Written by: Sofia Watt Sjöström, Lives for Literacy Intern
At Lives for Literacy, we look at the concept of ‘education’ favorably, as something to be promoted. However, the residential school system is a stark reminder that ‘education’ is by no means inherently empowering. In the words of Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs, “our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic” (“Honouring the Truth” 54). This was not about empowering people to think for themselves or even to become good workers. Ultimately, it was only ever about one thing: assimilation.
To this end, Indigenous children were removed from their families, and often barely allowed to return home (King 125). Residential schools were made compulsory – officially, as of 1920, but effectively, even earlier (“Honouring the Truth” 60-61). Within, Indigenous cultural objects were confiscated, traditional dances were prohibited, and home languages were suppressed (“Honouring the Truth” 80-83). Afraid to be punished, schoolchildren began speaking English amongst themselves (“Honouring the Truth” 80-81). Some were explicitly told that white Christians were “the only good people on earth” (“Honouring the Truth” 83). Although Indigenous peoples had “been educating [their] children long before Europeans showed up,” their teachings were not recognized (King 129). In fact, they were forcibly un-learned (“Honouring the Truth” 83).
In total, about 150’000 children were subjected to an ‘education’ in the residential schools (King 131). The net effect was a loss of culture, language and identity that was often multigenerational (“Honouring the Truth” 84; 154). Many survivors could not, or did not want to teach their mother tongues to their own children (“Honouring the Truth” 84). Some became almost permanently estranged from their families and communities (“Honouring the Truth” 154). In subsequent articles, I will delve into the devastating legacy of the residential schools in more depth. For the moment, however, I’d like to recognize that the residential school system ultimately failed. Duncan Campbell Scott’s goal, to completely eliminate Indigenous peoples, never came to fruition. Indigenous people resisted. Even though status Indians were denied the right to attend university, vote, become doctors, lawyers, and so on, most individuals kept their status (“Honouring the Truth” 54). From 1876 to 1920, over almost 50 years, only 250 voluntarily gave up status (“Honouring the Truth” 58). In sum, the residential school system was designed to eliminate Indigenous culture – but, in all its decades of existence, it never could. That being said, it still did a lot of harm.
Although residential schools were officially overseen by the federal government, they were ultimately run by the church (King 125; “Honouring the Truth” 55-56). This enabled the federal government to repeatedly turn a blind eye to the suffering within (King 130; “Honouring the Truth” 56). Today, we should not relieve the government of responsibility. From the beginning, there were obvious signs that the schoolchildren weren’t being properly cared for. After all, the schools were expected, quite impossibly, to be “nearly cost-free” (“Honouring the Truth” 59).
Supposedly, schoolchildren were taught basic trades, conveniently supplying the school with free manpower (“Honouring the Truth” 55-57). The reality was more or less “institutionalized child labour” (“Honouring the Truth” 77-78). Most children spent half their time, or less, in a classroom; and they were hardly taught useful skills (“Honouring the Truth” 77-78). There were accidents of the kind you’d expect to see during the industrial revolution – crushed fingers, lost limbs, deaths (“Honouring the Truth” 79-80). Still, despite literally exploiting kids in the name of education, the residential schools could not break even. And the federal government had no interest in giving them more money than planned. Thus, the average residential schoolchild effectively received less than a third of the money allotted to their non-Indigenous peers (“Honouring the Truth” 59).
Naturally, this underfunding led to great suffering. Firstly, students were only given the most basic, meagre of diets (“Honouring the Truth” 85-86). Inspections over several decades reported that it was inadequate, but norms were slow to change (“Honouring the Truth” 86-88). Survivors remember being hungry all the time (“Honouring the Truth” 85-86). Furthermore, low salaries provided few incentives to teach, so many teachers were underqualified (“Honouring the Truth” 59). A 1955 survey revealed that 23% of government-employed teachers in residential schools had no teacher’s certificate (“Honouring the Truth” 73). Unsurprisingly, the education students received (when they weren’t being forced to do physical labour) was extremely poor. From 1940 to 1960, 41.3% of first graders had to repeat the year, and the vast majority of students never made it to High School (“Honouring the Truth” 144). Many factors contributed to this, but I’d argue that they all come down to the same truth: the goal of residential schools was never education.
As mentioned earlier, the real goal was assimilation. Indigenous children were taught religious values with fervor, but limited to dull memorization in other subjects (“Honouring the Truth” 72). Moreover, prejudiced teachers expected very little of their students, setting the tone for failure (“Honouring the Truth” 72-74). Some actively discouraged learning, calling it “dangerous” (“Honouring the Truth” 72). It did not help that schools were overcrowded to the point that one teacher sometimes taught sixty students or more at once (“Honouring the Truth” 72-73). The idea that students were stolen away from their homes for this is just shameful. Of course, some residential schoolchildren did go on to have prestigious careers – they became government officials, businessmen, lawyers, members of the clergy, and so on (“Honouring the Truth” 74). Yet I’d argue that they accomplished this not thanks to, but despite, their so-called ‘education’.
The residential schools’ disciplinary system was particularly alarming. The federal government initially failed to set disciplinary standards for their schools; later, they issued some directives, but it was unclear that these were properly disseminated or understood (“Honouring the Truth” 101-102). In any case, there were effectively “no real limits on what could be done […] within the walls of a residential school” (“Honouring the Truth” 105). Physical and sexual abuse were widespread to an extent that is still not fully disclosed today (“Honouring the Truth” 106-107). Moreover, children were punished for everything from bedwetting to attempting to run away (“Honouring the Truth” 102-104). Punishments included ear pulls, slaps, kicks, punches, exposure to the cold, head-shavings and haircuts, strappings, bread-and-water diets, and solitary confinement (“Honouring the Truth” 102-104). It is hard to imagine life for a young child to whom acts of violence were a constant, looming threat. Also, corporal punishment might seem archaic, but it happened even in the 1990s (“Honouring the Truth” 104). Residential schools were brutal places in which to grow up.
Not only were residential schoolchildren stolen from their homes, but they lived more like slaves or prisoners than like children. This is why ex-students are called survivors. To live through the residential school system was to endure it.
“Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.” Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015, https://ehprnh2mwo3.exactdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Executive_Summary_English_Web.pdf.
King, Thomas. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. Doubleday Canada, 2012.