not return at a promised time, school officials could get a warrant from an Indian agent or a justice of the peace authorizing them (or a police officer, truant officer, or employee of the school or Indian Affairs) to “search for and take such child back to the school in which it had been previously placed.” With a warrant, one could enter—by force if need be—any house, building, or place named in the warrant and remove the child. Even without a warrant, Indian Affairs employees and constables had the authority to arrest a student in the act of escaping from a residential school and return the child to the school.130

It was departmental policy that no child could be discharged without departmental approval—even if the parents had enrolled the child voluntarily. The government had no legislative basis for this policy. Instead, it relied on the admission form that parents were supposed to sign. (In some cases, school staff members signed these forms.)131 By 1892, the department required that all parents sign an admission form when they enrolled their children in a residential school. In signing the form, parents gave their consent that “the Principal or head teacher of the Institution for the time being shall be the guardian” of the child. In that year, the Department of Justice provided Indian Affairs with a legal opinion to the effect that “the fact of a parent having signed such an application is not sufficient to warrant the forcible arrest against the parents’ will of a truant child who has been admitted to an Industrial School pursuant to the application.” It was held that, without legislative authority, no form could provide school administrators with the power of arrest.132 Despite this warning, well into the twentieth century, Indian Affairs would continue to enforce policies regarding attendance for which it had no legal authority.133 This is not the only example of the government’s use of unauthorized measures. In the 1920s, students were to be discharged from residential school when they turned sixteen. Despite this, William Graham, the Indian commissioner, refused to authorize discharge until the students turned eighteen. He estimated that, on this basis, he rejected approximately 100 applications for discharge a year.134

In 1920, the Indian Act was amended to allow the government to compel any First Nations child to attend residential school. However, residential school was never compulsory for all First Nations children. In most years, there were more First Nations children attending Indian Affairs day schools than residential schools. During the early 1940s, this pattern was reversed. In the 1944–45 school year, there were 8,865 students in residential schools, and 7,573 students in Indian Affairs day schools. In that year, there were reportedly 28,429 school-aged Aboriginal children. This meant that 31.1% of the school-aged Aboriginal children were in residential school.135


The residential school system operated with few regulations; those that did exist were in large measure weakly enforced. The Canadian government never developed anything approaching the education acts and regulations by which provincial governments administered public schools. The key piece of legislation used in regulating the residential school system was the Indian Act. This was a multi-purpose piece of legislation that defined and limited First Nations life in Canada. The Act contained no education-related provisions until 1884. There were no residential school–specific regulations until 1894. These dealt almost solely with attendance and truancy.

It was recognized by those who worked within the system that the level of regulation was inadequate. In 1897, Indian Affairs education official Martin Benson wrote, “No regulations have been adopted or issued by the Department applicable to all its schools, as had been done by the Provincial Governments.”136 The situation did not improve over time. The education section of the 1951 Indian Act and the residential school regulations adopted in 1953 were each only four pages in length.137 By comparison, the Manitoba Public Schools Act of 1954 was ninety-one pages in length.138 In addition to the Act, the Manitoba government had adopted nineteen education-related regulations.139

It is also apparent that many key people within the system had little knowledge of the existing rules and regulations. In 1922, an Indian agent in Hagersville, Ontario, inquired of departmental headquarters if there had been any changes in the regulations regarding education since the adoption of a set of education regulations in 1908. His question suggests he was completely unaware of major changes to the Indian Act regarding education that had supplanted previous regulations in 1920.140 In 1926, J. K. Irwin, the newly appointed principal of the Gordon’s school in Saskatchewan, discovered upon taking office that he could not find any “laid down regulations as to the duties and powers of a Principal of an Indian Boarding School.” He wrote to Indian Affairs, asking for a copy of such regulations, since he wanted to know “exactly what I am to do and what powers I have.”141 Departmental secretary J. D. McLean informed him that “there are no printed regulations concerning the duties and powers of the principal of an Indian residential school.”142

The system was so unregulated that in 1968, after Canada had been funding residential schools for 101 years, Indian Affairs Deputy Minister J. A. MacDonald announced, “For the first time we have set down in a precise and detailed manner the criteria which is to be used in future in determining whether or not an Indian child is eligible for these institutions.”143

Expansion and decline

From the 1880s onwards, residential school enrolment climbed annually. According to federal government annual reports, the peak enrolment of 11,539 was reached in the 1956–57 school year.144 (For trends, see Graph 1.) Most of the residential schools were located in the northern and western regions of the country. With the exception of Mount Elgin and the Mohawk Institute, the Ontario schools were all in northern or northwestern Ontario. The only school in the Maritimes did not open until 1930.145 Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries opened the first two schools in Québec in the early 1930s.146 It was not until later in that decade that the federal government began funding these schools.147

The number of schools began to decline in the 1940s. Between 1940 and 1950, for example, ten school buildings were destroyed by fire.148 As Graph 2 illustrates, this decrease was reversed in the mid-1950s, when the federal department of Northern Affairs and National Resources dramatically expanded the school system in the Northwest Territories and northern Québec. Prior to that time, residential schooling in the North was largely restricted to the Yukon and the Mackenzie Valley in the Northwest Territories. Large residences were built in communities such as Inuvik, Yellowknife, Whitehorse, Churchill, and eventually Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay). This expansion was undertaken despite reports that recommended against the establishment of residential schools, since they would not provide children with the skills necessary to live in the North, skills they otherwise would have acquired in their home communities.149 The creation of the large hostels was accompanied by the opening of what were termed “small hostels” in the smaller and more remote communities of the eastern Arctic and the western Northwest Territories.

[Graph 1 Residential school enrolment, 1869–70 to 1965–66]

[Graph 2 Number of residential schools and residences, 1867–1998]

[IMAGE: Fleming Hall, the Anglican-run hostel opened by the federal government in Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, as part of its expansion of residential schools in northern Canada in the late 1950s and early 1960s. General Synod Archives, Anglican Church of Canada, P8454-66.]

Policy towards Métis and Inuit students

Many of the early advocates of residential schooling in Canada expected that the schools would take in both Aboriginal children who had status under the Indian Act (in other words, they were Indians as defined by the Act) as well as Aboriginal children who, for a variety of reasons, did not have status. The federal government classed these individuals alternately as “non-status Indians,” “half-breeds,” or “Métis.”150

[IMAGE: Métis children at the Dawson City, Yukon, residence. General Synod Archives, Anglican Church of Canada, P75-103-S8-264.]

The early church-run boarding schools made no distinction between status and non-status or Métis children.151 The federal government position on the matter was constantly shifting. It viewed the Métis as members of the ‘dangerous classes’ whom the residential schools were intended to civilize and assimilate.152 This view led to the adoption of policies that allowed for the admission of Métis children to the schools at various times.153 However, from a jurisdictional perspective, the federal government believed that the responsibility for educating and assimilating Métis people lay with provincial and territorial governments. There was a strong concern that if the federal government began providing funding for the education of some of the children the provinces and territories were responsible for, it would find itself subject to having to take responsibility for the rest.154 When this view dominated, Indian agents would be instructed to remove Métis students from residential schools.155

Despite their perceived constitutional responsibility, provincial and territorial governments were reluctant to provide services to Métis people. They did not ensure that there were schools in Métis communities, or work to see that Métis children were admitted and welcomed into the general public school system.156 Many Métis parents who wished to see their children educated in schools had no option but to try to have them accepted into a residential school. In some cases, these would be federally funded schools, but, in other cases, Métis students attended church-run schools or residences that did not receive federal funding.157

Provincial governments slowly began to provide increased educational services to Métis students after the Second World War. As a result, Métis children lived in residences and residential schools that were either run or funded by provincial governments. The Métis experience is an important reminder that the impacts of residential schooling extend beyond the formal residential school program that Indian Affairs operated.158

[IMAGE: Inuit children were recruited to a school in Shingle Point in the Yukon in the 1920s. General Synod Archives, Anglican Church of Canada, P9901-589.]

Prior to the 1950s, most of the students who attended schools in the Northwest Territories were either First Nations or Métis. As late as 1949, only 111 Inuit students were receiving full-time schooling in the North.159 The hostel system that Northern Affairs established in the Northwest Territories in the mid-1950s did not restrict admission to First Nations students. It was only at this point that large numbers of Inuit children began attending residential schools. The impact of the schools on the Inuit was complex. Some children were sent to schools thousands of kilometres from their homes, and went years without seeing their parents. In other cases, parents who had previously been supporting themselves by following a seasonal cycle of land- and marine-based resource harvesting began settling in communities with hostels so as not to be separated from their children.

Because of the majority of the Aboriginal population in two of the three northern territories, the per capita impact of the schools in the North is higher than anywhere else in the country. And, because the history of these schools is so recent, not only are there many living Survivors today, but there are also many living parents of Survivors. For these reasons, both the intergenerational impacts and the legacy of the schools, the good and the bad, are particularly strongly felt in the North.

The integration policy

By 1945, the Indian Affairs residential school system, starved for funding for fifteen years, was on the verge of collapse.160 Not only was the existing Indian Affairs education system lacking money and resources, but also there were no school facilities of any sort for 42% of the school-aged First Nations children.161 Having concluded that it was far too expensive to provide residential schooling to these students, Indian Affairs began to look for alternatives. One was to expand the number of Indian Affairs day schools. From 1945–46 to 1954–55, the number of First Nations students in Indian Affairs day schools increased from 9,532 to 17,947.162 In 1949, the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons Appointed to Examine and Consider The Indian Act recommended “that wherever and whenever possible Indian children should be educated in association with other children.”163 In 1951, the Indian Act was amended to allow the federal government to enter into agreements with provincial governments and school boards to have First Nations students educated in public schools.164 By 1960, the number of students attending “non-Indian” schools (9,479) had surpassed the number living in residential schools (9,471).165 The transfer of First Nations students into the public school system was described as “integration.” By then, the overall policy goal was to restrict the education being given in Indian Affairs schools to the lower grades. Therefore, it was expected that during the course of their schooling, at least half of the students then in Indian Affairs schools would transfer to a ‘non-Indian’ school.166

The integration policy was opposed by some of the church organizations. Roman Catholic church officials argued that residential schooling was preferable for three reasons: 1) teachers in public schools were not prepared to deal with Aboriginal students; 2) students in public schools often expressed racist attitudes towards Aboriginal students; and 3) Aboriginal students felt acute embarrassment over their impoverished conditions, particularly in terms of the quality of the clothing they wore and the food they ate.167 These were all issues that students and parents raised, as well.168

Child-welfare facilities

From the 1940s onwards, residential schools increasingly served as orphanages and child-welfare facilities. By 1960, the federal government estimated that 50% of the children in residential schools were there for child-welfare reasons. What has come to be referred to as the “Sixties Scoop”—the dramatic increase in the apprehension of Aboriginal children from the 1960s onwards—was in some measure simply a transferring of children from one form of institution, the residential school, to another, the child-welfare agency.169 The schools were not funded or staffed to function as child-welfare institutions. They failed to provide their students with the appropriate level of personal and emotional care children need during their childhood and adolescence. This failure applied to all students, but was of particular significance in the case of the growing number of social-welfare placements in the schools.170 Some children had to stay in the schools year-round because it was thought there was no safe home to which they could return. The residential school environment was not a safer or more loving haven. These children spent their entire childhoods in an institution.

The closure of residential schools, which commenced in earnest in 1970, was accompanied by a significant increase in the number of children being taken into care by child-welfare agencies.171 By the end of the 1970s, the transfer of children from residential schools was nearly complete in southern Canada, and the impact of the Sixties Scoop was in evidence across the country. In 1977, Aboriginal children accounted for 44% of the children in care in Alberta, 51% of the children in care in Saskatchewan, and 60% of the children in care in Manitoba.172 In those residences that remained in operation, the percentage of social-welfare cases remained high.173

The road to closure, 1969

In 1968, the federal government drastically restructured the residential school system by dividing the schools into residences and day schools, each with a principal or administrator.174 In June of the following year, the federal government took direct control over all the schools in southern Canada.175 Because churches were allowed to continue to appoint the residence administrators, their presence continued in many schools in the coming years. They were, however, no longer directly responsible for the facilities.176 In 1969, the federal government also began to transfer the hostels and day schools in the Yukon and Northwest Territories to their respective territorial governments. Most of the small hostels in the eastern Arctic and Nunavik (Arctic Québec) were closed by the end of 1971. (Four small hostels were also operated in the western and central Arctic. The last of these, located at Cambridge Bay, did not close until the late 1990s.)177

Having assumed control over the southern Canadian schools in 1969, the federal government commenced what would prove to be a protracted process of closing the system down. According to the Indian Affairs annual report for 1968–69, the department was responsible for sixty residences. Two years later, the number was down to forty-five.178 The government takeover of the residential schools also coincided with the release of the federal government’s White Paper on “Indian Policy.” This document proposed a massive transfer of responsibility for First Nations people from the federal to provincial governments.179 It called for the repeal of the Indian Act, the winding up of the Department of Indian Affairs, and the eventual extinguishment of the Treaties.180 The recently formed National Indian Brotherhood (nib) described the White Paper as a document intended to bring about “the destruction of a Nation of People by legislation and cultural genocide.”181 In its response, the nib proposed “Indian Control of Indian Education.”182 In 1971, Indian Affairs Minister Jean Chrétien announced that, in the face of First Nations resistance, the federal government was abandoning the policy directions outlined in the White Paper.183

By then, First Nations communities had already taken over one residential school. In the summer of 1970, parents of children at the Blue Quills, Alberta, school occupied the school, demanding that its operation be turned over to a First Nations education authority. They took this measure in response to reports that the school was to be turned into a residence and their children were to be educated at a nearby public school. The Blue Quills conflict was the result of both long-standing local dissatisfaction with the administration of the school and First Nations opposition to the policy of integration.184 It was estimated that over 1,000 people participated in the sit-in, with rarely fewer than 200 people being at the school on any given day.185 Seventeen days after the sit-in commenced, Minister Jean Chrétien announced that the school would be transferred to the Blue Quills Native Education Council.186 In coming years, the Qu’Appelle, Prince Albert, Duck Lake, Lestock, and Grayson facilities in Saskatchewan were also taken over by First Nations authorities. The Christie residence in Tofino, British Columbia, was also operated briefly by an Aboriginal authority.187

The federal government, however, remained committed to the closing of the facilities. Because of the government’s lengthy history of underfunding residential schools, many of the schools were in poor repair. Between 1995 and 1998, the last seven residences in southern Canada were closed.188

Starting in the 1970s, territorial governments, in which former residential school students were serving as cabinet ministers, also began expanding the number of day schools as part of a campaign to close residential schools in the North. The last large hostel in the Yukon closed in 1985.189 By 1986, there were only three large hostels operating in the Northwest Territories.190 Grollier Hall, the last large hostel in the North, closed in 1997.191 If one dates the residential school system back to the early 1830s, when the Mohawk Institute first took in boarders, the system had been in operation for over 160 years. The closing of the schools did not mark the end of the history of residential schooling in Canada. By the 1990s, former students had begun to make Canadians aware of the tremendous harm that the residential school experience had caused to Aboriginal people and Aboriginal communities.

[IMAGE: The classroom in the Moose Factory, Ontario, school. General Synod Archives, Anglican Church of Canada, P7538-970.]

The school experience

Education: “The children’s work was merely memory work.”

As educational institutions, the residential schools were failures, and regularly judged as such. In 1923, former Regina industrial school principal R. B. Heron delivered a paper to a meeting of the Regina Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church that was highly critical of the residential school system. He said that parents generally were anxious to have their children educated, but they complained that their children “are not kept regularly in the class-room; that they are kept out at work that produces revenue for the School; that when they return to the Reserves they have not enough education to enable them to transact ordinary business—scarcely enough to enable them to write a legible letter.”192 The schools’ success rate did not improve. From 1940–41 to 1959–60, 41.3% of each year’s residential school Grade One enrolment was not promoted to Grade Two.193 Just over half of those who were in Grade Two would get to Grade Six.194

[IMAGE: Members of the Croissés, a religious society for youth at the Fort Frances, Ontario, school. St. Boniface Historical Society Archives, Fond of the Grey Nuns of Manitoba, 03/31/1.]

Many principals and teachers had low expectations of their students. Wikwemikong, Ontario, principal R. Baudin wrote in 1883, “What we may reasonably expect from the generality of children, is certainly not to make great scholars of them. Good and moral as they may be, they lack great mental capacity.” He did not think it wise to expect them to “be equal in every respect to their white brethren.”195 In preparing a 1928 report on the Anglican school at Onion Lake, a Saskatchewan government school inspector expressed his belief that “in arithmetic abstract ideas develop slowly in the Indian child.”196 Some thought it was a risky matter to give the students too much education. Mount Elgin principal S. R. McVitty wrote in 1928 that “classroom work is an important part of our training, but not by any means the most important.” He added, “In the case of the Indian ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing.’”197

Much of what went on in the classroom was simply repetitious drill. A 1915 report on the Roman Catholic school on the Blood Reserve in Alberta noted, “The children’s work was merely memory work and did not appear to be developing any deductive power, altogether too parrot like and lacking expression.”198 A 1932 inspector’s report from the Grayson, Saskatchewan, school suggests there had been little change. “The teaching as I saw it today was merely a question of memorizing and repeating a mass of, to the children, ‘meaningless’ facts.”199

The classrooms were often severely overcrowded. At the Qu’Appelle school in 1911, Sister McGurk had seventy-five girls in her junior classroom. The inspector of Roman Catholic schools reported to Ottawa that this was an “almost impossible” situation.200 In 1915, two teachers were responsible for 120 students at the Coqualeetza Institute in Chilliwack, British Columbia.201 In 1928, there were sixty students in the junior classroom at the Alberni, British Columbia, school.202

The Indian Affairs schools branch maintained that the principals and the staff were “appointed by the church authorities, subject to the approval of the Department as to qualifications.”203 In reality, the churches hired staff and the government then automatically approved their selections.204 The churches placed a greater priority on religious commitment than on teaching ability.205 Because the pay was so low, many of the teachers lacked any qualification to teach.206 In 1908, Indian Affairs inspector F. H. Paget reported that at the Battleford school, “frequent changes in the staff at this school has not been to its advantage.” The problem lay not with the principal, but with the fact that “more profitable employment is available in the District and, furthermore, the salaries paid are not as high as are paid in other public institutions.”207 When a British Columbia Indian agent recommended that schools be required to hire only qualified staff, he was told by his superior, British Columbia Indian Superintendent A. W. Vowell, that such a requirement would result in the churches’ applying for “larger grants.” And, as Vowell understood it, Indian Affairs “is not at present disposed to entertain requests for increased grants to Indian boarding and industrial schools.”208 In 1955, 55 (23%) of the 241 teachers in residential schools directly employed by Indian Affairs had no teacher’s certificate.209 In 1969, Indian Affairs reported it was still paying its teachers less than they could make in provincial schools. “As a result, there are about the same number of unqualified teachers, some 140, in federal schools [residential and non-residential] now, as ten years ago.”210

In the minds of some principals, religious training was the most valuable training the schools provided. In 1903, Brandon, Manitoba, principal T. Ferrier wrote that “while it is very important that the Indian child should be educated, it is of more importance that he should build up a good clean character.” Such a heavy emphasis was required, in Ferrier’s opinion, to “counteract the evil tendencies of the Indian nature.”211 Louise Moine recalled that religious instruction and observation were a constant part of life at the Qu’Appelle school in the early twentieth century: “From the time we got out of bed at the sound of the bell, we went down on our knees to pray. After we had washed and dressed, we headed for the chapel to attend Low mass which was always held at 7 a.m.”212 The staff handbook for the Presbyterian school in Kenora in the 1940s stated it was expected that, upon leaving the school, most students would “return to the Indian Reserves from which they had come.” Given this future, staff members were told that “the best preparation we can give them is to teach them the Christian way of life.”213

Not surprisingly, many of those who succeeded academically followed careers in the church. Coqualeetza graduate Peter Kelly became a Methodist Church minister. Emmanuel College graduate Edward Ahenakew became an Anglican minister. Others worked for government or taught school. Qu’Appelle graduate Daniel Kennedy became an interpreter and general assistant for the Assiniboine Indian Agency. Joseph Dion, a graduate of the Onion Lake school, taught school for many years in Saskatchewan. Still others pursued business and professional careers. After attending the Mohawk Institute, Beverly Johnson went to Hellmuth College in London, Ontario, where he excelled at sports and drama. He then went to work for the New York Life Insurance Company in Pennsylvania. A graduate of the Mohawk Institute, N. E. Lickers, was called to the bar in 1938 and was described by the Branford Expositor as the “First Ontario Indian Lawyer.” 214

Despite these successes, little encouragement generally was offered to students who wished to pursue further education. Oliver Martin, who was raised on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario and went on to become an Ontario magistrate, recalled being told by Indian Affairs Deputy Minister Duncan Campbell Scott: “It’s no use sending you Indians to school you just go back to the reserve anyway.”215

For many students, classroom life was foreign and traumatic. David Charleson said he found the regimentation at the Christie, British Columbia, school so disturbing that he “never wanted to learn, so I jumped into my shell. I took Kindergarten twice because of what happened to me. I didn’t want to learn.”216 At the Birtle school in Manitoba, Isabelle Whitford said, she had a hard time adjusting to the new language and the classroom discipline. “Every time I couldn’t get an answer, like, you know, she would pull my ears and shake my head.”217 Betsy Olson described class work at the Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, school as a torment, in which her “spelling was always 30, 40, it was way down. And when we did spelling, sometimes I freeze, I couldn’t move, I just scribbled because I couldn’t move my hand.”218 Leona Agawa never felt comfortable in the classroom at the Spanish, Ontario, school. For much of her time in school, she was frightened or intimidated. “I’d hear my name, but I never got to answer. I stood up, never got to answer what they were saying when they sat me down. And I’d get a good slap after, after you, you leave there for not being nice in school.”219

Since the 1920s, Indian Affairs had required residential schools to adopt provincial curricula.220 The department had also asked provincial governments to have their school inspectors inspect Indian Affairs schools.221 The wisdom of this practice had been questioned during the hearings of the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons inquiry into the Indian Act in the 1940s. Andrew Moore, a secondary school inspector for the Province of Manitoba, told the committee members that Indian Affairs took full responsibility for all aspects of First Nations education, including curriculum.222 Provincial education departments, including the one he worked for, were “not organized or not interested in Indian schools.”223

[IMAGE: Grandin College in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, developed a positive reputation as a “leadership factory” for the North. Deschâtelets Archives.]

In 1963, D. W. Hepburn, the former principal of the federal school in Inuvik, published an article with the ominous headline “Northern Education: Façade for Failure.” He argued that the education being provided in the new federal schools was “hopelessly inadequate. The reasons for this failure are clear: the aims of education set forth by the Department are thoroughly confused, the curriculum is inappropriate, and many current practices of the system are not only ill-conceived but actually harmful.”224 Although 60% of the students at the Inuvik school were in the first three grades, few teachers had any background in primary education, and “almost none has any special training in native education, and will receive none from the Department.”225 The schools were producing individuals who “lack not only the skills required for most permanent wage employment but also those necessary for the traditional economy.”226

The decision to leave curriculum to provincial education departments meant that Aboriginal students were subjected to an education that demeaned their history, ignored their current situation, and did not even recognize them or their families as citizens. This was one of the reasons for the growing Aboriginal hostility to the Indian Affairs integration policy. An examination of the treatment of Aboriginal people in provincially approved textbooks reveals a serious and deep-rooted problem. In response to a 1956 recommendation that textbooks be developed that were relevant to Aboriginal students, Indian Affairs official R. F. Davey commented, “The preparation of school texts is an extremely difficult matter.” It was his opinion that “there are other needs which can be met more easily and should be undertaken first.”227 In the following years, assessments of public-school textbooks showed that they continued to perpetuate racist stereotypes of Aboriginal people.228 A 1968 survey pointed out that in some books, the word squaw was being used to describe Aboriginal women, and the word redskins used to describe Aboriginal people.229

Students also noted that the curriculum belittled their ancestry. Mary Courchene said, “Their only mandate was to Christianize and civilize; and it’s written in black and white. And every single day we were reminded.”230 Lorna Cochrane could never forget an illustration in a social studies text. “There was a picture of two Jesuits laying in the snow, they were murdered by these two ‘savages.’ And they had this what we call ‘a blood-curdling look’ on their faces is how I remember that picture.”231 When the curriculum was not racist, it was bewildering and alienating. Many students could not identify with the content of the classroom materials. For instance, Lillian Elias remembers that “when I looked at Dick and Jane I thought Dick and Jane were in heaven when I saw all the green grass. That’s how much I knew about Dick and Jane.”232

Some students said that the limits of the education they had received in residential school became apparent when they were integrated into the public school system.233 Many said there was no expectation that they would succeed. Walter Jones never forgot the answer that a fellow student at the Alberni, British Columbia, school was given when he asked if he would be able to go to Grade Twelve. “That supervisor said, ‘You don’t need to go that far,’ he says. He says, ‘Your people are never going to get education to be a professional worker, and it doesn’t matter what lawyer, or doctor, or electrician, or anything, that a person has to go to school for.’”234

Some northern schools developed reputations for academic success. Grandin College in Fort Smith was established originally to recruit young people for the Catholic ministry. A new principal, Jean Pochat, decided to focus on providing young men and women with leadership training.235 The school became known as a “leadership factory,” producing numerous future government leaders for the North.236 Students who attended the Churchill Vocational Centre spoke about how they were taught by open-minded teachers who were willing to expose them to the social and political changes taking place across the world in the 1960s.237 John Amagoalik wrote that at the Churchill Vocational Centre, “we had excellent teachers. To this day we still talk about them…. They treated us as ordinary people. We had never experienced this sort of attitude before and it was, in a way, liberating to be with new teachers that treated you as their equal.”238 David Simailak spoke of how his time at residential school gave him a series of new opportunities. He fondly remembers excelling at math and spelling competitions, and travelling to Montreal for Expo ’67.239

Specific teachers were remembered with gratitude. When Roddy Soosay lived in residence, he attended a local public school. He credited his high school principal at the Ponoka, Alberta, public school for pushing him to succeed.240 Martha Loon said that at the Poplar Hill, Ontario, school in the 1980s, there were staff members who befriended and helped her and her siblings. There was one staff member to whom she could tell all her problems. “I could say anything to her, and we’d go for walks sometimes. So, I could tell her anything and she wouldn’t, she wouldn’t say anything to other staff members about it. So, in a way, that’s, you know, gave me a chance to express my frustrations, and the things that I didn’t like.”241

[IMAGE: Carpenter’s shop in the Battleford school, 1894. Saskatchewan Archives Board, R-B7.]

Other students were able to concentrate on their studies. Frederick Ernest Koe said that at Stringer Hall in Inuvik, he devoted all his energies to his school work. “You kind of develop a protective mechanism on the shell that you didn’t rat on anybody, you kind of behave, you followed orders and things would go smooth.”242 Madeleine Dion Stout succeeded academically at the Blue Quills school, but she did not credit the school for her success. “It’s not residential school that made me a good student. My, the fundamental values and good example I had before I went to residential school by my grandfather and my parents, and all the old people on the reserve where I grew up are the ones who made me a good student.”243

Work: “No idleness here.”

Student education was further undermined by the amount of work the students had to do to support the schools. Because Indian Affairs officials had anticipated that the residential schools would be self-sufficient, students were expected to raise or grow and prepare most of the food they ate, to make and repair much of their clothing, and to maintain the schools. As a result, most of the residential schools operated on what was referred to as the “half-day system.” Under this system—which amounted to institutionalized child labour—students were in class for half the day and in what was supposed to be vocational training for the other half. Often, as many students, teachers, and inspectors observed, the time allocated for vocational training was actually spent in highly repetitive labour that provided little in the way of training. Rather, it served to maintain the school operations.

[IMAGE: Mount Elgin, Ontario, laundry room. Clothes wringers, such as the one shown here, were a source of injury at a number of residential schools. The United Church of Canada Archives, 90.162P1173.]

The half-day system was not a formally mandated system. Some schools did not use it, and those that did use it implemented it on their own terms. When, in 1922, Indian Affairs education official Russell Ferrier recommended that the Chapleau, Ontario, school implement the half-day system, he had to rely on his memory of visits to other schools in order to describe how the system operated. Indian Affairs had no official written description of the system.244 This is telling evidence of the haphazard way in which residential schools were managed.

While the half-day system was supposed to apply only to the older students, the reality was that every student worked. Above and beyond the half-day that students spent in vocational training, it was not uncommon for them to perform daily chores both before and after school. As a result, students often spent more than half a day working for the school. At High River, Alberta, in the 1880s, students who were not learning a trade were expected to put in two hours a day of chores in the winter and four hours in the summer. According to Principal E. Claude, “To these youngest ones pertained the weeding of the garden and the house work on their side of the school, and I must say, that this summer none denied our watchword, ‘No idleness here,’ as all work was exclusively done by the pupils.”245

From the time the schools were opened, parents and inspectors raised concerns about just how much work students were being required to do. Inspector T. P. Wadsworth claimed in 1884 that the boys at the Battleford school generally enjoyed their chores, but added that he would protest “against forcing these little fellows to haul water every day and all day from the river in winter, as was the case last year.”246 In 1886, Qu’Appelle school principal Joseph Hugonnard wrote, “During the summer they have more manual labor and recreation. The parents cannot understand that the pupils are here to learn how to work as well as to read and write, we therefore cannot at present devote too much time to the former.”247 Inspector Wadsworth returned to the issue of overwork in 1893, when he said that much of the farm work at the Middlechurch, Manitoba, school was too much for the boys. The girls were also set to work in the laundry at a “tender age.”248 Gilbert Wuttunee, who attended the Battleford school in the first decade of the twentieth century, recalled, “They didn’t do any farm work or any kind of work until you got to, at that time, standard three, whether you were nine years old or fifteen years old.” After he turned nine, he “never saw another full day of school until I left.” By then, the school had drastically reduced the number of trades it taught: “There was just blacksmithing, carpentering and farming.”249 According to Lillian Elias, each fall, a barge would arrive in Aklavik, loaded with logs for the school furnace. The students would form a long chain leading from the barge to the furnace room and, with the assistance of the school staff, unload the barge.250

The work was inadequately supervised and often dangerous. There are accounts of students’ getting hands caught in power equipment in the school laundries, the kitchens, workshops, and fields.251 Principals tended to place the blame on student carelessness and neglected to report such injuries to the government. Several injuries were recorded only after the student’s parents complained or the government received a bill for the hospital treatment of a student.252 In December 1935, a mangle (a type of clothes wringer) at the Qu’Appelle school crushed several fingers on Florence McLeod’s right hand, which were amputated. The school principal, G. Leonard, stressed that “this mangle has been in use at this school for several years and all the girls are familiar with its operation.” Indian Affairs secretary A. F. MacKenzie concluded that “all the necessary precautions were taken, and, while the accident to Florence McLeod is regretted, it was through no fault of the school management.”253 The school’s failure to protect its students can be seen in the fact that McLeod’s father, Henry, had been injured in a similar fashion when he was a student at the same school.254 In 1941, a twelve-year-old boy lost all the fingers on one hand in an accident in the Brandon, Manitoba, school barn.255 Eight years later, fifteen-year-old Rodney Beardy died in a tractor accident at the same school.256 A student at the Edmonton school lost a foot in 1944 after an accident during the operation of a machine used in the preparation of fodder.257 Two boys from the Birtle, Manitoba, school were injured in a truck accident in 1942. From Indian Affairs correspondence, it appears that the accident involved a truck carrying seventy boys who were being taken from the school to the fields to do farm work. Indian Affairs official R. A. Hoey criticized the principal for allowing the practice to take place, noting that “it is almost unbelievable that the principal should permit 70 pupils to be conveyed in a truck.”258

Even though the half-day system was supposedly eliminated in the early 1950s, students continued to be overworked.259 After Sam Ross ran away from the Birtle school in 1959, he told Indian Affairs official J. R. Bell that he wanted to continue his education, but had been forced to work “too hard” at the school. He said that from September to Christmas of the previous year, he had worked in the school barn every day between “6:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. and from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. again at recess, from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. and had had to stoke up the furnace with coal at 10:00 o’clock before retiring.” Ross said that “he liked school but not working like a hired hand.” Bell recommended that the amount of student labour being done at the Birtle school be investigated.260

Language and culture: “The Indian language is indeed seldom heard in the institution.”

The government’s hostile approach to Aboriginal languages was reiterated in numerous policy directives. In 1883, Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney instructed Battleford school principal Thomas Clarke that great attention was to be given “towards imparting a knowledge of the art of reading, writing and speaking the English language rather than that of Cree.”261 In 1889, Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs Lawrence Vankoughnet informed Bishop Paul Durieu that in the new Cranbrook, British Columbia, school, mealtime conversations were to be “conducted exclusively in the English language.” The principal was also to set a fixed time during which Aboriginal languages could be spoken.262 In 1890, Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed proposed, “At the most the native language is only to be used as a vehicle of teaching and should be discontinued as such as soon as practicable.” English was to be the primary language of instruction, “even where French is taught.”263 The Indian Affairs “Programme of Studies for Indian Schools” of 1893 advised, “Every effort must be made to induce pupils to speak English, and to teach them to understand it; unless they do the whole work of the teacher is likely to be wasted.”264

[IMAGE: Inuit students at the Joseph Bernier School, Chesterfield Inlet, 1956. Diocese of Churchill-Hudson Bay.]

Principals regularly reported on their success in suppressing Aboriginal languages. In 1887, Principal E. Claude boasted that his thirty students at the High River school “all understand English passably well and few are unable to express themselves in English. They talk English in recreation. I scarcely need any coercive means to oblige them to do so.”265 In 1898, the Kamloops principal reported that “English is the only language used at all times by the pupils.”266 That same year, the Mission, British Columbia, principal wrote, “English is the common language of the school, the Indian language is indeed seldom heard in the institution, except with the newly arrived pupils.”267 The 1898 report from the principal of the Anglican school at Onion Lake indicated that the school was one of the few exceptions. There, the children were taught to “read and write both Cree and English.”268 Inspectors viewed the continued use of Aboriginal languages by the students as a sign of failure. The principal of the Red Deer school was taken to task in 1903 by an inspector who felt that a “serious drawback to school work, as well as an evidence of bad discipline, was the use of the Cree language, which was quite prevalent.”269

This policy of language suppression continued well into the twentieth century. After a 1935 tour of Canada, Oblate Superior General Théodore Labouré expressed concern over the strict enforcement of prohibitions against speaking Aboriginal languages. In his opinion, “The forbidding of children to speak Indian, even during recreation, was so strict in some of our schools that any lapse would be severely punished—to the point that children were led to consider it a serious offense.”270

Students had strong memories of being punished for ‘speaking Indian.’ Mary Angus, who attended the Battleford school in the late nineteenth century, said that students caught speaking their own language were given a close haircut: “All the hair cut to be as a man, that what they do, for us not to talk. We were afraid of that, to have our hair cut.”271 At the Fraser Lake school in British Columbia, Mary John said she could speak her own language only in whispers.272 Melvina McNabb was seven years old when she was enrolled in the File Hills school, and “I couldn’t talk a word of English. I talked Cree and I was abused for that, hit, and made to try to talk English.”273 Raymond Hill, who was a student at the Mohawk Institute in Brantford in the early years of the twentieth century, said, “I lost my language. They threatened us with a strapping if we spoke it, and within a year I lost all of it. They said they thought we were talking about them.”274

Language use often continued in secret. Mary Englund recalled that while Aboriginal languages were banned at the Mission school in the early twentieth century, children would still speak it to one another.275 Clyde Peters said he stopped speaking his Aboriginal language at the Mount Elgin school after he found out the school punished students for doing so. “I never got the strap for it but I was warned enough that I didn’t do it.” Even after that, he and his friends would speak to each other when they thought no one else could hear them. “When we’d go up in the dormitories in the evening I had a friend from Sarnia who I could talk with.”276

Many of the students came to the school fluent in an Aboriginal language, with little or no understanding of French or English. This trend continued well into the post-war period. For these children, the first few months in the school were disorienting and frightening. Arthur McKay arrived at the Sandy Bay, Manitoba, school in the early 1940s with no knowledge of English. “They told me not to speak my language and everything, so I always pretended to be asleep at my desk so they wouldn’t ask me anything.”277 Peter Nakogee recalled being punished for writing in his notebook in Cree syllabics at the Fort Albany, Ontario, school.278

Meeka Alivaktuk came to the Pangnirtung school in what is now Nunavut with no knowledge of English. When she failed to obey an instruction because she did not understand it, she was slapped on the hands. “That’s how my education began.”279 On his first day of school in Pangnirtung, the teacher overheard Sam Kautainuk speaking to a friend in Inuktitut. “He took a ruler and grabbed my head like this and then smacked me in the mouth with the ruler four times.”280

At the Qu’Appelle school in the mid-1960s, Greg Rainville said, he was punished for failing to carry out instructions given to him in a language he did not understand. “The nuns would get frustrated with you when they talked to you in French or English, and you’re not knowing what they’re talking about, and you’re pulled around by the ear.”281 At the Shubenacadie school, a staff member once caught William Herney speaking Mi’kmaq with his brother. She strapped him and then washed his mouth out with soap.282 Alphonsine McNeely underwent the same punishment at the Roman Catholic school at Aklavik in the 1940s.283 Pierrette Benjamin said she was forced to eat soap at the La Tuque school. “The principal, she put it in my mouth, and she said, ‘Eat it, eat it.’”284

The language policy disrupted families. When John Kistabish left the Amos, Québec, school, he could no longer speak Algonquin, and his parents could not speak French, the language that he had been taught in the school. As a result, he found it almost impossible to communicate with them about the abuse he experienced at the school. “I had tried to talk with my parents, and, no, it didn’t work…. We were well anyway because I knew that they were my parents, when I left the residential school, but the communication wasn’t there.”285

Culture was attacked as well as language. In his memoirs, Stoney Chief John Snow tells of how at the Morley, Alberta, school, the “education consisted of nothing that had any relationship to our homes and culture. Indeed Stoney culture was condemned explicitly and implicitly.” He recalled being taught that the only good people on earth were non-Indians and, specifically, white Christians.286 Andrew Bull Calf recalled that at the residential school in Cardston, Alberta, students were not only punished for speaking their own languages, but they also were discouraged from participating in traditional cultural activities.287 Evelyn Kelman recalled that the principal at the Brocket, Alberta, school warned students that if they attended a Sun Dance that was to be held during the summer, they would be strapped on their return to school.288 Marilyn Buffalo recalled being told by Hobbema, Alberta, school staff that the Sun Dance was ‘devil worship.’289 One year, Sarah McLeod returned to the Kamloops school with a miniature totem pole that a family member had given her for her birthday. When she proudly showed it to one of the nuns, it was taken from her and thrown out. She was told that it was nothing but devilry.290

School officials did not limit their opposition to Aboriginal culture to the classroom. In 1942, Gleichen, Alberta, principal John House became involved in a campaign to have two Blackfoot chiefs deposed, in part because of their support for traditional dance ceremonies.291 In 1943, F. E. Anfield, the principal of the Alert Bay, British Columbia, school, wrote a letter encouraging former students not to participate in local Potlatches, implying that such ceremonies were based on outdated superstition, and led to impoverishment and family neglect.292

Even when it did not directly disparage Aboriginal culture, the curriculum undermined Aboriginal identity. Thaddee Andre, who attended the Sept-Îles, Québec, school in the 1950s, recalled how as a student he wanted “to resemble the white man, then in the meantime, they are trying by all means to strip you of who you are as an Innu. When you are young, you are not aware of what you are losing as a human being.”293

It was not until the 1960s that attitudes began to change about the place of Aboriginal language and culture in residential schools.294 Alex Alikashuak said that at the Churchill school, which operated in the 1960s, there were no restrictions on the use of Aboriginal languages. He recalled, “The only time, real time we spoke English was when we were in the classroom, or we’re talking to one of the administration staff, and or somebody from town that’s not Inuit, but otherwise we, everybody spoke our language.”295 The Canadian Welfare Council’s 1967 report on nine Saskatchewan residential schools described “an emphasis on relating course content to the Indian culture” as “imaginative” and a sign of progress in “making the educational experience meaningful for the Indian child.”296 By 1968, the Roman Catholic school in Cardston was incorporating Blackfoot into its educational program.297 In some schools, Aboriginal teachers were brought in to teach dancing and singing.298 However, as late as the 1969–70 school year, there were only seven Indian Affairs schools that offered courses in Aboriginal languages or used Aboriginal languages as the language of instruction.299

Despite the encouragement that was offered in some schools, and the students’ efforts to keep their language alive, the overall impact was language loss. Of her experiences at the Baptist school in Whitehorse and the Anglican school in Carcross, Rose Dorothy Charlie said, “They took my language. They took it right out of my mouth. I never spoke it again.”300 In some cases, the residential school experience led parents to decide not to teach their children an Aboriginal language. Both of Joline Huskey’s parents attended residential school in the Northwest Territories. As a result of their experience in the schools, they raised their daughter to speak English.301 When Bruce Dumont was sent to residential school in Onion Lake, Saskatchewan, his mother warned him not to speak Cree.302

Arranging and blocking marriages

Through the residential schools, Indian Affairs and church officials sought to extend their control into the most intimate aspects of the lives of Aboriginal children. Indian Affairs officials believed that because the department had spent money educating students, it had gained the right to determine whom they married. Government officials feared that if students married someone who had not also been educated at a residential school, they would revert to traditional ‘uncivilized’ ways.303 The control of marriage was part of the ongoing policy of forced assimilation. In 1890, Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed criticized Qu’Appelle principal Joseph Hugonnard for allowing female students from the Qu’Appelle school to marry boys who had not gone to school, without first getting Indian Affairs’ approval. Reed argued, “The contention that the parents have the sole right to decide such matters cannot for one moment be admitted.”304

The government not only encouraged marriage between students, but it also began to make marriage part of the process of getting out of residential school. In his annual report for 1896, Deputy Minister Hayter Reed wrote, “It is considered advisable, where pupils are advanced in years and considered capable of providing for themselves, to bring about a matrimonial alliance, either at the time of being discharged from the school or as soon after as possible.”305 In other words, the principals were expected to arrange marriages for the older students.

Principals regularly reported and celebrated student marriages, and, indeed, did often arrange them.306 Reverend P. Claessen, principal of the Kuper Island school, reported in 1909 that he had succeeded in “engaging one of our leaving girls with one of our best old boys.”307 Kamloops school principal A. M. Carion reported, “It is gratifying to note again that since my last report, two more couples of ex-pupils have been united in the bonds of holy wedlock. The ex-pupils who marry other ex-pupils are better able to retain the habits of civilized life, which they acquired at the school.”308

Efforts were also made to block marriages deemed to be unsuitable. In 1895, Indian agent Magnus Begg told members of the Blackfoot Reserve that “no young man could marry a girl from an Industrial or board [sic] School without having prepared a house with two rooms, and owning cows, with the necessary stabling, &c.”309 In that same year, principals and Indian agents were instructed to seek departmental permission prior to allowing students to marry.310

Principals continued to arrange marriages into the 1930s. In 1936, the principal of the Roman Catholic school at Onion Lake prepared a list of students who had turned sixteen and who, he believed, should not be discharged. He noted that he insisted on keeping the students, since he would “always try to marry them as soon as they leave the school.” He wanted to keep one eighteen-year-old student in the school until the fall threshing was complete. Then, she would be married to a former pupil. He wanted to keep another eighteen-year-old until “she gets married during the year.”311 In 1922, the head of the Presbyterian Church’s Winnipeg Committee on Indian Work urged the government to make it “unlawfull [sic] for a pupil or ex-pupil of the School to marry or be married without the permission of the Indian Agent.” The Presbyterians proposed that the children of such unauthorized marriages be denied Treaty annuities until they reached the age of twenty-one and be prohibited from attending school.312 Although the measure was not adopted, it is reflective of the church’s lack of respect for the autonomy of Aboriginal people.

Food: “Always hungry”

[IMAGE: Ahousaht, British Columbia, students in the school cafeteria. British Columbia Archives, PN-15589.]

In his memoir of his years as a student at the Mount Elgin school in southern Ontario in the early twentieth century, Enos Montour wrote that the boys “were always hungry. Grub was the beginning and end of all conversations.”313 According to Eleanor Brass, the dinners at the File Hills, Saskatchewan, school consisted “of watery soup with no flavour, and never any meat.” One winter, it seemed to her that they ate fish every day.314 In fair weather, the boys would trap gophers and squirrels, and roast them over open fires to supplement their meagre diets. Sometimes, they would share these treats with the girls at the school.315 Mary John, who attended the Fraser Lake, British Columbia, school, recalled that the meals were dull and monotonous: a regular diet of porridge interspersed with boiled barley and beans, and bread covered with lard. Weeks might go by without any fish or meat; sugar and jam were reserved for special occasions.316 A former student of the Hay River school in the Northwest Territories recalled that in the years following the First World War, he “didn’t see jam from the time I got off the boat to the time I got back on to come back down.”317 Another student from that school recalled a constant diet of fish: “They would boil it up real good until the meat falls away, the bones and scales all floating around, then mix in flour and serve it up. I won’t use flour for my dogs because there’s not much good in it.”318

[IMAGE: Students working in the kitchen at the Cross Lake, Manitoba, school in the early 1920s. St. Boniface Historical Society Archives; Roman Catholic Archbishop of Keewatin-The Pas Fonds; N1826.]

The reports of government inspectors confirm these student memories. An 1895 report on an inspection of the Middlechurch school concluded, “The ‘bill of fare’ is plain. I believed it to be barely sufficient for the older pupils, who have now, at fifteen to eighteen years of age, larger apetites [sic] than they will have when older.”319 In 1918, Indian agent John Smith inspected the Kamloops school and reported his “suspicion that the vitality of the children is not sufficiently sustained from a lack of nutritious food, or enough of the same for vigorous growing children.”320 A local doctor concurred, writing that “for some months past the food supplied has been inadequate for the needs of the children.”321 There were some positive assessments, but Indian Affairs official Martin Benson questioned their accuracy. “In almost every instance when meals are mentioned by Inspectors they are said to be well cooked. I doubt very much whether they ever took a full regulation school meal of bread and dripping, or boiled beef and potatoes.” In Benson’s opinion, “The bill of fare is decidedly monotonous and makes no allowance for peculiarities of taste or constitution.”322

When funding was cut during the Depression of the 1930s, it was the students who paid the price—in more ways than one. At the end of the 1930s, it was discovered that the cook at the Presbyterian school at Kenora was actually selling bread to the students, at the rate of ten cents a loaf. When asked if the children got enough to eat at meals, she responded, “Yes, but they were always hungry.” The Indian agent ordered an end to the practice.323 The fact that hungry students would be reduced to buying bread to supplement their meals in 1939 highlights the government’s failure to provide schools with the resources needed to feed students adequately.

Milk was in constant shortage at many schools, in part due to the poor health and small size of the school dairy herds.324 As late as 1937, disease among the cows at the Kamloops school had cut milk production by 50%. To the principal’s frustration, Ottawa refused to fund the construction of an additional barn, which would have allowed for an increase in milk production and the isolation of sick animals.325 Even when the dairy herds were producing satisfactorily, the students did not always get the full benefit. Often, the milk was separated, with the skimmed milk served to the children.326 The milk fat was turned to butter and cream, which was frequently sold to raise funds for the schools. Inspector W. Murison noted in 1925 that the cows at the Elkhorn, Manitoba, school were producing enough milk for the school, but the students were not getting “the full benefit of this milk as I found that they were making about 30 lbs. of butter a week, and a great deal of the milk given the children is separated milk, which has not much food value.”327

In 1942, the federal government issued Canada’s Official Food Rules, an early version of the Canada Food Guide.328 Inspectors quickly discovered that residential school diets did not measure up to the Food Rules. Dr. L. B. Pett, the head of the federal government’s Nutrition Division, concluded in 1947, on the basis of inspections his staff had done, that “no school was doing a good feeding job.”329 It was not until the late 1950s that the federal government adopted a residential school food allowance calculated to provide a diet deemed “fully adequate nutritionally.”330 Even with the increase in funding, schools still had difficulty providing students with adequate meals. A 1966 dietician’s report on Yukon Hall in Whitehorse observed that although the Canada Food Guide requirements were being met, “because of the appetite of this age group, the staff are finding 66¢ per day per student is limiting.”331 In 1969, an official at Coudert Hall in Whitehorse wrote, “The $0.80 alloted [sic] per student for food is not sufficient. In the north we find prices sky high.” To cope with the problem, the residence sometimes had to buy “less meat and served maccaroni [sic] products.”332 A November 1970 inspection of the Dauphin, Manitoba, school noted that the “menu appears to be short of the recommended two servings of fruit per day.”333

In their home communities, many students had been raised on food that their parents had hunted, fished, or harvested. These meals were very different from the European diets served at the schools. This change in diet added to the students’ sense of disorientation. Daisy Diamond found the food at residential school to be unfamiliar and unpalatable. “When I was going to Shingwauk, the food didn’t taste very good, because we didn’t have our traditional food there, our moose meat, our bannock, and our berries.”334 Dora Fraser, from the eastern Arctic, found it difficult to adjust to the food served in the hostels. “We were eating canned food, beans, peas, red beans. The food was terrible.”335 Even when traditional foods were prepared, the school cooks made them in ways that were unfamiliar and unappetizing to the students. Ellen Okimaw, who attended the Fort Albany, Ontario, school, had vivid memories of poorly cooked fish served at the schools. The school cook had simply “dumped the whole thing, and boiled them like that, just like that without cleaning them.”336

Bernard Catcheway recalled that in the 1960s at the Pine Creek, Manitoba, school, “we had to eat all our food even though we didn’t like it. There was a lot of times there I seen other students that threw up and they were forced to eat their own, their own vomit.”337 Bernard Sutherland recalled students at the Fort Albany school being forced to eat food that they had vomited. “I saw in person how the children eat their vomit. When they happened to be sick. And they threw up while eating.”338 These abuses led in 1999 to the conviction of Anna Wesley, a former staff member of the Fort Albany school, on three charges of administering a noxious substance.339

Some schools did make allowances for traditional foods. Simon Awashish recalled being allowed to trap for food while attending the Amos, Québec, school.

When we brought in hares, we were asked if … there was some members of our nation that came to work in the kitchen, and we asked them to cook the hare for us in the traditional Atikameg way, in order to keep some sort of contact with our traditional food that we had before, before we were separated from our community.340

Students who spoke of hunger also spoke of their efforts to improve their diet secretly. Woodie Elias recalled being hungry all the time at the Anglican school in Aklavik. “Once in a while we go raid the cellar and you can’t call that stealing; that was our food.”341 When Dorothy Nolie helped out in the Alert Bay school kitchen, she and her co-workers would eat bread as they sliced it. “Kids would come to me and ask me for bread, and I’d sneak it to them.”342 At the Moose Factory school in Ontario, Nellie Trapper said, students “used to steal food, peanut butter, whatever’s cooking in a pot. There were big pots in there. I remember taking figs from that pot.”343

Complaints about the limited, poorly prepared, monotonous diet were intensified by the fact that at many schools, the students knew the staff members were being served much better fare than they had. At the school she attended in Saskatchewan, Inez Dieter said, “the staff used to eat like kings, kings and queens.” Like many students, she said, she used the opportunity of working in the staff dining room to help herself to leftovers. “I’d steal that and I’d eat, and I’d feel real good.”344 Gladys Prince recalled how, at the Sandy Bay school in Manitoba, the “priests ate the apples, we ate the peelings. That is what they fed us. We never ate bread. They were stingy them, their own, their own baking.”345 When Frances Tait was given a position in the staff dining room, she said, she thought she had “died and gone to heaven ’cause even eating their leftovers were better than what we got.”346 Hazel Bitternose, who attended schools in Lestock and Qu’Appelle, said she enjoyed working in the priests’ dining room. “They had some good food there and I used to sneak some food and able to feed myself good there. So that’s why I liked to work there.”347

The federal government knowingly chose not to provide schools with enough money to ensure that kitchens and dining rooms were properly equipped, that cooks were properly trained, and, most significantly, that food was purchased in sufficient quantity and quality for growing children. It was a decision that left thousands of Aboriginal children vulnerable to disease.

Health: “For sickness, conditions at this school are nothing less than criminal.”

The number of students who died at Canada’s residential schools is not likely ever to be known in full. The most serious gap in information arises from the incompleteness of the documentary record. Many records have simply been destroyed. According to a 1935 federal government policy, school returns could be destroyed after five years, and reports of accidents after ten years. This led to the destruction of fifteen tonnes of waste paper. Between 1936 and 1944, 200,000 Indian Affairs files were destroyed.348 Health records were regularly destroyed. For example, in 1957, Indian and Northern Health Services was instructed to destroy “correspondence re routine arrangements re medical and dental treatments of Indians and Eskimos, such as transportation, escort services, admission to hospital, advice on treatment, requests for treatment, etc.” after a period of two years. Reports by doctors, dentists, and nurses were similarly assigned a two-year retention period.349

Often, the existing record lacks needed detail. For example, it was not uncommon for principals, in their annual reports, to state that a specific number of students had died in the previous year, but not to name them.350 It was not until 1935 that Indian Affairs adopted a formal policy on how deaths at the schools were to be reported and investigated.351

There can be no certainty that all deaths were, in fact, reported to Indian Affairs— the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has located reports of student deaths in church records that are not reported in government documents.352 In some cases, school officials appear not to have recognized a responsibility to report student deaths to provincial vital statistics officials, meaning that these records may also be deficient.353

As part of its work, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has established a National Residential School Student Death Register. The creation of this register marks the first effort in Canadian history to properly record the number of students who died in residential schools. The register is made of up three sub-registers:

  1. the Register of Confirmed Deaths of Named Residential School Students (the “Named Register”);

  2. the Register of Confirmed Deaths of Unnamed Residential School Students (the “Unnamed Register”); and

  3. the Register of Deaths that Require Further Investigation (to determine if they should be placed on either the Named or Unnamed register).

[Graph 3 Residential school death rates for 1,000 students, Named and Unnamed registers combined, 1869 to 1965]

[Graph 4 Comparative death rates per 1,000 population, residential schools (Named and Unnamed registers combined) and the general Canadian population of school-aged children, using five-year averages from 1921 to 1965.]

[Graph 5 Residential school tuberculosis death rates per 1,000 population, Named and Unnamed registers combined, 1869–1965]

A January 2015 statistical analysis of the Named Register for the period from 1867 to 2000 identified 2,040 deaths. The same analysis of a combination of the Named and Unnamed registers identified 3,201 reported deaths. The greatest number of these deaths (1,328 on the Named Register and 2,434 on the Named and Unnamed registers) took place prior to 1940. Graph 3 shows the overall death rate per 1,000 students for the residential schools during this period (figures are based on information in the combined Named and Unnamed registers).

This graph suggests that the peak of the health crisis in the schools occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It also shows that the death rate remained high until the 1950s.

The death rates for Aboriginal children in the residential schools were far higher than those experienced by members of the general Canadian population. Graph 4 compares the death rate per 1,000 of the general population of Canadian children aged five to fourteen with the death rates per 1,000 of the Named Register and the Named and Unnamed registers combined. (Given the limitations in Statistics Canada’s historical data, the death rates are provided as five-year averages.) As can be seen, until the 1950s Aboriginal children in residential schools died at a far higher rate than schoolaged children in the general population. It is only in the 1950s that the residential school death rates declined to a level comparable to that of the general school-aged population. As late as the 1941–45 period, the Named and Unnamed Combined residential school death rate was 4.90 times higher than the general death rate. In the 1960s, even though the residential school death rates were much lower than their historic highs, they were still double those of the general school-aged population.

[IMAGE: The Roman Catholic school at Sturgeon Landing, Saskatchewan, was destroyed by fire in September 1952. There was no loss of life. St. Boniface Historical Society Archives, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Keewatin-The Pas Fonds, N3637.]

In nearly 50% of the cases (both in the Named and Unnamed registers), there is no recorded cause of death. From those cases where the cause of death was reported, it is clear that until the 1950s, the schools were the sites of an ongoing tuberculosis crisis. Tuberculosis accounted for just less than 50% of the recorded deaths (46.2% for the Named Register, and 47% for the Named and Unnamed registers combined). The tuberculosis death rate remained high until the 1950s: its decline coincides with the introduction of effective drug treatment. The next most frequently recorded causes of death were influenza (9.2% on the Named Register, and 9.1% of the deaths on the combined Named and Unnamed registers), pneumonia (6.9% on the Named Register, and 9.1% of the deaths on the combined Named and Unnamed registers), and general lung disease (3.4% on the Named Register, and 5.5% of the deaths on the combined Named and Unnamed registers). Graph 5 shows the residential school tuberculosis death rate (figures are based on information in the combined Named and Unnamed registers).

[IMAGE: Old Sun’s, Alberta, dormitory. Diseases such as tuberculosis could spread quickly in crowded dormitories. General Synod Archives, Anglican Church of Canada, P75-103-S7-167.]

The tuberculosis health crisis in the schools was part of a broader Aboriginal health crisis that was set in motion by colonial policies that separated Aboriginal people from their land, thereby disrupting their economies and their food supplies. This crisis was particularly intense on the Canadian Prairies. Numerous federal government policies contributed to the undermining of Aboriginal health. During a period of starvation, rations were withheld from bands in an effort to force them to abandon the lands that they had initially selected for their reserves. In making the Treaties, the government had promised to provide assistance to First Nations to allow them to make a transition from hunting to farming. This aid was slow in coming and inadequate on arrival. Restrictions in the Indian Act made it difficult for First Nations farmers to sell their produce or borrow money to invest in technology. Reserve land was often agriculturally unproductive. Reserve housing was poor and crowded, sanitation was inadequate, and access to clean water was limited. Under these conditions, tuberculosis flourished. Those people it did not kill were often severely weakened and likely to succumb to measles, smallpox, and other infectious diseases.354

For Aboriginal children, the relocation to residential schools was generally no healthier than their homes had been on the reserves. In 1897, Indian Affairs official Martin Benson reported that the industrial schools in Manitoba and the Northwest Territories had been “hurriedly constructed of poor materials, badly laid out, without due provision for lighting, heating or ventilation.” In addition, drainage was poor, and water and fuel supplies were inadequate.355 Conditions were not any better in the church-built boarding schools. In 1904, Indian Commissioner David Laird echoed Benson’s comments when he wrote that the sites for the boarding schools on the Prairies seemed “to have been selected without proper regard for either water-supply or drainage. I need not mention any school in particular, but I have urged improvement in several cases in regard to fire-protection.”356

Students’ health depended on clean water, good sanitation, and adequate ventilation. But little was done to improve the poor living conditions that were identified at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1940, R. A. Hoey, who had served as the Indian Affairs superintendent of Welfare and Training since 1936, wrote a lengthy assessment of the condition of the existing residential schools. He concluded that many schools were “in a somewhat dilapidated condition” and had “become acute fire hazards.” He laid responsibility for the “condition of our schools, generally,” upon their “faulty construction.” This construction, he said, had failed to meet “the minimum standards in the construction of public buildings, particularly institutions for the education of children.”357 By 1940, the government had concluded that future policy should concentrate on the expansion of day schools for First Nations children. As a result, many of the existing residential school buildings were allowed to continue to deteriorate. A 1967 brief from the National Association of Principals and Administrators of Indian Residences—which included principals of both Catholic and Protestant schools— concluded, “In the years that the Churches have been involved in the administration of the schools, there has been a steady deterioration in essential services. Year after year, complaints, demands and requests for improvements have, in the main, fallen upon deaf ears.”358

When E. A. Côté, the deputy minister responsible for Indian Affairs, met with church and school representatives to discuss the brief, he told them that only emergency repairs would be undertaken at schools that Indian Affairs intended to close.359

The badly built and poorly maintained schools constituted serious fire hazards. Defective firefighting equipment exacerbated the risk, and schools were fitted with inadequate and dangerous fire escapes. Lack of access to safe fire escapes led to high death tolls in fires at the Beauval and Cross Lake schools.360 The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has determined that at least fifty-three schools were destroyed by fire. There were at least 170 additional recorded fires. At least forty students died in residential school fires.361 The harsh discipline and jail-like nature of life in the schools meant that many students sought to run away. To prevent this, many schools deliberately ignored government instructions in relation to fire drills and fire escapes. These were not problems only of the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. Well into the twentieth century, recommendations for improvements went unheeded, and dangerous and forbidden practices were widespread and entrenched. In the interests of cost containment, the Canadian government placed the lives of students and staff at risk for 130 years.

The buildings were not only fire traps. They were also incubators of disease. Rather than helping combat the tuberculosis crisis in the broader Aboriginal community, the poor condition of the schools served to intensify it. The 1906 annual report of Dr. Peter Bryce, the chief medical officer for Indian Affairs, observed that “the Indian population of Canada has a mortality rate of more than double that of the whole population, and in some provinces more than three times.” Tuberculosis was the prevalent cause of death. He described a cycle of disease in which infants and children were infected at home and sent to residential schools, where they infected other children. The children infected in the schools were “sent home when too ill to remain at school, or because of being a danger to the other scholars, and have conveyed the disease to houses previously free.”362 The following year, Bryce published a damning report on the conditions at prairie boarding schools. In an age when fresh air was seen as being central to the successful treatment of tuberculosis, he concluded that, with only a few exceptions, the ventilation at the schools was “extremely inadequate.”363

[IMAGE: Dr. Peter Bryce, Indian Affairs chief medical officer, recommended in 1909 that Canada’s residential schools be turned into sanatoria and placed under his administration. Library and Archives Canada, Topley Studio, a042966.]

He found the school staff and even physicians

inclined to question or minimize the dangers of infection from scrofulous or consumptive pupils [scrofula and consumption were alternate names for types of tuberculosis] and nothing less than peremptory instructions as to how to deal with cases of disease existing in the schools will eliminate this ever-present danger of infection.364

He gave the principals a questionnaire to complete regarding the health condition of their former students. The responses from fifteen schools revealed that “of a total of 1,537 pupils reported upon nearly 25 per cent are dead, of one school with an absolutely accurate statement, 69 per cent of ex-pupils are dead, and that everywhere the almost invariable cause of death given is tuberculosis.” He drew particular attention to the fate of the thirty-one students who had been discharged from the File Hills school: nine were in good health, and twenty-two were dead.365

The extent of the health crisis was so severe that some people within the federal government and the Protestant churches became convinced that the only solution was to close the schools and replace them with day schools. However, the Indian Affairs minister of the day, Frank Oliver, refused to enact the plan without the support of the churches involved. The plan foundered for lack of Roman Catholic support. During the same period, Bryce recommended that the federal government take over all the schools and turn them into sanatoria under his control. This plan was rejected because it was viewed as being too costly, and it was thought that it would have met with church opposition.366

Instead of closing schools or turning them into sanatoria, the government’s major response to the health crisis was the negotiation in 1910 of a contract between Indian Affairs and the churches. This contract increased the grants to the schools and imposed a set of standards for diet and ventilation. The contract also required that students not be admitted “until, where practicable, a physician has reported that the child is in good health.”367

As noted earlier, although the contract led to improvements in the short term, inflation quickly eroded the benefit of the increase in grants. The situation was worsened by the cuts to the grants that were repeatedly imposed during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The underfunding created by the cuts guaranteed that students would be poorly fed, clothed, and housed. As a result, children were highly susceptible to tuberculosis. And, because the government was slow to put in place policies that would have prohibited the admission of children with tuberculosis, and ineffective in enforcing such policies once they were developed, healthy children became infected. As late as the 1950s, at some schools, pre-admission medical examinations appear to have been perfunctory, ineffective, or non-existent.368 In the long run, the 1910 contract proved to be no solution for the tuberculosis crisis.

The schools often lacked adequate facilities for the treatment of sick children. In 1893, Indian Affairs inspector T. P. Wadsworth reported that at the Qu’Appelle school, the “want of an infirmary is still very much felt.”369 Those infirmaries that existed were often primitive. On an 1891 visit to the Battleford school, Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed concluded that the hospital ward was in such poor shape that they had been obliged to move the children in it to the staff sitting room. According to Reed, “The noise, as well as the bad smells, come from the lavatory underneath.”370 Proposals to construct a small hospital at the Red Deer school in 1901 were not implemented.371 There were also reports of inadequate isolation facilities at the Regina school (1901), the Anglican school in Onion Lake, Saskatchewan (1921), the Mission, British Columbia, school (1924), and the Muncey, Ontario, school (1935).372 When diphtheria broke out at Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, in 1909, the nine students who fell ill were placed in a “large isolated house.”373

Even though the 1910 contract required all schools to have hospital accommodation to prevent the spread of infectious disease, many schools continued to be without a proper infirmary. The 1918 global influenza epidemic left four children dead at the Red Deer, Alberta, school. When the influenza epidemic subsided, Principal J. F. Woodsworth complained to Indian Affairs, “For sickness, conditions at this school are nothing less than criminal. We have no isolation ward and no hospital equipment of any kind.”374 The Roman Catholic principals petitioned the federal government for the establishment of sick rooms, under the supervision of a competent nurse, at each school in 1924. At the same time, they objected to the sanitary inspection of the schools by government-appointed nurses, since they recommended changes “leading to the transformation of our schools into hospitals or sanatoriums.”375 There were also regular reports that schools could not afford to hire needed nursing staff.376 Indian Affairs officials continued to be critical of the quality of care provided by school infirmaries at the end of the 1950s.377 Complaints from principals make it clear that into the late 1960s, there were still severe limitations on the range of health services being provided to residential school students.378

General Aboriginal health care was never a priority for the Canadian government. Tuberculosis among Aboriginal people largely was ignored unless it threatened the general Canadian population.379 In 1937, Dr. H. W. McGill, the director of Indian Affairs, sent out an instruction that Indian health-care services “must be restricted to those required for the safety of limb, life or essential function.” Hospital care was to be limited, spending on drugs was cut in half, and sanatoria and hospital treatment for chronic tuberculosis were eliminated.380

The high death rates led many parents to refuse to send their children to residential school. In 1897, Kah-pah-pah-mah-am-wa-ko-we-ko-chin (also known as Tom) was deposed from his position as a headman of the White Bear Reserve in what is now Saskatchewan for his vocal opposition to residential schools. In making his case for a school on the reserve, he pointed to the death rate at the Qu’Appelle industrial school, adding, “Our children are not strong. Many of them are sick most of the time, many of the children sent from this Reserve to the Schools have died.381

Death casts a long shadow over many residential school memories. Louise Moine attended the Qu’Appelle school in the early twentieth century. She recalled one year when tuberculosis was “on the rampage in that school. There was a death every month on the girls’ side and some of the boys went also.”382 Of his years at the Roman Catholic school in Onion Lake, Joseph Dion recalled, “My schoolmates and I were not long in concluding that the lung sickness was fatal, hence as soon as we saw or heard of someone spitting blood, we immediately branded him for the grave. He had consumption: he had to die.”383 Simon Baker’s brother Jim died from spinal meningitis at the Lytton, British Columbia, school. “I used to hear him crying at night. I asked the principal to take him to the hospital. He didn’t. After about two weeks, my brother was in so much pain, he was going out of his mind. I pleaded with the principal for days to take him to a doctor.”384

Ray Silver said that he always blamed the Alberni school for the death of his brother Dalton. “He was a little guy, laying in the bed in the infirmary, dying, and I didn’t know ’til he died. You know that’s, that was the end of my education.”385 The death of a child often prompted parents to withdraw the rest of their children from a school. One former student said her father came to the school when her sister became ill at the Anglican school at Aklavik, Northwest Territories. “He came upstairs and there we were. He cried over us. He took me home. He put her in a hospital, and she died.”386

The high deaths rates in the schools were, in part, a reflection of the high death rates among the Aboriginal community in general. Indian Affairs officials often tried to portray these rates as simply the price that Aboriginal people had to pay as part of the process of becoming civilized. In reality, these rates were the price they paid for being colonized.387 Aboriginal livelihoods were based on access to the land; colonization disrupted that access and introduced new illnesses to North America. Colonial policies helped wiped out food sources and confined Aboriginal people to poorly located reserves, with inadequate sanitation and shelter. The schools could have served as institutions to help counter these problems. To do that, however, they would have had to have been properly constructed, maintained, staffed, and supplied. Government officials were aware of this. They were also aware that death rates among students at residential schools were disproportionately high. It would be wrong to say the government did nothing about this crisis: the 1910 contract did provide a substantial funding increase to the schools. But the federal government never made the type of sustained investment in Aboriginal health, in either the communities or the schools, that could have addressed this crisis—which continues to the present. The non-Aboriginal tuberculosis death rate declined before the introduction of life-saving drugs. It was brought down by improvements in diet, housing, sanitation, and medical attention. Had such measures been taken by the federal government earlier, they would have reduced both the Aboriginal death rates and the residential school students’ death rates. By failing to take adequate measures that had been recommended to it, the federal government blighted the health of generations of Aboriginal people.

Burial policy

Many of the early schools were part of larger church mission centres that might include a church, a dwelling for the missionaries, a farm, a sawmill, and a cemetery. The mission cemetery might serve as a place of burial for students who died at school, members of the local community, and the missionaries themselves. For example, the cemetery at the Roman Catholic St. Mary’s mission, near Mission, British Columbia, was intended originally for priests and nuns from the mission as well as for students from the residential school.388

During the influenza pandemic of 1918–19, many of the schools and missions were overwhelmed. At the Fort St. James school and mission in British Columbia, the dead were buried in a common grave.389 At the Red Deer school, four students who died there were buried two to a grave to save costs.390 In some cases, student and staff graves were treated differently. At the Spanish, Ontario, school, the graves of staff members were marked with headstones that, in the case of former priests and nuns, provided name and date of birth and death. The burial spots of students were identified only by plain white crosses.391

[IMAGE: Residential school students at the Roman Catholic cemetery in Fort George, Québec. Deschâtelets Archives.]

The general Indian Affairs policy was to hold the schools responsible for burial expenses when a student died at school. The school generally determined the location and nature of that burial.392 Parental requests to have children’s bodies returned home for burial were generally refused as being too costly.393 In her memoirs, Eleanor Brass recalled how the body of one boy, who hung himself at the File Hills school in the early twentieth century, was buried on the Peepeekisis Reserve, even though his parents lived on the Carlyle Reserve.394 As late as 1958, Indian Affairs refused to return the body of a boy who had died at a hospital in Edmonton to his northern home community in the Yukon.395

The reluctance to pay the cost of sending the bodies of children from residential schools home for burial ceremonies continued into the 1960s. Initially, for example, Indian Affairs was initially unwilling to pay to send the body of twelve-year-old Charlie Wenjack back to his parents’ home community in Ogoki, Ontario, in 1966.396 When Charles Hunter drowned in 1974 while attending the Fort Albany school, it was decided, without consultation with his parents, to bury him in Moosonee rather than send him home to Peawanuck near Hudson Bay. It was not until 2011, after significant public efforts made on his behalf by his sister Joyce, who had never got to meet her older brother, that Charles Hunter’s body was exhumed and returned to Peawanuck for a community burial. The costs were covered by funds that the Toronto Star raised from its readership.397

A school closing might mean the cemetery would be left unattended. When the Battleford school closed in 1914, Principal E. Matheson reminded Indian Affairs that there was a school cemetery that contained the bodies of seventy to eighty individuals, most of whom were former students. He worried that unless the government took steps to care for the cemetery, it would be overrun by stray cattle.398 In short, throughout the system’s history, children who died at school were buried in school or mission cemeteries, often in poorly marked graves. The closing of the schools has led, in many cases, to the abandonment of these cemeteries.

Discipline: “Too suggestive of the old system of flogging criminals”

When Indian agent D. L. Clink returned a runaway student to the Red Deer industrial school in 1895, he noted that the boy’s head was bruised from where a teacher had hit him with a stick. The school principal, John Nelson, told Clink that he “had been severe with him before but he would be more severe now.” Worried that if he “left the boy he would be abused,” Clink took the boy away from the school. He also recommended to Indian Affairs that the teacher who had struck the student be dismissed and brought up on charges, since “his actions in this and other cases would not be tolerated in a white school for a single day in any part of Canada.”399 Clink’s report led Indian Affairs Deputy Minister Hayter Reed to direct his staff:

Instructions should be given, if not already sent, to the Principals of the various schools, that children are not to be whipped by anyone save the Principal, and even when such a course is necessary, great discretion should be used and they should not be struck on the head, or punished so severely that bodily harm might ensue. The practice of corporal punishment is considered unnecessary as a general measure of discipline and should only be resorted to for very grave offences and as a deterrent example.400

Reed’s instruction underlines a number of the recurrent problems with the Indian Affairs approach to discipline in residential schools. First, Reed, who had previously been the Indian commissioner in western Canada, did not know whether there were regulations dealing with school discipline. Second, his directive is vague: while it indicates where students should not be struck, it does not specify where they could be struck, or place limits on what students could be struck with; and neither are there limits on the number of blows. Third, it is not clear that these instructions were ever issued to the principals. If they were, they were soon lost and forgotten. In later years, when conflicts arose over discipline at the schools, Indian Affairs officials made no reference to the policy. In 1920, Canon S. Gould, the general secretary of the Missionary Society of the Church of England in Canada, asked Deputy Minister Campbell Scott, “Is corporal punishment for disciplinary purposes recognized, or permitted in the Indian Boarding schools?” He noted that whether or not it was permitted, he imagined that it was applied in every residential school in the country.401 The first—and only—evidence of a nation-wide discipline policy for residential schools that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has been able to locate in the documents reviewed to date was issued in 1953.402

[IMAGE: The Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario, was just one of the schools that had specific “punishment rooms.” General Synod Archives, Anglican Church of Canada, P75-103-S4-507.]

The failure to establish and enforce a national policy on discipline meant that students were subject to disciplinary measures that would not, as Clink noted in 1895, be tolerated in schools for non-Aboriginal children. Four years after Reed asked his staff to issue instructions on corporal punishment, Indian Commissioner David Laird reported that several children had been “too severely punished” at the Middlechurch school. “Strappings on the bare back,” he wrote, was “too suggestive of the old system of flogging criminals.”403

Corporal punishment was often coupled with public humiliation. In December 1896 in British Columbia, the Kuper Island school’s acting principal gave two boys “several lashes in the Presence of the Pupils” for sneaking into the girls’ dormitory at night.404 When, in 1934, the principal of the Shubenacadie school could not determine who had stolen money and chocolates from a staff member, he had the suspects thrashed with a seven-thonged strap and then placed on bread-and-water diets.405

Some schools had a specific room set aside to serve as a “punishment room.”406 After a 1907 inspection of the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, the Ontario inspector for Indian agencies, J. G. Ramsden, reported, “I cannot say that I was favourably impressed with the sight of two prison cells in the boys [sic] play house. I was informed, however, that these were for pupils who ran away from the institution, confinement being for a week at a time when pupils returned.”407 In 1914, a father successfully sued the Mohawk Institute principal for locking his daughter in a cell for three days on what was described as a “water diet.”408

Boys at the Anglican school in Brocket, Alberta, were chained together as punishment for running away in 1920.409 At the Gleichen, Alberta, school, a principal was accused of shackling a boy to his bed and beating him with a quirt (a riding whip) until his back bled. The principal admitted to having beaten the boy with the whip, but denied breaking the boy’s skin.410

Abusive punishment often prompted children to run away. The father of Duncan Sticks, a boy who died from exposure after running away from the Williams Lake school in British Columbia, told a coroner’s inquest in 1902 that, in the past, his son had run away because he had been “beaten with a quirt.”411 A boy who ran away from the Anglican school in The Pas, after being severely beaten by the principal, nearly died of exposure.412

The violent nature of the discipline at the schools came as a shock to students. Isabelle Whitford said that prior to coming to the Sandy Bay school, she had never been physically disciplined. “All my dad have to do was raise his voice, and we knew what he meant. So, when I first got hit by the nuns, it was really devastating ’cause how can they hit me when my parents didn’t hit me, you know?”413 Rachel Chakasim said that at the Fort Albany school, “I saw violence for the first time. I would see kids getting hit. Sometimes in the classrooms, a yardstick was being used to hit.”414

Fred Brass said that his years at the Roman Catholic school at Kamsack, Saskatchewan, were “the hellish years of my life. You know to be degraded by our so-called educators, to be beat by these people that were supposed to have been there to look after us, to teach us right from wrong. It makes me wonder now today a lot of times I ask that question, who was right and who was wrong?”415 According to Geraldine Bob, the staff members at the Kamloops school she attended were not able to control their tempers once they began to punish a student. “They would just start beating you and lose control and hurl you against the wall, throw you on the floor, kick you, punch you.”416

It was a common practice to shave the heads of students who ran away. William Antoine recalled that at the Spanish, Ontario, school, this was done in front of the other students. “They got all the boys to look at what is happening to this boy, what they were doing to him because he ran away. They cut all his hair off and they pulled, pulled his pants down and he was kneeling on the floor, and holding onto the chair.”417 Eva Simpson said that at the Catholic school in The Pas, her cousin’s head was shaved for running away.418

Many students spoke of teachers punishing them by pulling their ears. At Sioux Lookout, Dorothy Ross said, “one time me and this other girl were, we were, were fooling around, we were teasing each other in our own language, we got, I got caught. She pulled my ear so hard.”419 Archie Hyacinthe could recall that in the classrooms of the Roman Catholic school in Kenora, “every time we didn’t listen, they would tug us behind the ear, or behind the neck, or on the elbows.”420 Jonas Grandjambe recalled how the nun in charge of the boys’ dormitory at the Roman Catholic school in Aklavik, in the Northwest Territories, would “grab our ear and twist it.”421 Delores Adolph said that the discipline she received at the Mission school impaired her hearing.422 Joseph Wabano said that at the Fort Albany, Ontario, school, the staff would hit students with a one-inch-thick board.423 Noel Starblanket recalled being constantly “slapped on the side of the head” at the Qu’Appelle school. One teacher struck him in the face and broke his nose.424

Mervin Mirasty said that at the Beauval, Saskatchewan, school, boys who were caught throwing snowballs were punished with blows to their hands from the blade of a hockey stick.425 As a punishment, Nellie Trapper, who attended the Moose Factory, Ontario, school in the 1950s, was assigned to “scrubbing the stair, the stairwell with a toothbrush, me and this other girl. Like, I don’t remember what I did wrong, but that was something that I won’t forget. I remember sitting on the steps, and she, our supervisor was standing there, watching us.”426 Former students also spoke of how, in winter, they might be forced to stand or sit, inadequately clothed, in the snow as a form of punishment.

It was not uncommon for residential school students, traumatized by being placed in such a harsh and alien environment, to wet their beds. These students were subjected to humiliating punishments. Wendy Lafond said that at the Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, school, “if we wet our beds, we were made to stand in the corner in our pissy clothes, not allowed to change.”427 Don Willie recalled that students who wet their beds were publicly humiliated at the Alert Bay school. “And they used to, they used to line up the wet bed, bedwetters, and line them up in the morning, and parade them through, parade them through breakfast, the breakfast area, pretty much to shame them.”428

Policies that were seen as being unacceptable in the early twentieth century were still in place in the 1960s. Many students compared residential schools to jails: some spoke of being locked up in dormitories, broom closets, basements, and even crawl spaces. In 1965, students who ran away from the Presbyterian school in Kenora were locked up with just a mattress on the floor and put on a bread-and-milk diet.429 Students were still being locked up in what was referred to as the “counselling” room at the Poplar Hill, Ontario, school in the 1980s.430 Despite the fact that Indian Affairs had given orders to abandon the practice, students were still having their hair cropped into the 1970s.431 In the 1990s, students at the Gordon’s, Saskatchewan, school were still being struck, and pushed into lockers and walls by one staff member.432

The failure to develop, implement, and monitor effective discipline sent an unspoken message that there were no real limits on what could be done to Aboriginal children within the walls of a residential school. The door had been opened early to an appalling level of physical and sexual abuse of students, and it remained open throughout the existence of the system.

Abuse: “And he did awful things to me.”

From the nineteenth century onwards, the government and churches were well aware of the risk that staff might sexually abuse residential school students. As early as 1886, Jean L’Heureux, who worked as a translator for Indian Affairs and a recruiter for Roman Catholic schools in Alberta, was accused of sexually abusing boys in his care. The officials responsible for the schools recognized that his actions were not appropriate. Despite this, there is no record of a criminal investigation being carried out at the time.433 When new allegations against L’Heureux emerged in 1891, he was allowed to resign. In dealing with the matter, Indian Affairs Deputy Minister Lawrence Vankoughnet hoped “it would not be necessary to state the cause which led to the same [the resignation].”434

When it came to taking action on the abuse of Aboriginal children, early on, Indian Affairs and the churches placed their own interests ahead of the children in their care and then covered up that victimization. It was cowardly behaviour.

This set the tone for the way the churches and government would treat the sexual abuse of children for the entire history of the residential school system. Complaints often were ignored. In some cases where allegations were made against a school principal, the only measure that Indian Affairs took was to contact the principal.435 In at least one case, Indian Affairs officials worked with school officials to frustrate a police investigation into abuse at a school. When attempting to return some runaway boys to the Kuper Island school in 1939, British Columbia Provincial Police officers concluded that there was good reason to believe the boys had run away because they were being sexually abused at the school. The police launched an investigation and refused to return the boys to the school.436 When Indian Affairs officials finally investigated, they concluded that the allegations had merit. However, to protect the school’s reputation, the local Indian Affairs official advised the suspected abusers to leave the province, allowing them to avoid prosecution.437 Nothing was done for the students who had been victimized or for their parents.

[IMAGE: In 1939, Indian Affairs officials recommended that Kuper Island school staff suspected of sexually abusing students leave the province, allowing them to avoid prosecution. British Columbia Archives, pdp05505.]

These patterns persisted into the late twentieth century. Officials continued to dismiss Aboriginal reports of abuse.438 In some cases, staff members were not fired, even after being convicted of assaulting a student.439 Complaints were improperly investigated. For example, charges of sexual impropriety made against the principal of the Gordon’s school were investigated by a school staff member in 1956.440 Church officials failed to report cases of abuse to Indian Affairs, and Indian Affairs failed to report cases of abuse to families.441 It was not until 1968 that Indian Affairs began to compile and circulate a list of former staff members who were not to be hired at other schools without the approval of officials in Ottawa.442 The churches and the government remained reluctant to take matters to the police. As a result, prosecutions were rare.

In the documents it has reviewed, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has identified over forty successful convictions of former residential school staff members who sexually or physically abused students.443 Most of these prosecutions were the result of the determination of former students to see justice done.

The full extent of the abuse that occurred in the schools is only now coming to light. As of January 31, 2015, the Independent Assessment Process (IAP), established under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) had received 37,951 claims for injuries resulting from physical and sexual abuse at residential schools. The IAP is a mechanism to compensate former students for sexual and physical abuse experienced at the schools and the harms that arose from the assaults. By the end of 2014, the IAP had resolved 30,939 of those claims, awarding $2,690,000,000 in compensation.444 The Common Experience Payment (CEP) established under IRSSA provided compensation to individuals who attended a school on the IRSSA’s approved list of schools. The CEP recognized the claims of 78,748 former residential school students. Although claims for compensation under the IAP could be made by non-residential school students who were abused at the schools, the vast majority of IAP claims were made by former residential school students. The number of claims for compensation for abuse is equivalent to approximately 48% of the number of former students who were eligible to make such claims. This number does not include those former students who died prior to May 2005.

As the numbers demonstrate, the abuse of children was rampant. From 1958, when it first opened, until 1979, there was never a year in which Grollier Hall in Inuvik did not employ at least one dormitory supervisor who would later be convicted for sexually abusing students at the school. Joseph Jean Louis Comeau, Martin Houston, George Maczynski, and Paul Leroux all worked at Grollier Hall during this period. All were convicted of abusing Grollier Hall students.445 William Peniston Starr served as director of the Gordon’s, Saskatchewan, residence from 1968 until 1984.446 Prior to that, he worked at a series of schools in Alberta and Québec.447 In 1993, he was convicted of ten counts of sexually assaulting Gordon’s school students.448 Arthur Plint worked as a boys’ supervisor at the Alberni residential school for two five-year periods between 1948 and 1968. In 1995, he pleaded guilty to eighteen counts of indecent assault. In sentencing him to eleven years in jail, Justice D. A. Hogarth described Plint as “a sexual terrorist.”449

Physical abuse and sexual abuse often were intertwined. Jean Pierre Bellemare, who attended the Amos, Québec, school, spoke for many students when he told the Commission that he had been subjected to “physical violence, verbal violence, touchings, everything that comes with it.”450 Andrew Yellowback was “sexually, physically, emotionally, and mentally abused” at the Cross Lake, Manitoba, school for eight years.451 There was no single pattern of abuse: students of both sexes reported assaults from staff members of both the opposite sex and the same sex as themselves.452

First-year students, traumatized by separation from their parents and the harsh and alien regime of the school, were particularly vulnerable to abusive staff members who sought to win their trust through what initially appeared to be simple kindness. In some cases, this might involve little more than extra treats from the school canteen. This favouritism, however, was often the prelude to a sexual assault that left the student scared and confused.453

Many students spoke of having been raped at school.454 These were moments of terror. Josephine Sutherland was cornered by one of the lay brothers in the Fort Albany school garage: “I couldn’t call for help, I couldn’t. And he did awful things to me.”455 Other students recalled being assaulted in the church confessional.456 A student in the change room would suddenly have a bag pulled over his head.457 The abuse could begin with an instruction to report to the shower room in the middle of the night or to take lunch to a staff member’s room.458 An abusive staff person might stalk a student, blocking her or his way, or grope a passing student.459 Female students spoke of how some staff members took advantage of their innocence, rubbing against them sexually while they were sitting on their laps.460 Abuse also took the form of voyeuristic humiliation: some staff insisted on watching the students shower.461

Some dormitory supervisors used their authority to institute dormitory-wide systems of abuse. Many students spoke of the fear and anxiety that spread across their dormitories in the evenings.462 They went to bed fearful that they might be called into the supervisor’s room.463 To protect themselves, some students attempted to never be alone.464 Older children sometimes sought to protect younger ones.465

Most students came to school with little knowledge or understanding of sexual activity, let alone the types of sexual abuse to which they might be subjected. Abuse left them injured, bewildered, and often friendless or subject to ridicule by other students.466 Many students thought they were the only children being abused. This confusion made it difficult for them to describe or report their abuse.467 Some were told they would face eternal damnation for speaking of what had been done to them.468

Many students fought back against their far larger and more powerful assailants, especially as they got older and stronger.469 Some succeeded in forcing their tormentors to leave them alone.470 Many others, such as Lawrence Waquan, concluded that there was “nothing you can do.”471 Some students ran away from school in an attempt to escape abuse.472 Others begged their parents not to return them to school after a break.473

Some students never reported abuse for fear they would not be believed.474 Other students who did report abuse were told that they were to blame.475 In some cases, school officials took immediate action when abuse was reported to them, but the rarity of such actions is itself noteworthy.476 Former students spoke of how betrayed they felt when nothing was done about their complaints.477 Many simply felt too ashamed to ever speak of the abuse.478 Family members often refused to believe their children’s reports of abuse, intensifying their sense of isolation and pain.479 This was especially so within families that had adopted Christianity, and could not believe that the people of God looking after their children would ever do such things.480

The impact of abuse was immediate and long-lasting. It destroyed the students’ ability to function in the school, and led many to turn to self-destructive behaviours.481

Staff abuse of children created conditions for the student abuse of other students. Every school system has to deal with school bullies, student cliques, and inter-student conflict. It is part of the socialization process. Ideally, corrective lessons in how to treat others well are taught, as well as shown by example. Residential school staff had a responsibility not only to model such behaviour, but also to protect students from being victimized. In many cases, they failed to provide that protection. Conflicts between students are not unique to residential schools, but they take on greater significance in a residential school setting where children cannot turn to adult family members for comfort, support, and redress. The moral influences that a child’s home community can exert are also absent. Instead, the children were left vulnerable and unprotected. Residential schools failed to live up to their responsibility to protect students from being victimized by other students.

Older or bigger students used force—or the threat of force—to establish their dominance over younger students. In some cases, this dominance was used to coerce younger or smaller students to participate in sexual acts. In other cases, bullies forced vulnerable students to turn over their treats, their food, or their money, or to steal on their behalf. In addition, bullies might simply seek a measure of sadistic satisfaction from beating those who were weaker. Bullies operated individually or in groups. Such groups were often formed initially as a defensive response to the level of violence within the school, but, over time, would take on their own offensive characteristics. Sometimes, such groups not only focused their anger and/or frustration on other students, but also sought to disrupt the general operation of the school. The fact that Catholic and Protestant church leaders continued to disparage one another’s religions throughout this period meant that conflicts between students could also take on religious overtones, particularly in communities with more than one residential school, such as Inuvik in the Northwest Territories.

Student victimization of students was an element of the broader abusive and coercive nature of the residential school system. Underfed, poorly housed, and starved for affection, students often formed groups based on age, community of origin, or First Nation. Such groups gave students a measure of identity and status, but also provided protection to their members and dominated more vulnerable students.

William Garson recalled that at the Elkhorn, Manitoba, school, “we were always like hiding in the corners; you know away from any abusement. From other, older, from older, elder boys, students.”482 Percy Thompson said that at the Hobbema school, “one bully used to come at me and he’d pretend he was going to talk to me and all of sudden hit me in the belly. And of course I gag, gag, and he’d laugh his head off and, you know, to see me in such a predicament.”483 Alice Ruperthouse spoke of “the cruelty of the other children” at the Amos, Québec, school. “It was, you know, like in a jungle. Like in a jungle, you don’t know what’s going to come out but you know you had to watch out.”484 Albert Elias felt that the classroom at the Anglican school in Aklavik “was the safest place to be in ’cause that’s where nobody could beat me up. I dreaded recesses and lunches and after school, I dreaded those times.”485

Bullying might start shortly after arrival. In some schools, all new male students were put through a hazing. Denis Morrison said that each new arrival at the Fort Frances school underwent a beating. “They used to initiate you, like, they would beat the hell out of you, the other kids would. It wasn’t anybody else, it was the other kids, the older ones, eh.”486 Bob Baxter recalled that there were student gangs at the Sioux Lookout school. He was beaten up and knifed on one occasion. He had a vivid memory of people tying him to his bed and throwing hot water over him.487 Clara Quisess said that at the Fort Albany school in Ontario, older girls would threaten the younger ones with knives.488 Louisa Birote recalled that the girls at the La Tuque, Québec, school all formed themselves into hostile groups. “We hated each other. So, this little gang didn’t like the other gang. That’s the way at the school, that’s what we were taught, fears, and we were scared, and I went to hide in what we called the junk room, the junk closet.”489

A lack of adequate supervision in the schools and residences meant that such domination could give rise to physical and sexual abuse. The assaults ranged from being forced to kiss someone, to being forced to simulate a sex act, to being raped. In some cases, victims were given small treats to encourage them to be silent; in other cases, they were told they would be killed if they reported the assault.490 Agnes Moses recalled being molested by older girls at a hostel in northern Canada. “I never quite understood it, and it really wrecked my life, it wrecked my life as a mother, a wife, a woman, and sexuality was a real, it was a dirty word for us.”491 The experience of being abused at a British Columbia school by a group of boys left Don Willie distrustful of most people. “The only, only friends I kept after that were my relatives.”492

Complaints were infrequent, as students had good reason not to report their abuse. Some feared that bullies would retaliate if they were reported. Others were ashamed of what had been done to them, and some did not fully understand what had been done to them. Many students feared they would not be believed—or would be blamed for somehow bringing the abuse upon themselves. Still others were further punished when they did tell. So, rather than report the abuse, many students chose to fight back; to seek admission into a receptive group, where violence could be fought with violence; or to endure the pain in silence. This victimization left many students feeling intensely betrayed, fearful, isolated, and bereft of home teachings and protection. The betrayal by fellow students has contributed significantly to the schools’ long-term legacy of continuing division and distrust within Aboriginal communities. The residential school system’s shameful inability to protect students from such victimization, even from among themselves, represents one of its most significant and least-understood failures.

Sports and culture: “It was a relief.”

[IMAGE: Boys playing hockey at the McIntosh, Ontario, school. Many students said that they would not have survived their residential school years, were it not for sports. St. Boniface Historical Society, Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Manitoba Province Fonds, SHSB 29362.]

Many students stated that sports helped them make it through residential school. Christina Kimball attended the Roman Catholic school near The Pas, where she experienced physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. She believes that it was only through her involvement with sports that she survived. “I was very sports-oriented. I played baseball. Well, we play baseball, and even hockey. We had a hockey team. That has benefited, benefited me in a way ’cause I loved playing sports. Well, that’s one way, too. I don’t know how I did it but I was pretty good in sports.”493 Noel Starblanket said that at the Qu’Appelle school, “I had some good moments, in particular in the sports side, ’cause I really enjoyed sports. I was quite athletic, and basically that’s what kept me alive, that’s what kept me going was the sports.”494 At the Lestock school, Geraldine Shingoose took refuge in extracurricular activities.

One of the good things that I would do to try and get out of just the abuse was try to, I would join track-meet, try and be, and I was quite athletic in boarding school. And I also joined the band, and I played a trombone. And, and that was something that took me away from the school, and just to, it was a relief.495

Paul Andrew spent seven years at Grollier Hall in Inuvik. One of his strongest and most positive memories related to school sports. “There were times when I felt dumb and stupid. But put me in a gym, there was not too many people better than I am.”496

Recreational activities were always underfunded and undersupplied at the schools. A national survey of Indian Affairs schools (both day and residential) in 1956 concluded:

In most of the schools there appeared to be little or no physical education pro gram. A number of schools had no facilities for such activities. Basement areas were obviously designed for playing areas, but they were very inadequate and were utilized for storage or for assembly purposes. A large number of school sites were not properly cleared, graded, and prepared for playing purposes. Many were still in the wild state; others were overgrown with shrubs, thistles, grasses and other weeds presenting a very unkempt and neglected appearance.497

[IMAGE: Grandin College girls’ basketball team, Northwest Territories. One Grandin student wrote in the school newsletter, “At Grandin, Education comes first.” Although students could participate in school sports teams, “if you are behind in your school work, you are forced to quit your sports.” Deschâtelets Archives.]

Oblate Provincial L. Poupore wrote to Indian Affairs about conditions at the Williams Lake, British Columbia, school in 1957. He pointed out that a year and half earlier, he had informed Indian Affairs about the need for a school gymnasium. At that time, he said, “The boys’ play room, a room about 35 by 60, was a scene of bedlam during recreation periods. There were about 150 boys trying to play; the mud they had brought in on their feet had dried and there was so much dust in the room that you could not recognize a boy at the opposite end.” Although the department had assured him the construction of a gymnasium would be a priority, nothing had been done, and “the problem of playroom space is worse than ever.”498

Despite the lack of financial support, hockey teams from a number of schools achieved considerable success in the 1940s and 1950s. Teams from Duck Lake and Qu’Appelle in Saskatchewan, in particular, established enviable records. The Duck Lake school team, the St. Michael’s Indians, won the championship of an eight-team league in the Rosthern area in 1946.499 In 1948, the same team, coached by Father G.-M. Latour, won the northern Saskatchewan midget hockey championship. The following year, it won the provincial championship.500 According to the Prince Albert Daily Herald, “While the Duck Lake boys were outweighed in their midget series they made it up in hockey know-how, skating ability and shooting accuracy. Their drives, from any angle, had the Regina players scared and baffled at the same time.”501 Among the players on the 1949 Duck Lake provincial championship team was Fred Sasakamoose, who went on to become the first status Indian to play in the National Hockey League.502

While hockey dominated boys’ sports in most residential schools, British Columbia residential schools gained renown for their boxers. In 1947, the Roman Catholic school at Sechelt in North Vancouver advertised for a volunteer to run a school athletics program. Navy veteran Alex Strain took on the job. At the time, the school had no recreation program and no facilities. Under Strain’s direction, the students cleared out a storage building and turned it into a gymnasium. Putting in four days of volunteer work a week, Strain created what Vancouver Sun reporter Gerry Pratt described as “the smoothest tumbling team in the province.” He then established a boxing program at the school. The limits of the first ring were marked out by four rows of chairs. The first punching bag was a navy duffle bag filled with tumbling mats. After two years, Strain purchased a used truck and took the students on a boxing tour of Vancouver Island. After four years in existence, the team had won over 100 trophies. Sister John Lawrence made robes and shorts for each member of the team and also served as trainer.503 Frederick Baker, the winner of the first national Tom Longboat award, was a member of the Sechelt boxing team. Baker had won three championships in 1948, two in 1949, one in 1950, and one in 1951.504

[IMAGE: Painter Judith Morgan attended the Alberni, British Columbia, school in the 1940s. Royal British Columbia Museum, Image G-02437.]

Other students sought solace in the arts. A number of former residential school students went on to prominent careers in the visual arts, including Alex Janvier, Jackson Beardy, Judith Morgan, and Norval Morrisseau. Some, such as Beardy, were encouraged in their artistic endeavours by sympathetic staff.505 Like sports, cultural activities were underfunded. They were also often intended to encourage assimilation. In 1967, the students attending the Shingwauk, Ontario, school put on a four-act play called Arrow to the Moon. One act used a dialogue between an Elder and a young man to contrast what were seen as the old and new ways open to Aboriginal people. Billy Diamond played the role of the young man, who concludes at the scene’s end, “The new ways show a way to work and live but the old ways have shown us how to die.” The performance was filmed and shown to the James Bay Cree, who refrained from making any public comment, but were shocked to discover the degree to which their children were being manipulated.506

Albert Canadien recalled in his memoirs from Akaitcho Hall:

A few of the boys had guitars and there were other instruments in the common room. Sometimes, a few of the boys would get together and play to pass the time. John, the boys’ supervisor, noticed this was going on and took an interest, encouraging us to play and sing.

At first we got together just for fun. But eventually … we formed a band. There were five or six of us, and we call ourselves the Arctic Ramblers. We had guitars, fiddle, bass guitar, drums, and there was even a piano for a while.507

They played at dances at the residence and in Hay River.507 Canadien went on to play in the Chieftones, a rock-and-roll band that toured extensively across North America.508

On the rinks, the athletic fields, and parade grounds, or in the arts and handicraft rooms and on performance stages, many students found a way to express themselves, and, through that, gained the opportunity to explore their own talents and sometimes other parts of the country or the world. Most importantly, they gained some confidence in their ability to achieve.

Resistance: “I am the father of this child.”

Parents and children developed a variety of strategies to resist residential schooling. Parents might refuse to enrol students, refuse to return runaways, or they might refuse to return students to school at the end of the summer holidays. They also called on the government to increase school funding; to establish day schools in their home communities; and to improve the quality of education, food, and clothing. In taking such measures, they often put themselves at risk of legal reprisals. Almost invariably, the system declined to accept the validity of parental and student criticisms. Parental influences were judged by school and government officials to be negative and backward. The schools also suspected parents of encouraging their children in acts of disobedience.509 Once parents came to be viewed as the ‘enemy,’ their criticisms, no matter how valid, could be discounted.

[IMAGE: Students at the Kitamaat, British Columbia, school. In 1922, parents refused to return their children to school after the death of one student. The United Church of Canada Archives, 93.049P1835.]

Prior to 1920, when the Indian Act was amended to allow Indian Affairs to compel children to attend residential school, the most effective form of resistance that parents could make was to simply refuse to enrol their children. This measure was so effective that it contributed to the closure of a number of residential schools. The Battleford, Saskatchewan, school, which had a capacity of 150 students, had an enrolment of thirty-five in 1915.510 The school was closed two years later.511 The High River, Alberta, school could also hold over 100 students, but by 1922, the year it closed, the school had an enrolment of only forty.512 The Middlechurch, Manitoba, school was not rebuilt after it burned down in 1906, in large measure because it could not recruit enough students.513 For similar reasons, the St. Boniface, Manitoba, school closed in 1905; the Calgary, Alberta, school closed in 1907; the Regina, Saskatchewan, school closed in 1910; the Elkhorn, Manitoba, school closed in 1919; and the Red Deer, Alberta, school closed in 1919.514

By refusing to enrol their children in the industrial schools on the Prairies, parents not only undermined the federal government’s assimilation policies, but also deprived the schools of per capita grant revenue and student labour. As a result, the industrial schools ran significant deficits, and overworked and underfed the children they did recruit. This led other parents to withdraw their children from the schools. This was never a risk-free choice for parents. Often, residential schools were the only available schools. Parents who wished to see their children schooled had few, if any, options.515

Sometimes, government officials also took reprisals against parents who kept their children out of school, in some cases denying them food rations and Treaty payments.516 Parents continued to keep their children out of school well into the twentieth century: in 1941, only forty-five students were enrolled in the Fort Providence school, which had an authorized attendance of 100.517

In at least one instance, parents home-schooled their children. In 1941, Muriel, Doreen, and Kathleen Steinhauer were kept home from the Edmonton residential school because their parents were not satisfied with the progress they were making at the school. Their mother, Isabel, had been a schoolteacher prior to her marriage, and home-schooled the children.518

Sometimes, parents took their children out of school against the wishes of the principal. In 1904, a husband and wife attempted to remove their daughter from the Kuper Island school. When Principal G. Donckele informed them that when they signed the admission form, they had given the government the right to determine when their daughter would be discharged, the father said, “I am the father of this child and I do not care for what you and the government have to say about it.” After being told that he could be prosecuted, the father left with his daughter anyway.519

In 1913, when a mother removed her daughter from the Fort Resolution school, the Mounted Police were called in and the mother surrendered the girl to the school.520 In response to the death of a student in 1922, local parents withdrew their children from the Kitamaat, British Columbia, residential school. They agreed to return them only on the condition that the principal “sign her name to a paper before us that she would see that the children got all the food they wanted, that they would be well cared for, and be supplied with sufficient clothing.”521

In March 1948, the principal of the Roman Catholic school at Cardston, Alberta, struck a father who was attempting to take his son out of the school. In discussing the issue with Indian Affairs, the Blood Indian Council insisted on having the record note that this was “not the first time that Father Charron had hit an Indian.”522

It was not uncommon for the parents of an entire community or region to refuse to return their children to school. In the fall of 1926, for example, parents from communities in Manitoba’s Interlake region announced they were not sending their children back to the Elkhorn school. According to the parents, the children were not well fed, the older boys compelled the younger boys to steal, and all children were poorly clothed.523 In October 1927, seventy-five school-aged children from the Blood Reserve in Alberta either had not returned to school or had not been enrolled in school. It took a letter from the police, plus a follow-up visit from the Indian agent, to fill the Anglican and Catholic schools on the reserve.524 Two weeks after the start of the 1940 school year, fifty-four students had yet to return to the Fraser Lake, British Columbia, school. The police were called in, and by October 2, twenty-five of the students had been returned.525 This form of parental action was common throughout the 1940s.526

Parents were eager to have their children properly educated, and often proposed realistic and effective solutions. In 1905, parents of children attending the Roman Catholic boarding school in Squamish, British Columbia, petitioned to have the school converted into an industrial school. The request was not granted, despite the fact that Indian Affairs officials recognized that the boarding school grant allowed for only “the bare necessities in the line of food and clothing.”527

Some First Nations leaders who had originally supported residential schools later publicly regretted their decision. Chief Napahkesit of the Pine Creek Band in Manitoba said in 1917 that he was sorry he had ever supported the construction of the Pine Creek school. According to the local Indian agent, the chief felt “the children know less when they come out than they did when they went in.” What was needed, the chief said, was a day school.528 Calls for day schools were, in fact, a common parental request.529 A 1949 call from parents for a day school at the Cowessess Reserve eventually proved to be successful.530

Parents might also demand the dismissal of a principal.531 In 1917, to back up their call for the resignation of the Shoal Lake school principal, parents refused to return their children to the school.532 In this case, the principal did resign.533 The parents of the Kahkewistahaw Band unsuccessfully petitioned the federal government to remove a teacher from the Round Lake, Saskatchewan, school in July 1949. They said that “the children’s report cards are very unsatisfactory, worst ever received, and she abuses the children too much.534 Parents also complained that their children were not learning the skills they needed to survive. Chief Kejick of the Shoal Lake Band told Indian Affairs officials in 1928 that the students from his reserve “did not know how to make a living when they left school and would like trades taught.”535 Eight years later, Charlie Shingoose of the Waywayseecappo Band sought to have his fifteen-year-old son discharged from the Birtle school so he could teach him to “work, trap, etc.”536

Parents also hired lawyers to press their cases for investigations into the deaths of children who had run away, to complain about the harshness of discipline, to advocate on behalf of children who had been injured working at the schools, and to attempt to have their children discharged from school.537

One of the more unusual protests was mounted by First Nations people (Dene) in the Northwest Territories, who, in 1937, refused to accept their Treaty payments in protest of conditions at the Fort Resolution school. Their children, they said, were “living in hell.”538

Residential schools also came under criticism from early First Nations organizations. At its meeting in Saddle Lake, Alberta, in 1931, the League of Indians of Canada called for the construction of more day schools to augment residential schools.539 The following year, the league, by then known as the League of Indians of Western Canada, called for the closure of boarding schools.540 The league also recommended that only qualified teachers be hired to work at residential schools, that medical examinations be given to students before they were sent to the schools, and that the half-day system be changed to allow for greater class time.541

[IMAGE: Boys cutting wood at the Williams Lake, British Columbia, school in either the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. In February 1902 Duncan Sticks froze to death after running away from the school. Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin.]

In an effort to bring their own residential schooling to an end, some students attempted to burn their schools down. There were at least thirty-seven such attempts, two of which ended in student and staff deaths.542 For students, the most effective form of resistance was to run away. The principal of the Shingwauk Home in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, school in the 1870s, E. F. Wilson, devoted a chapter of his memoirs to the topic of “Runaway Boys.” It included the story of three boys who tried to make their way home by boat. They were found alive more than ten days later, stranded on an island in the North Channel of Lake Huron.543

After 1894, children enrolled in a residential school (or who had been placed there by government order because it was felt that they were not being properly cared for by their parents) but who were refusing to show up at school were considered to be “truant.” Under the Indian Act and its regulations, they could be returned to the school against their will. Children who ran away from residential schools were also considered to be truants. Parents who supported their children in their truancy were often threatened with prosecution.544

Most runaway students headed for their home communities. Students knew they might be caught, returned, and punished. Still, they believed the effort to make it home and have a measure of freedom was worth it. In some cases, in fact, the schools failed to force runaways to return.545 Some students eluded capture. Instead of heading home, some went to work for local farmers and, as a result, were able to avoid their pursuers for considerable periods of time.546

Running away could be risky. At least thirty-three students died, usually due to exposure, after running away from school.547 In a significant number of cases, parents and Indian Affairs officials concluded that the deaths could have been prevented if school officials had mounted earlier and more effective searches and notified police officials and family members.548 In the case of Charles and Tom Ombash, two brothers who ran away from the Sioux Lookout school on October 5, 1956, school officials waited until November before informing police or Indian Affairs.549 The boys were never found—community members continued to search for their remains decades after their disappearance.550

These deaths date back to the beginning of the twentieth century. However, the first system-wide policy outlining the procedures to be taken when a child ran away from school that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has located in the documents it has reviewed dates from 1953. This was seventy-five years after the government began its residential school system. That policy simply stated, “The principal shall take prompt action to effect the return to school of any truant pupil, and shall report promptly to the Superintendent, Indian Agency, every case of truancy.”551 The nature of the prompt action was undefined. In particular, there was no requirement to contact either the child’s parents or the police. It was not until 1971 that a more encompassing, nation-wide, policy was announced.552

In pursuing children to their parents’ homes, the actions of school employees could be both invasive and disrespectful.553 In the town of Lebret, Saskatchewan, “all the houses were checked” by the police as part of a search for two runaways from the File Hills school in 1935.554

Running away was not in itself a crime. However, most students were wearing school-issued clothing when they ran away, and, in some cases, principals tried, and even succeeded, in having them prosecuted for stealing the clothing they were wearing.555 Students who ran away numerous times also could be charged under the Juvenile Delinquents Act. In such cases, they could be sentenced to a reformatory until they turned twenty-one.556

The 1894 Indian Act amendments made parents who did not return truants to school subject to prosecution. The Mounted Police were often called in to force parents to send their children to school.557 The Blue Quills, Alberta, school journal entry for May 1, 1932, reads: “The savages having received the order to bring their children to school unless they want the police to get involved, some parents did obey the order today. But there are still those who turn a deaf ear.”558 In 1937, a father who refused to return his son to the Sandy Bay, Manitoba, school was sentenced to ten days in jail. To prevent him from running away again, the boy was sent to a school in Saskatchewan.559

Parents were often outraged at having to return runaways. Wallace Hahawahi’s father was reported as being “very indignant” at the prospect of sending his son back to the Brandon school in 1936. The boy was over sixteen and needed to help out at home. In this case, the father’s argument prevailed and the boy was discharged.560 Another runaway from the same school, Kenneth Thompson, told the police, “I am a Treaty Indian of Assiniboine Indian Reserve, I am 17 year of Age. I wish to state the reason I ran away from school was because I have to work too hard in fact I do not study at all. I am working around the school all the time. I consider if I have to work I may as well work at home for my father.”561 Despite his argument, he was returned to the school.562

Indian agents often referred to ongoing truancy issues at specific schools as “epidemics.” The agents viewed such epidemics as a sign of underlying problems at a school. In 1928, Indian agent J. Waddy wrote that at the Anglican school in The Pas, “hardly a day goes bye [sic] that one or more do not take leave on their own account.”563 In 1935, ten pupils ran away from the Birtle, Manitoba, school.564 In the closing years of the 1930s, the Shubenacadie school in Nova Scotia experienced continual truancy problems. It was not uncommon for some students to make numerous attempts to leave the school. On the morning of July 7, 1937, Andrew Julian decided not to join the other boys assigned to milk the school’s dairy herd. Instead, he headed for Truro, where he was reported as being sighted in the rail yard. He was not located until the end of the month. By then, he had made it to Nyanza in Cape Breton, a distance of 260 miles (418.4 kilometres) from the school.565 The following year, Steven Labobe (also given as LaBobe) managed to make it back to his home on Prince Edward Island. The principal decided not to demand the boy’s return.566 Other boys were not so lucky. One boy, who ran away five times, was eventually placed in a private reformatory.567

Many students said they ran away to escape the discipline of the school. Ken Lacquette attended residential schools in Brandon and Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. “They used to give us straps all the time with our pants down they’d give us straps right in the public. Then … this started happening, after awhile when I was getting old enough I started taking off from there, running away.”568 Others were seeking to escape something far more sinister than corporal punishment. After being subjected to ongoing sexual abuse, Anthony Wilson ran away from the Alberni school.569

In the 1940s, Arthur McKay regularly ran away from the Sandy Bay school. “I didn’t even know where my home was, the first time right away. But these guys are the ones; my friends were living in nearby reserve, what they call Ebb and Flow, that’s where they were going so I followed.”570 Ivan George and a group of his friends ran away from the Mission, British Columbia, school when he was eleven years old. They were strapped on their return. Despite this, he ran away two more times that school year.571

Muriel Morrisseau ran away from the Fort Alexander school almost every year she was at the school. The experience was often frightening. “I remember running away again trying to cross the river and it started freezing up, we all got scared, we had to come back again with a tail under our legs.”572 Isaac Daniels ran away from the Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, school with two older boys. Their escape route involved crossing a railway bridge. Partway across, Daniels became too frightened to continue and turned back.573 Dora Necan ran away from the Fort Frances school with a friend. They made it to the United States and stayed there for three days before returning to the school.574 Nellie Cournoyea was sheltered by Aboriginal families along her route when she ran away from an Anglican hostel in the Northwest Territories after a confrontation with a teacher.575 When Lawrence Waquan ran away from the Fort Chipewyan school in 1965, there were no roads and no one along the way to support him. “I walked from Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta to Fort Smith, 130 miles. It took me about five days. I was only about sixteen. And I just ate berries and drank water to survive.”576

When Beverley Anne Machelle and her friends ran away from the Lytton, British Columbia, school, they had to contend with the school’s isolated and mountainous location.

It was halfway down this big hill, and then from there you could see town. And we got halfway down there, and we were all feeling, like, woo-hoo, you know, and we got out of there, and, and we’re gonna go do something fun, and, and then we got halfway down, and then we realized, well, we have no money, and we have no place to go. There was no place to go. There was no safe place to go.577

The girls at the Sioux Lookout school rebelled in 1955 when they were all sent to bed early after a number of girls had been caught stealing. They barricaded themselves in their dormitory and refused to allow any staff to enter.578 There was a similar revolt in Edmonton in the 1960s, when students blocked staff entry to the dormitory at night, to protest the abuse of students.579

Collectively and individually, parents and students did resist the residential school attack on Aboriginal families and communities. On occasion, they won small victories: a child might be discharged; a day school might be built. However, as long as Aboriginal people were excluded from positions of control over their children’s education, the root causes of the conflict remained unresolved.

The staff: “My aim was to do something good.”

For most of their history, residential schools were staffed by individuals who were recruited by Christian missionary organizations. Generally, the churches appointed a priest or minister, as opposed to an educator, as the principal. The Roman Catholic schools could draw staff from a number of Catholic religious orders, whose members had made explicit vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity. In the spirit of those vows, they would be obliged to go where they were sent, would not expect payment, and would have no families to support. Indian Commissioner David Laird believed that since members of Roman Catholic religious orders received very little in exchange for their services, the Roman Catholic schools could “afford to have a much larger staff than where ordinary salaries are paid, and there is consequently less work for each to do, without interfering with the quality of the work done.”580 The Protestant schools recruited many of their staff members through missionary organizations.

[IMAGE: Staff outside the entrance of the Brandon, Manitoba, school in 1946. National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque, Library and Archives Canada, PA-048575.]

Many of the early school staff members believed they were participating in a moral crusade. In her history of the McDougall Orphanage, the predecessor of the Morley school in Alberta, Mrs. J. McDougall described the work of the mission and orphanage as “going out after the wild and ignorant and bringing them into a Christian home and blessing the body, culturing the mind and trying to raise spiritual vision.”581

Staff members were often motivated by a spirit of adventure as well as a religious commitment. As a young seminary student in Corsica, a French island in the Mediterranean, Nicolas Coccola wanted more than a life as a priest. In his memoir, he wrote, “The desire of foreign missions with the hope of martyrdom appeared to me as a higher calling.” He ended up living out his life as a residential school principal in British Columbia.582 As a small boy in England in the middle of the nineteenth century, Gibbon Stocken read with enthusiasm the missionary literature sent to him by an aunt. When he turned seventeen, he volunteered his services to the Anglican Church Missionary Society. He hoped to be sent to India. Instead, he was offered a position on the Blackfoot Reserve in what is now southern Alberta.583 British-born nurse and midwife Margaret Butcher managed to get to India, where she worked for a British family. From there, she made her way to British Columbia, where she worked with a Methodist mission to Japanese immigrants.584 In 1916, she was on her way to a job at the Methodist residential school in Kitamaat, British Columbia.585

This mix of motivations continued throughout the system’s history. Lorraine Arbez, who worked at the Qu’Appelle school in the 1950s, said, “I chose this career to work with the children and my aim was to do something good with them and I hope I was of some use.”586 For Noreen Fischbuch, who worked at schools in Ontario and Alberta in the 1950s and 1960s, the residential schools offered much-needed experience: “As far as I was concerned, it was a teaching job, it was with the kids and I liked the kids.… The kids were getting an education; I had a job.”587 George Takashima, who taught at Sioux Lookout, explained, “I was just sort of adventuresome, you might say.”588

Almost all the staff members were poorly paid. Government officials took the position that because many of the staff members belonged to missionary organizations, pay was a “minor consideration.”589 As a result, the schools had problems recruiting and keeping staff. Alexander Sutherland of the Methodist Church was particularly outspoken about the link between low wages and the difficulties the schools had in recruiting staff. In 1887, he wrote to the minister of Indian Affairs about the “difficulty of obtaining efficient and properly qualified teachers, on account of the meagre salaries paid.”590 The issue of low pay never went away. More than half a century later, in 1948, C. H. Birdsall, the chair of the United Church committee responsible for the Edmonton school, complained that it “is impossible for the Residential School to offer salaries in competition with” rates that Indian Affairs was paying teachers at day schools. Given the inadequate quality of accommodation, equipment, and staff at the school, he felt that it was “doubtful the present work with Indian Children could properly be called education.”591 Many of the Catholic schools survived on what amounted to volunteer labour. In 1948, Sechelt principal H. F. Dunlop informed Ottawa, “If this school kept out of the red during the past year it was largely due to the fact that four Oblates, working here full time, received in salaries from Jan 1947 to Jan 1948 the grand total of $1800.”592 As late as 1960, the nuns at the Christie Island school were being paid $50 a month—a fact that made Principal A. Noonan “feel like a heel.”593

Many qualified and experienced people worked in the schools. Miss Asson, the matron at the Kitamaat school in 1930, was a graduate of the Ensworth Deaconess Hospital in St. Joseph, Missouri. She had also trained as a deaconess in Toronto, and worked in China from 1909 to 1927.594 The matron at the Anglican Wabasca, Alberta, school in 1933 was a nurse.595 Among the staff at the Norway House school in the early twentieth century were the sisters Charlotte Amelia and Lilian Yeomans. Charlotte had trained as a nurse, and Lilian was one of the first women in Canada to qualify as a doctor.596 Theresa Reid had four years of teaching experience and a teaching certificate before she applied to work at Norway House,597 George Takashima had a teaching certificate,598 and Olive Saunders had a university degree and several years of teaching experience.599 In 1966, E. O. Drouin, the principal of the Roman Catholic school in Cardston, boasted that out of the twenty-one people on his staff, ten had university degrees. Drouin, himself, had left his position as a university professor to go to work at the school.600 A number of people devoted their adult lives to working in residential schools. At least twelve principals died in office.601 Kuper Island principal George Donckele resigned in January 1907; by June of that year, he was dead.602 Sherman Shepherd served at the Anglican schools in Shingle Point on the Arctic Ocean in the Yukon, Aklavik (Northwest Territories), Fort George (Québec), and Moose Factory (Ontario), resigning in 1954 after twenty-five years of service in northern Canada.603 Others worked into their old age, since, due to low pay, their savings were also low and pensions were minimal. When the seventy-three-year-old matron of the Ahousaht school in British Columbia retired in 1929, Principal W. M. Wood recommended that she be given an honorarium of a month’s salary as appreciation for her years of service. Woods noted that she was “retiring with very limited means.”604

[IMAGE: The chief cook at Lapointe Hall in Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories. The schools were highly dependent on female labour. Northwest Territories Archives, N-1992-255-0144.]

Such long service was not the norm. Because the pay was often low and the working and living conditions were difficult, turnover was high throughout the system’s history. From 1882 to 1894, there was what amounted to an annual full turnover of teachers at the Fort Simpson (now Port Simpson), British Columbia, school. At one point, all the teaching was being done by the local Methodist missionary Thomas Crosby, his wife, Emma, and the school matron.605 Between January 1958 and March 1960, a period of just over two years, the Alert Bay school lost fifty-eight staff members. Of these, nineteen had been fired because they were deemed to be incompetent. Eight others left because they were angry with the principal.606 In 1958, the Benedictine Sisters announced that their order would no longer be providing the Christie, British Columbia, school with staff from its monastery in Mount Angel, Oregon. According to the prioress of the Benedictine monastery, Mother Mary Gemma, meeting residential school needs had left the members of the order physically and mentally exhausted. “One of my youngest teachers had to have shock treatments this year and two others may have to.” In the previous two and a half years, the order had lost fourteen teachers.607 These examples are confirmed by the overall statistics. The average annual turnover rate for all Indian Affairs schools from 1956–57 to 1963–64 was 25%.608

The schools were heavily dependent on female labour. The Roman Catholics relied on female religious orders to staff and operate the residential schools.609 The Protestants were equally reliant upon the underpaid work of female staff. Austin McKitrick, the principal of the Presbyterian school at Shoal Lake in northwestern Ontario, acknowledged this when he wrote in 1901, “I think if we men were to put ourselves in the places of some overworked, tired-out women, we would perhaps not stand it so patiently as they often do.”610 One missionary wrote that, knowing what he did about what was expected of female missionaries, he would discourage any daughter of his from working for the Methodist Women’s Missionary Society.611

Although women usually worked in subordinate roles, the 1906 Indian Affairs annual report listed eleven female principals. All worked at boarding schools, as opposed to industrial schools. Seven of them were Roman Catholic, two were Anglican, one was Methodist, and one was Presbyterian.612 One of these principals was Kate Gillespie. After teaching at day schools on reserves near Kamsack and Prince Albert, she was appointed principal of the File Hills school in 1901, a position she held until her marriage in 1908.613

The schools employed many more people than principals and teachers. Most schools were mini-communities. There were cooks, seamstresses, housekeepers, matrons, disciplinarians, farmers, carpenters, blacksmiths, engineers (to operate the heating and electrical generators), shoemakers, and even bandmasters.614 Smaller schools such as the United Church Crosby Girls’ Home in Port Simpson, British Columbia, made do with a staff of only three people in 1935.615 The Roman Catholic school at Kamloops, British Columbia, had at least nineteen staff in that same year.616 The Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, residence had over fifty employees during the 1966– 67 school year.617

Workloads were heavy, and time off was rare. The seven-day week was the norm for many employees. An 1896 report on the Mount Elgin school noted, “No holidays are given or allowed to the staff; all days or parts of days lost time are deducted from their wages.”618 The policy at the Anglican schools into the 1920s was to allow “one full day off duty each month.”619 Indian agent F. J. C. Ball predicted that a sixty-threeyear-old employee of the Lytton school was headed for a nervous breakdown in 1922. According to Ball, the man was “acting as teacher, minister, janitor and general handy man around the School. He also has charge of the boys [sic] dormitory at night.”620

Staff meals were generally superior to those provided to the students. Staff members, particularly in the early years of the system, had greater immunity than their students to many of the diseases that plagued residential schools. Despite this, the living conditions that prevailed in many schools took a toll on staff. In 1896, E. B. Glass, the principal of the Whitefish Lake school in what is now Alberta, said the deterioration in the health of one staff member was the result of having to work in an inadequately heated and poorly insulated schoolhouse in which the “cold wind whistled up through the floor.” Glass said that “the Department which charges itself with building, repairing and furnishing school houses, should also charge itself with neglect and the suffering endured by the teacher from that neglect.”621

Disease and illness also claimed the children of married staff members. Emma Crosby, who helped found the Crosby Girls’ Home in Port Simpson in the late 1870s, buried four of her children at Port Simpson. Two of them had succumbed to diphtheria.622 Elizabeth Matheson, the wife of the Onion Lake principal, lost a daughter to whooping cough and a son to meningeal croup in the early years of the twentieth century.623 During her fourth pregnancy, Elizabeth Matheson was so depressed that she considered suicide.624

Missionary staff, particularly in the early years of the system, were extremely hostile to Aboriginal culture.625 They commonly described Aboriginal people as “lazy.”626 The long-time principal of the Shubenacadie school in Nova Scotia, J. P. Mackey, was expressing these views in the 1930s. In one letter, he described Aboriginal people as natural liars. “For myself, I never hope to catch up with the Indian and his lies, and in fact I am not going to try.”627 Others, however, spoke out on behalf of Aboriginal people. Hugh McKay, the superintendent of Presbyterian missionary work among Aboriginal people, criticized the federal government for failing to implement its Treaty promises and for failing to alleviate the hunger crisis on the Prairies.628 Similarly, William Duncan, the Anglican missionary at Metlakatla, British Columbia, advised the Tsimshian on how to advance arguments in favour of Aboriginal title.629

Sometimes, staff protested the way students were treated. When two staff members of the Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, school resigned in 1952, they complained of the harsh disciplinary regime at the school.630 In 1957, Helen Clafton, an ex-dormitory supervisor, wrote of how, at the Lytton, British Columbia, school, “the ‘strap’ is altogether too much in evidence.”631

Aboriginal people also worked for the schools. The Mohawk Institute hired former student Isaac Barefoot to work as a teacher in 1869. Barefoot went on to serve as acting principal and was later ordained as an Anglican minister.632 Another former student, Susan Hardie, obtained her teaching certificate in 1886.633 She was the school governess as early as 1894, and was paid $200 a year.634 She retired at the beginning of the 1936–37 school year.635 A young Oneida woman, Miss Cornelius, taught at the Regina school in the early twentieth century.636 She left the following year, lured away to a better paying school in the United States.637 In the early 1930s, the Brandon school hired former student Lulu Ironstar as a teacher.638 But these were exceptions, not the rule. As late as 1960, there were only twenty-three First Nations teachers working in residential schools across the country. Nineteen taught academic subjects and the other four taught home economics and industrial arts.639 Stan McKay, who was educated at the Birtle and Brandon residential schools, taught in the Norway House, Manitoba, school in the 1960s. Although there was much that he enjoyed about the work, he left after two years. In his opinion, the education he was being forced to provide was not relevant to the lives of the children. There was, for example, a heavy emphasis on English, and no recognition of the role of Cree in the communities from which the children came. “They were doomed to fail under the system that existed. The majority of them would certainly and did.”640

[IMAGE: Miss Cornelius, an Oneida woman, taught at the Regina, Saskatchewan, school in the early twentieth century. Saskatchewan Archives Board, R-B992.]

Verna Kirkness, who was raised on the Fisher River First Nation in Manitoba, taught at both the Birtle and Norway House schools.641 She did not like the atmosphere at the Birtle school, where, she felt, administrators discouraged students from spending additional time with her. In her memoir, she wrote that she “wondered if they were afraid the children would tell me things about their lives away from the classroom.”642

It was in the 1960s that a number of Aboriginal people were promoted to the position of school principal. Ahab Spence, a former residential school student, was appointed principal of the Sioux Lookout school in 1963.643 Under Spence’s administration, the school had a staff of twenty-three, half of whom were Aboriginal.644 Colin Wasacase became the principal of the Presbyterian school in Kenora in 1966.645 In keeping with past practice, his wife was made school matron.646 This trend continued into the 1970s, when Aboriginal people were appointed to administrative positions at numerous residential schools, including those in Mission and Kamloops, British Columbia; Blue Quills, Alberta; Prince Albert, Duck Lake, and Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan; and Fort George, Québec.647 Although the total number of schools declined rapidly from 1969 onwards, they became a significant source of Aboriginal employment, particularly in Saskatchewan, where six schools were operated by First Nations educational authorities. Of the 360 people working in the Saskatchewan schools in 1994, 220 were of Aboriginal ancestry—almost two-thirds of the total.648

Most of the Aboriginal people who were hired by the schools worked as cooks, cleaners, and handymen. In 1954, Mrs. Clair, a Cree woman who had attended the school at Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan, was working at the Carcross school in the Yukon. She was described by a superintendent as a “very fine person, willing worker and everyone likes her. Can certainly get the most out of the children.”649 At the Wabasca, Alberta, school, Alphonse Alook was seen as being “a tower of strength to the Principal especially of late. Can do fair carpentering and is loyal to the school. Principal recommends an increase in his salary.”650 Four young Aboriginal women, three of whom were sisters, had been hired to work at the Fort George, Québec, school in 1953.651 A 1956 report on three of them said, “The Herodier girls are all doing a fine job.” They were not, however, being housed in the same way as non-Aboriginal staff. The report observed that it was fortunate that “the native girls do not mind doubling up in cramped quarters otherwise staff accommodation would be insufficient.”652

A number of former Aboriginal staff members felt they helped make an important difference in the lives of the students. Jeanne Rioux went to the Edmonton school and later worked as a supervisor at the Hobbema school in Alberta. There, she challenged staff about the way they disciplined children.653 Mary Chapman was a former residential school student who later worked in the kitchen of the Kuper Island school. At her prompting, the school began serving students and staff the same meals. It was her rule that “if we run out of roast, the kids run out of roast, I don’t give them bologna, I take the roast from the staff and I give it to them.”654 Vitaline Elsie Jenner, who had unhappily attended the Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, residential school, worked as a girls’ supervisor at Breynat Hall, the Roman Catholic residence at Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. To her surprise, she enjoyed most of the experience. She recalled being asked by one staff person what sort of games she thought the children would like to play to make them feel at home. “I said, ‘You know I bet you they all want to be hugged, like I was in that residential school. ’Cause you know what? They’re away from their parents.’”655

Former staff and the children of former staff members have expressed the view that much of the discussion of the history of residential schools has overlooked both the positive intent with which many staff members approached their work, and the positive accomplishments of the school system. Although they certainly believed the system was underfunded, they also believed that they and their parents devoted much of their lives to educating and caring for Aboriginal children.

Most of the staff members did not make a career in residential schools, spending only a year or two at a school before moving on. Others stayed for many years in conditions that were often very different from what they grew up with, working for low pay, and living in cramped and confined quarters with, at times, less than congenial colleagues. They spent their time teaching, cooking, cleaning, farming, and supervising children. On their own, these can be seen as positive, not negative, activities. For the most part, the school staff members were not responsible for the policies that separated children from their parents and lodged them in inadequate and underfunded facilities. In fact, many staff members spent much of their time and energy attempting to humanize a harsh and often destructive system. Along with the children’s own resilience, such staff members share credit for any positive results of the schools.

Agreement and apologies

During the years in which the federal government was slowly closing the residential school system, Aboriginal people across the country were establishing effective regional and national organizations. In the courts and the legislatures, they argued for the recognition of Aboriginal rights, particularly the right to self-government. They forced the government to withdraw its 1969 White Paper that aimed at terminating Aboriginal rights, they placed the settling of land claims on the national agenda, ensured that Aboriginal rights were entrenched in the Constitution, and saw the creation of a new jurisdiction within Canada—the territory of Nunavut—with an Inuit majority population. These developments were part of a global movement asserting the rights of Indigenous peoples. Canadian Aboriginal leaders played a key role in this movement. For example, they were central in the creation of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples in 1975.656 The work of the council laid the groundwork for the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.657

From the 1960s onwards, many people within the churches began to re-evaluate both the broader history of the relations between the churches and Aboriginal peoples, and the specific history of the residential schools. Many church organizations provided support to Aboriginal campaigns on such issues as land and Treaty rights. In the 1980s, the churches began to issue apologies to Aboriginal people. One of the first of these, issued in 1986 by the United Church of Canada, focused on the destructive impact that church missionary work had on Aboriginal culture.658 The Oblate order offered an apology in 1991 that referred to the residential schools.659 Apologies relating specifically to their roles in operating residential schools were issued by the Anglicans in 1993, the Presbyterians in 1994, and the United Church in 1998.660

Aboriginal people also began both individually and collectively to push for the prosecution of individuals who had abused students at residential schools and for compensation for former students. In 1987, Nora Bernard, a former student of the Shubenacadie residential school, began interviewing fellow Survivors in the kitchen of her home in Truro, Nova Scotia.661 In 1995, she formed the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School Survivors Association and started registering Survivors. The work of former students from the schools in places as distant as Fort Albany, Ontario; Chesterfield Inlet, then in the Northwest Territories; and Williams Lake, British Columbia, led to several police investigations, and a limited number of prosecutions and convictions. They also led to the creation of local and national organizations of former residential school students. Phil Fontaine, then Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, placed the issue on the national agenda in October 1990 when he spoke publicly about the abuse that he and his fellow students had experienced at the Fort Alexander school.662

Former students also filed lawsuits against the federal government and the churches over the treatment that they received in the schools. Although they were successful in a number of these cases, courts were not willing to provide compensation for some issues of importance to Aboriginal peoples, such as the loss of language and culture. By October 2001, more than 8,500 residential school Survivors had filed lawsuits against the federal government, the churches, related organizations, and, where possible, the individual who committed the abuse.663 By 2005, it was estimated that the volume surpassed 18,000 lawsuits.664 Former students also commenced class-action lawsuits for compensation. Although lower courts rejected their right to pursue such claims, in 2004, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that one of these cases (known as the “Cloud case”) should be allowed to proceed.665 Within months, the federal government agreed to enter into a process intended to negotiate a settlement to the growing number of class-action suits. The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) was reached in 2006 and approved by the courts in the following year. The IRSSA has five main components: 1) a Common Experience Payment; 2) an Independent Assessment Process; 3) support for the Aboriginal Health Foundation; 4) support for residential school commemoration; and 5) the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Through the Common Experience Payment, former students would receive a payment of $10,000 for the first year that they attended a residential school, and an additional $3,000 for each additional year or partial year of attendance. The Independent Assessment Process adjudicated and compensated the claims of those students who were physically or sexually abused at the schools. Funding was also provided to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation to support initiatives addressing the residential school legacy. The Settlement Agreement committed the federal government to funding initiatives to commemorate the residential school experience. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was mandated to tell Canadians about the history of residential schools and the impact those schools had on Aboriginal peoples, and to guide a process of reconciliation.

The court approval of the IRSSA in 2007 was followed in June 2008 with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology on behalf of Canada. In his statement, the prime minister recognized that the primary purpose of the schools had been to remove children from their homes and families in order to assimilate them better into the dominant culture. Harper said, “These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, ‘to kill the Indian in the child.’ Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.”666

[IMAGE: Canada’s Aboriginal leaders along with a number of former residential schools students were present on the floor of the House of Commons when Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered his 2008 apology. Clockwise from the left: former student Don Favel; former student Mary Moonias; former student Mike Cachagee, President of the National Residential School Survivors Society; former student Crystal Merasty; former student Piita Irniq; Patrick Brazeau, National Chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples; Mary Simon, President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami; Phil Fontaine, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations; Beverley Jacobs, President of the Native Women’s Association of Canada; Clem Chartier, President of the Métis National Council. Former student Marguerite Wabano is obscured by Phil Fontaine’s headdress. Canadian Press: Fred Chartrand.]

The prime minister was joined by the leaders of the other parties represented in the Canadian House of Commons. The Liberal leader of the opposition, the Honourable Stéphane Dion, recognized that the government’s policy had “destroyed the fabric of family in First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities. Parents and children were made to feel worthless. Parents and grandparents were given no choice. Their children were stolen from them.”667 The Bloc Québecois leader, the Honourable Gilles Duceppe, asked Canadians to “picture a small village, a small community. Now picture all of its children, gone. No more children between seven and sixteen playing in the lanes or the woods, filling the hearts of their elders with their laughter and joy.”668 The New Democratic Party leader, the Honourable Jack Layton, called on Canadians to help

reverse the horrific and shameful statistics afflicting Aboriginal populations, now: the high rates of poverty, suicide, the poor or having no education, over crowding, crumbling housing, and unsafe drinking water. Let us make sure that all survivors of the residential schools receive the recognition and compensation that is due to them.669

In his response, Phil Fontaine, then National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said the apology marked a new dawn in the relationship between Aboriginal people and the rest of Canada. He also called attention to the “brave survivors,” who, by “the telling of their painful stories, have stripped white supremacy of its authority and legitimacy. The irresistibility of speaking truth to power is real.”670 National Chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples Patrick Brazeau spoke of how the resiliency, courage, and strength of residential school Survivors had inspired all Aboriginal people.671 Mary Simon, President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said, in tackling the hard work that remained to be done, “Let us now join forces with the common goal of working together to ensure that this apology opens the door to a new chapter in our lives as aboriginal peoples and in our place in Canada.”672 Clem Chartier, President of the Métis National Council, noted that he had attended a residential school, and pointed out that many issues regarding the relationship between Métis people and residential schools still were not resolved. He said, “I also feel deeply conflicted, because there is still misunderstanding about the situation of the Métis Nation, our history and our contemporary situation.”673 Beverley Jacobs, President of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, spoke of how Aboriginal communities were recovering their traditions. “Now we have our language still, we have our ceremonies, we have our elders, and we have to revitalize those ceremonies and the respect for our people not only within Canadian society but even within our own peoples.”674

The Settlement Agreement and the formal apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper represent the culmination of years of political struggle, changes in societal attitudes, court decisions, and negotiation. Through it all, the Survivors kept the issue alive.

These events do not bring the residential school story to an end. The legacy of the schools remains. One can see the impact of a system that disrupted families in the high number of Aboriginal children who have been removed from their families by child-welfare agencies. An educational system that degraded Aboriginal culture and subjected students to humiliating discipline must bear a portion of responsibility for the current gap between the educational success of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. The health of generations of Aboriginal children was undermined by inadequate diets, poor sanitation, overcrowded conditions, and a failure to address the tuberculosis crisis that was ravaging the country’s Aboriginal community. There should be little wonder that Aboriginal health status remains far below that of the general population. The over-incarceration and over-victimization of Aboriginal people also have links to a system that subjected Aboriginal children to punitive discipline and exposed them to physical and sexual abuse.

The history of residential schools presented in this report commenced by placing the schools in the broader history of the global European colonization of Indigenous peoples and their lands. Residential schooling was only a part of the colonization of Aboriginal people. The policy of colonization suppressed Aboriginal culture and languages, disrupted Aboriginal government, destroyed Aboriginal economies, and confined Aboriginal people to marginal and often unproductive land. When that policy resulted in hunger, disease, and poverty, the federal government failed to meet its obligations to Aboriginal people. That policy was dedicated to eliminating Aboriginal peoples as distinct political and cultural entities and must be described for what it was: a policy of cultural genocide.

Despite being subjected to aggressive assimilation policies for nearly 200 years, Aboriginal people have maintained their identity and their communities. They continue to assert their rights to self-governance. In this, they are not alone. Like the Settlement Agreement in Canada, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a milestone in a global campaign to recognize and respect the rights of Indigenous peoples. It is time to abandon the colonial policies of the past, to address the legacy of the schools, and to engage in a process of reconciliation with the Aboriginal people of Canada.

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