What are Residential Schools?
Residential Schools in Canada were a network of boarding schools throughout the country created and designed specifically for the children of indigenous communities, funded by the Canadian government’s Department of Indian (a term used collectively for the indigenous communities) Affairs and operated by the Methodist, Anglican, and Roman Catholic Church’s administration.
There were about 139 active residential schools from 1831 to 1996 and this number merely indicates the schools with official records and set up by the government. There were dozens of other unofficial and non-recorded small-scale schools that operated even after the closure of the last residential school in 1996.
The number of schools reached its peak in 1931 when 80 residential schools were operational throughout the country. An estimate marks the death of more than 6000 indigenous children amongst the 150,000 who attended these institutions, which is an underestimation due to the inefficiency of the schools to preserve the records, and with more graves being excavated, the number is continuously on the rise.
Why Were Residential Schools Created in Canada?
Before the French and British colonized the North American continent which also constitutes present-day Canada, three main indigenous communities were settled there; the First Nations, Innuits, and Metis, which are collectively termed as Indians, Aboriginals, or Eskimos.
The European colonizing powers, with a sense of superiority and pride for being civilized and looking upon the indigenous communities as non-civilized and less privileged, started imposing their religion, culture, and lifestyle upon the natives, through the easiest and most effective ways available, penetrating the young minds and infiltrating them with Europeanness.
As mentioned by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015, “Underlying these arguments was the belief that the colonizers were bringing civilization to savage people who could never civilize themselves … a belief of racial and cultural superiority”.
The process was initiated in the 17th Century when the French colonizers set up the “missionary system” (a group of religious people sent to promote religion through education and social activities) to preach to people about Christianity and Catholicism. A series of residential schools were also established under the same missionary groups, starting from the Mohawk Institute in Ontario in 1831.
However, the response from the indigenous groups had been indifferent and the turnout of students in these schools was very low, as families were distrustful of the colonizers’ intentions. That is when the federal government stepped in. The then Canadian Prime Minister, Macdonald, tasked a journalist, Nicholas Davin to analyze the North American Industrial School System for the indigenous communities and Davin concluded to promote the American style of “aggressive civilization”.
Davin, in his 1879 document, called Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds, highlighted the fact that “If anything is to be done with the Indian, we must catch him very young. The children must be kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions”. Afterward, the government strongly encouraged and promoted the establishment of residential schools throughout the county with the apparent aim to integrate the indigenous people into the newly created Euro-Canadian society and provide the children with financial independence by educating them.
However, the main motive of the government and the Church facility was to alienate the children from their families, deprive the future generations of their culture and religion, assimilate them towards Christianity and by distorting the social fabric, halting their economic progress, as the natives were economically more independent and stable than the Europeans (especially the First Nations), and ensure European and Christian supremacy throughout the Canadian region.
In 1894, under the amendment to the Indian Act 1876 (which defines the interaction between the indigenous people and the Canadian Government and puts the indigenous communities under the jurisdiction of the Federal Government), the government was authorized to separate a child from any indigenous community, if the government suspected that the children were not being educated and cared for good enough, and place them in a residential school.
A further amendment in 1920 made it absolutely necessary for an indigenous child to be admitted only to a residential school for education and training purposes.
Conditions of the Schools
The state of affairs surrounding the residential schools equates to nothing but cultural genocide, as validated by John Milloy, a historian, who stated that “The system’s aim was to “kill the Indian in the child”. More than 150,000 children attended the residential schools and there has not been single positive feedback from any of the survivors.
Almost every student was physically, mentally, psychologically, and sexually abused by the school authorities. They were strictly forbidden to communicate in their native languages. Brutal physical punishments awaited those who used to commit the sin of speaking their own language. They were beaten, whipped, handcuffed to the beds, given electric shocks, and even needles sewn into their tongues for speaking a language other than English.
Even in their letters to the families, they forced them to write in English. George Guerin, a First Nation resident and a survivor mentions, “Sister Marie Baptiste had a supply of sticks as long and thick as pool cues. When she heard me speak my language, she’d lift up her hands and bring the stick down on me. I’ve still got bumps and scars on my hands. I have to wear special gloves because the cold weather really hurts my hands. I tried very hard not to cry when I was being beaten and I can still just turn off my feelings…. And I’m lucky. Many of the men my age, they either didn’t make it, committed suicide, or died violent deaths, or alcohol got them. And it wasn’t just my generation. My grandmother, who’s in her late nineties, to this day it’s too painful for her to talk about what happened to her at the school.”
They were also scared, feared, and had their actions demonized if they ever did anything out of Christian and European culture. A survivor of such an incident narrates, That night, just before she turned the lights off, Sister Maura taught us how to pray on our knees with our hands folded. Then she told us about devils. She said they were waiting with chains under our beds to drag us into the fires of hell if we got up and left our beds during the night. When she turned the lights off, I was scared to move, even to breathe. I knew those devils would come and get me if I made a sound. I kept really still. . . . Someone was crying. A long time later, I was still afraid to get up and use the bathroom. In the morning my bed was wet, and Sister Superior strapped me. I had to wear a sign . . . saying, I was a dirty wet bed.
Another victim shared, “As a result of the fear, I used to wet my bed almost every night in the first year and the Nun used to rub my face in my own urine. I cried more, I cried louder, and then she threatened me more so, I went to bed hurting more, physically, emotionally and mentally”. Boys and girls were kept completely separated, not even allowing siblings to interact.
The level of education provided was terrible. Most of the students were never educated beyond grade 5. They were forced to work on the basis of their gender. Girls were made to sew, cook, wash, clean, and were compelled to do other household chores, whereas, the boys were made to learn carpentry, construction, plumbing, agriculture, etc.
Through this, money was generated and used to fund the schools because the federal funds were always in low quantity. The quality of lifestyle was extremely poor. Overcrowded rooms, substandard hygienic conditions, malnutrition, and poverty-stricken health facilities due to which fatal diseases most commonly, the Spanish Flu, tuberculosis, influenza, measles, smallpox, etc. were conceived by them, brought about the demise of uncountable children in these schools.
In the words of a residential school survivor, “I was always hungry. . . . At school, it was porridge, porridge, porridge, and if it wasn’t that it was boiled barley or beans, and thick slices of bread spread with lard. Weeks went by without the taste of meat or fish. Such things as sugar or butter or jam only appeared on our tables on feast days, and sometimes not even then . . . I believe I was hungry for all seven of the years I was at school.”
In 1907, government medical inspector P.H. Bryce disclosed that 24 percent of previously healthy indigenous children across Canada were dying in residential schools. As per the TRC Report, 3200 students have died due to overcrowding. Even in some schools, there were instances of forced sterilization of the girls as well to terminate the generational expansion of indigenous communities.
How Did It End?
In the 20th century, the protests of the families and the students who had been able to escape from the residential schools enraged and increased manifolds. Their story reached a wider audience worldwide and the perpetrators could not confine them anymore despite many attempts to obstruct them, which grew a concern for the governmental authorities.
By the 1940s, the authorities realized that the establishment of schools had been an abortive decision and that they had become more of a liability. That is when the Department of Indian Affairs overtook the matter and undermined the Church’s authority, which the Catholics opposed fervently.
This confrontation eventually led to the closure of these schools starting in the 1980s and put an end to this vice in 1996 with the closure of the last federally-funded residential school, the Gordon Residential School in Saskatchewan.
The Issue Resurfaces
The issue, which was vigorously tamed down time and again, raised its head once again when hundreds of unmarked graves were found at the five provincial sites of the previous residential schools.
On 28th May 2021, 215 unmarked graves of children were identified at the site of Kamloops Indian Residential School, followed by 104 unnamed graves at Brandon Indian Residential School on 4th June 2021, 751 unmarked graves at Marieval Indian Residential Schools on 24th June 2021, 182 unnamed young graves on 30th June 2021, and 182 unknown graves at Kuper Island Indian Industrial School, with excavations further ordered at other residential sites.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), in its 2015 final report, has issued detailed 94 Calls to Action for bringing about justice for the victims and survivors and ensure trust between the government and the indigenous communities. The government has only endorsed the monetary compensations and granted $3.23 billion in reimbursement to the 28,000 survivors, but nothing has been done to locate the missing children or bring the perpetrators to justice.
The Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau formally apologized on 25th June 2021, on behalf of the previous governments, “Specifically, to the members of the Cowessess community and Treaty Four communities, we are sorry. It was something that we cannot undo in the past, but we can pledge ourselves every day to fix in the present and into the future”.
His predecessor, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s words in 2008, in the House of Commons, “Mr. Speaker, I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian residential schools. The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history….Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country….The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian residential schools’ policy were profoundly negative, and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language.”
However, there have been no official investigations or punishments on this matter; the previous governments did nothing but utter confessions, sparse reparations, and verbal promises, and the present government, too, has done nothing constructive so far.
Trudeau has also asked the religious authorities (Pope) to issue a nationwide apology, but there has not been a single acknowledgment or embarrassment of the fact that Roman Catholic Churches were responsible for the control of 70% of the residential schools.
They have refused to give an official apology along with the school record (on the accounts of privacy) which might help in identifying the graves. With the vow to conduct a government-level inquiry, the Prime Minister has not yet officially called for any sort of investigation.
For a diverse, multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic place like Canada, the 19th and 20th centuries have proved to be nothing short of an embarrassment, and another dark and dreadful evidence of the evilness of the colonizing European powers, who left no stone unturned in destabilizing and degrading the native and indigenous people.
With daily identification of unmarked and unnamed graves of the missing children, the years-long wounds of the victims are being ripped again, and are once again demanding justice, which has always been denied. One of the victims of the residential school said, “It’s an unfinished story that keeps getting brushed aside. That’s what hurts.”
This is high time for the government and its institutions to ensure the victims’ trust and confidence in the system and provide them closure for which they are waiting for long, by bringing the perpetrators to justice and removing the stained label over themselves or else, let the history of bias and prejudice against the indigenous communities continue.
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