Getting Beyond Residential Schools: Reclaiming Education

Written by: Sofia Watt Sjöström, Lives for Literacy Intern

At this point, you are probably aware of the devastating impact of residential schools. In these institutions, deliberately assimilatory practices, together with outright violence and neglect, distorted education into something terrible. Yet today, education is often seen as a tool of empowerment. So, how do we reconcile these conflicting ideas? Can Indigenous peoples reclaim education for self-empowerment? 

Yes, they can. As a matter of fact, this has been happening for decades. Already in 1970, brave Indigenous parents occupied the Blue Quills residential school in Alberta, and successfully made it their own (“Honouring the Truth” 70). And in the years that followed, several more residential schools were taken over across Saskatchewan (“Honouring the Truth” 70). Sadly, we don’t always hear these stories. But it’s important to remember that Indigenous people fought back against the residential school system. They were not merely passive victims. 

Today, I want to focus on an Indigenous-run school a little closer to my home: Kahnawake Survival School (KSS). It was never a residential school, but it, too, was created to resist the colonial status quo. In 1978, KSS was founded as a response to Bill 101. This contentious law was supposed to preserve the French language, but it also forced students to provide documented evidence that they were ‘eligible’ to keep attending High School in English (Deer). This was seen as “unnecessary, unfair and insulting” to the Indigenous community in Kahnawake (just outside of Tiohtiá:ke/Montreal), members of the Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk nation) (Deer). Until then, their children had mostly attended the local English High School, Howard S. Billings, but the new requirements made them rethink (Deer). Thus, one day in 1978, a crowd of people left Billings High School, and marched eight kilometres all the way to Kahnawake, where they founded KSS (Deer). They started from scratch, with nothing but their ideals – no budget or curriculum (Deer). I spoke to Karonhianó:ron Curotte, a recent KSS alumna, to learn more. 

In Ms. Curotte’s words, KSS is “like a good jab back” in response to “what was taken away”. It was created as an act of resistance, and it remains an opportunity for young people to reclaim their language, history, and culture. However, the education students receive there is not incredibly dissimilar from that of other High Schools. As well as studying the Kanien’kéha language, students take Social Studies, Math, Science, Language Arts, Computer Technology, Art, and Carpentry (Kahnawake Survival School). They also play sports, and the school is renowned for its wrestling team. Naturally, KSS’ curriculum is unique, too. For instance, its Social Studies place a special emphasis on Indigeneity (Kahnawake Survival School). Ms. Curotte explained that whilst other High Schools covered “big explorers” like Columbus and Jacques Cartier, hers talked about events such as the bridge disaster in Quebec City, the Oka Crisis, and the battle at Wounded Knee. They also talked about residential schools, which served as a sombre reminder of KSS’ purpose. 

“They tried to, you know, eradicate us,” Ms. Curotte said. “Once you’re reminded of [that], then learning our culture and language is like a protest.” 

Image Source: Kahnawake Education Center

KSS is special not only academically, but socially. Ms. Curotte described it as more of “a family thing” than other High Schools. That is because a great number of her relatives and friends of her relatives attended and/or taught at the school. In fact, her great-grandparents were some of its founding teachers. Although it might seem strange to have such a tightknit High School, let’s consider this in light of history. The residential schools forcibly removed children from their families. By contrast, KSS unites generations of Kanien’keha:ka people, strengthening bonds within families and in the community at large. When you think about it, that is a kind of resistance. 

Next, I asked Ms. Curotte about her transition from High School to CEGEP (pre-university college). Like many, she found this a daunting time. Jumping headfirst into the rigorous Science stream was challenging, and it didn’t help that Ms. Curotte felt like the only Kanien’keha:ka person in a 2000-person school. However, KSS did give Ms. Curotte a better understanding of her own history, which she carried with her even when taking more typically Eurocentric courses. To her, knowing her own origins allowed her to understand other points of view. It also enabled her to take on more leadership roles. For instance, she worked hard to create the Marianopolis First Nations Club, which she envisaged as both a refuge for Indigenous students, and a site of “cultural exchange” with their non-Indigenous peers. Ironically, Ms. Curotte had always been quiet in High School. However, once she got to Marianopolis, she realized that no one else was going to step up to create this club. KSS had given her the backbone of knowledge that she needed to make her vision come true. She decided to go for it. 

As time went on, Ms. Curotte also realized that she was not the only Kanien’keha:ka student at Marianopolis College. Nor were the teachers totally unfamiliar with her community. One of Marianopolis’ gym teachers actually used to teach at KSS. Marianopolis was not that different from KSS, after all. Shifting to post-secondary education is always an undertaking, but for Ms. Curotte, “this city is also Tiohtià:ke.” Today, she feels comfortable calling both schools and locations home. 

Despite KSS’ achievements, some members of the Kanien’keha:ka community believe that the school is ill-equipped to give the same educational opportunities as other schools. Many parents therefore send their children to High School outside of the community. This is frustrating to people like Ms. Curotte, to whom KSS has given so much – academically, personally, and culturally. Firstly, she can speak the Kanien’kéha language, which sadly, not everyone in the community can. More importantly, however, I’d argue that Ms. Curotte has the “strong Kanien’keha:ka self-concept and positive self-esteem” which KSS strives to teach (Kahnawake Survival School). She knows who she is – and this has given her the confidence to pursue her own ambitions to the fullest. 

Of course, Ms. Curotte is just one individual, and cannot represent the entire school. But her story, and KSS in general, should give us hope. For the Indigenous community, so-called education has long since been an instrument of violence and assimilation. Done right, however, education can empower and preserve.

Works Cited

Deer, Ka’nhehsí:io. “Kahnawake Survival School Marks 40 Years of Community Control of Education”. CBC News: Indigenous, Sep. 06 2018,

“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,

Kahnawake Survival School. Kahnawà:ke Education Center, 2018,

About the Author:

Sofia is an incoming McGill Law student, passionate about writing and justice. She feels that it would be relevant to state that she herself is non-Indigenous. Although she has done research and interviews to inform this series of articles, she wants to acknowledge the limitations of her point of view. However, she believes that Reconciliation is an issue that concerns all of us, non-Indigenous and Indigenous both.

Published by livesforliteracy

A non-profit organization on a mission to ensure that youth everywhere have the opportunity to acquire literacy skills that help them reach their full potential academically and economically.

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