Playing the Indian Card

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Free Private Schools

All Saints' Residential School

The judge has entered the court, and Exhibit A for the charge of cultural genocide against Canadian Indians is now entered in evidence: the residential schools.

In 2008, the “Truth and Reconciliation” Commission was duly formed and funded to investigate the atrocity. Seven years and sixty million dollars later, it writes, in its summary report, “Residential schooling was always more than simply an educational program; it was an integral part of a conscious policy of cultural genocide” (Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, p 55). So there.

The very first words of their summary report are:

“Canada’s residential school system for Aboriginal children was an education system in name only for much of its existence. These residential schools were created for the purpose of separating Aboriginal children from their families, in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages, and to indoctrinate children into a new culture—the culture of the legally dominant Euro-Christian Canadian society, led by Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald” (ibid., p. V). The residential school system had “paternalistic and racist foundations” (p. VI).

Irwin Cotler, when Justice Minister, called the residential schools "the single most harmful, disgraceful and racist act in our history."

Strong words. They must have been something terrible. But exactly how?

The first charge against them is sexual abuse of the children. No doubt it happened. But this was the fault of individuals, surely, not an intended feature of the system itself. We do not and cannot know how widespread it really was—such charges are by their nature usually one person’s word against another’s. Moreover, we are learning with ever greater frequency that such sexual abuse is a risk at schools everywhere. The unfortunate truth is that, if you are a pedophile, a bully, or a sadist, classroom teaching is an ideal career—the second-best opportunity anywhere to practice your favourite hobby. More so in a remote residential school.

But on this score, would aboriginal children have been better off at home? Some, no doubt. But if you are a pedophile, a sadist, or a bully, there is one situation, and only one, that gives you more opportunity than does teaching to practice your predilection: having your own kids. Ideally in a remote location, even more remote than a consoludated residential school. More kids by far are molested or abused by family members than by teachers or strangers.

Because of their magnetic attraction for pedophiles and sadists, it seems a good idea to run residential schools on religious lines, and require of teachers demonstrated religious commitment and good moral character. Hypocrisy is always a possibility, but this is the test obviously required. A vow of celibacy, as with Catholic religious, is an even stronger test, evidence of both religious commitment and a general lack of compelling interest in sex. Given this, the Indian residential schools, being religious institutions, seem to have done a better job of protecting their charges from sexual or emotional abuse than the typical private school, perhaps the typical public school. If there was still abuse, alas, this world is ever far from being perfect.

In class.

And even if it were much more common than it seems to have been, sexual abuse of students would involve only a small minority of students. No; the schools must be demonized on other grounds.

And demonization seems to be the point. It certainly seems that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had no interest in arriving at the truth. It heard almost solely from self-selected “victims,” rather than trying anything so scientific as a random survey. Few ex-staff were heard from. There was no cross-examination of witnesses; the commission shared the general prejudice that Indians and other aboriginals are incapable of telling a lie. Even if self-interest, such as receiving government compensation, were involved.

The summary report also seems to favour anecdotes that subtly evoke the Nazi death camps. For example, there seems to be an allusion to the crowded, windowless cattle cars of Eastern Europe in its accounts of leaving for residential school:

“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.'” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, op. cit., pp. 37-8).

For most children, the first day of school is probably traumatic. More so if the school is residential. Still, we do not often see this as an argument for keeping children out of school, nor for seeing school as a sort of holocaust. Reference to a “train of tears” seems just a trifle over the top.

The Commission seems to relish the fact that children, on arrival at school, had their heads shaved. Just as in photos of inmates of the concentration camps. It was for “delousing”? Sure; that’s what they said at Auschwitz when they herded Jews to the gas chambers.

“'When we arrived we had to register that we had arrived, then they took us to cut our hair.' 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.’” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, op. cit., p. 38).

Campbell Papequash interprets this as a deliberate humiliation. “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’” (ibid., p. 38).

Kuper Island Residential school

But children really do get head lice. The best way to protect against them spreading through the school is indeed to shave all the kids' heads when they first arrive. Head lice are not good company.

One thinks of Marx's observation that history repeats itself--first as tragedy, then as farce. This seems only an amusing children’s pantomime of the holocaust. I was apart from parents on the train! They cut my hair!

Another charge made, and made in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, is that the existence of the residential schools was an insult to the abilities of Indians as parents. Didn’t the existence of such schools imply that the government did not trust them to look after their own kids?

Not really—if only because it was the Indians, not the government, who wanted such schools. But, if there was a general concern among whites as well as Indians about the state of the aboriginal family, it would seem to be with some reason. “By 1960,” the Commission itself reports, “the federal government estimated that 50% of the children in residential schools were there for child-welfare reasons” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, op. cit., p. 68). “Some children had to stay in the schools year-round because it was thought there was no safe home to which they could return” (ibid., p. 72). Indeed, “[i]n 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” (ibid., p. 69). Today, although aboriginals are only 4% of the Canadian population, half the children in foster care are aboriginal (APTN National News, May 8, 2013). The residential schools may have been needed if for no other reason than to protect many of the kids sent there; it may be tragic for many aboriginal children that they no longer exist. There is, as we are all aware, an epidemic of alcohol and “substance” abuse in aboriginal communities. Less than half (49.6%) of aboriginal children are currently living with both parents (ibid.).

Okay, so maybe it was better than home in some ways. But, the Commission argues, the food was lousy. One Indian Affairs agent complained of one school, in 1897, they report, “The bill of fare is decidedly monotonous and makes no allowance for peculiarities of taste or constitution” (Truth and Reconciliation Committee, op. cit., p. 89). “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.' 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.' 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'” (p. 90-91).

That’s tough. Only one serving of fruit a day. Still, rather weak tea in the annals of historic genocide. Anyone who has lived with a cafeteria meal plan has probably had similar complaints. My favourite is when my college plan regularly served boiled barley as the vegetable. That at an expensive private college in the US Northeast. If anything, the documentation the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has produced shows that the government took some interest in and trouble with the quality of food students were getting. If it was a bit sparse in current terms, for those not attending exclusive colleges, it should be measured against what the students were likely to eat in those days if they stayed home. According to the native activists themselves, on reserve they were starving.

Moose Factory

Nor do all former students complain about the food, if you seek sources beyond those offered in the Truth and Reconciliation report. Dora Churchill, who went to St. Anthony's Residential School in the 1950s, recalls instead, “There was a lot of food, we were practically forced to eat. Every day there was delicious fresh bread, porridge, peanut butter and lots of stew. I was a picky eater back then, and the food was always very good” (Thomas Thorner and Thor Frohn-Nielsen, A Country Nourished on Self-Doubt, U of T Press, 2010, p. 400). Was Churchill’s experience the common one, or was the tragic lack of a second serving of fruit? Without a decent survey, we can only guess.

But bad food was not the worst. As part of their more general attempt to destroy Indian culture, the schools reputedly deliberately separated family members within the school: brothers and sisters were not allowed to spend time together. One former student laments, "So even though I was there with my sister and I only seen her about four times in that year and we're in the same building in the same mission. 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" (

I’m sure it was all terribly traumatic. Although it never occurred to me to find it so, going to a Catholic school. They all used to be segregated by sex. Besides preventing premature sexual experimentation, the best current studies suggest that separating the sexes for their schooling improves results for both boys and girls. They are simply interested in different things.

Never mind; the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is not that troubled by such trifles. They are more concerned that the schools provided, on the whole, a substandard education. The summary report laments:

“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.' 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.'” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, op. cit., p. 72).

Anyone familiar with the history of educational theory, however, will recognize these as the standard complaints among educational reformers of the day against traditional schools generally. There is no reason to suppose that Indian residential schools stood out in this way. And more recent educational reformers have called these assumptions into question. There is now a “back to basics” movement that argues we have gone astray by abandoning this approach. Standardized tests in basic skills are now all the rage.

If it was an inferior education, this is not evidence of it.

A large part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's case against the residential schools as academic institutions is the latter’s emphasis on religion and morals. “The churches,” the Commission report seems to complain, “placed a greater priority on religious commitment than on teaching ability” (ibid., p. 73). “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'” (ibid., p. 73).

Indian family cruelly separated at residential school in Saskatchewan

Welcome to the traditional philosophy of education everywhere. As to selecting teachers, this was a standard approach to choosing them at the time and at most times; especially, of course, in religious institutions. It is also highly defensible. What is education? What do you want the children to learn? Surely, for anyone with the slightest moral feeling, you are educating souls, just as Principal Ferrier understands. Even if a secular school, you are educating for good citizenship. You want before all else to impart basic morality. Accordingly, moral awareness and good character is the most important quality in a teacher, the more so since he or she is going to become a model to the students. Conversely, what could be more harmful than a teacher who is a model of immorality?

It is surely decadent to think otherwise.

“Teaching ability,” on the other hand, is an awfully awkward thing to measure. Other than knowledge of the subject taught, people disagree endlessly on what makes a good teacher. Moral character is easier to document. And probably the essential element to make a good teacher.

“Because the pay was so low,” the Commission then laments, “many of the teachers lacked any qualification to teach. … In 1955, 55 (23%) of the 241 teachers in residential schools directly employed by Indian Affairs had no teacher’s certificate. 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'” (ibid., p. 73).

But is this so damning? Nobody, in fact, has ever objectively demonstrated that any formal “teaching qualification” produces better teachers. Private schools that are not required to hire teachers with teaching qualifications regularly post better student academic results than public schools that do. And many principals will say the ability to bypass formal credentials is a big reason why. Nor does pay seem to matter. Private schools in Canada also usually pay their teachers less, yet get better results on standardized tests. The Finnish public system, a world-beater by many measures, pays its teachers less than most developed countries. A good teacher, it appears, does not do it for the money.

They might, on the other hand, do it out of some religious commitment.

The next serious charge raised against the residential schools is that they were compulsory. Doesn’t that make them like jail, or, better, a concentration camp? “Where residential schools were the only option, children were often forcibly removed from their families, or their families were threatened with fines or prison if they failed to send their children” (Wikipedia). Sometimes Mounties would knock at the family door to drag them off.

But wait. This, right or wrong, is the same law that applies to all Canadian children. Sending your children to school, and attending school, is compulsory; although some leeway has been granted more recently for home schooling.

St. Mary's Residential School

Now we get to something less laughable: an alleged high death rate among students. Something must have been wrong, very wrong, if kids were dying in droves. If they were not deliberately slaughtered, the living conditions must have been appalling. Thomas King, in his bestseller The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Penguin/Random House), calls the schools “death traps.” He says that up to half of the 150,000 Indian children who attended died: “Up to 50 per cent of them lost their lives to disease, malnutrition, neglect and abuse – 50 per cent. One in two” (King, op. cit., p. 120). That would be 75,000 little corpses.

King does not say where he gets his figures. But since his book won several literary prizes, and sold well, these numbers seem to have entered the popular consciousness.

However, the number the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is able to verify is about 3,000. A fair bit less than 75,000. This might be an undercount; records are sketchy. Perhaps the real number is 4,000; perhaps even 6,000. But that is a rate of 2% to 4%, not 50%. If 2% still sounds high, this was in a day when childhood diseases were rampant and more deadly: tuberculosis, polio, measles, scarlet fever, and so on. The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19, part of the period under study, by itself produced a global death rate of 3-6%.

To be clear, Canada as a whole did better than did the schools. The death rate at the residential schools in earlier years was still 4.9 times higher than in the general Canadian population (Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, p. 93). But here the real test should be, was it higher than among Indian children staying on the reserves? This seems unlikely; the Commission's own observations hint that the death rates there were comparable. The most common cause of death in both places seems to have been tuberculosis, an epidemic second only to smallpox among aboriginals generally. In the Jesuit Relations, Father LeJeune observes that it is widespread among the Indians of New France: “They are nearly all attacked by this disease, when young” (Jesuit Relations 6, p. 261-3).

As if to prove the point, once effective treatment for TB was found, the death rates at the schools declined to something close to the national average (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, op. cit., p. 93).

“The tuberculosis health crisis in the schools,” the Commission itself admits, “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” (ibid., p. 93). Whether this was indeed the cause—Father LeJeune blames Indian forms of food preparation--this passage admits that tuberculosis was a problem on the reserves as well as in the schools. “For Aboriginal children,” they note elsewhere. “the relocation to residential schools was generally no healthier than their homes had been on the reserves” (ibid., p. 95). No healthier. At worst, the schools cannot be blamed for the deaths; the children were no worse off for being at school.

The government, moreover, took what action they could.

Classroom, Fort Albany

“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'” (op. cit., p. 99).

Unfortunately, tuberculosis can remain for years in a latent state—and they did not in those days have x-rays. Many students no doubt came to school with unsuspected cases of the illness, which then spread.

Dr. Joseph Murphy, Medical Supervisor of the US Indian Service, offered this analysis of the problem in 1911:

“It has been a matter of observation for many years that a certain proportion of pupils at non-reservation and reservation boarding schools developed pulmonary tuberculosis and had to be returned to their homes. Sanitary conditions, cleanliness and nutrition were far better at these institutions than at the Indian homes, and it seemed that there must be some vital defect in the school methods. While there may have been sanitary defects in the school system contributing to this high morbidity, it is at present well recognized that many children come to the school with latent or partially-arrested tubercular infection” (Murphy, “Health Problems of the Indians,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, p. 107).

It might not be a terribly good idea to collect a lot of children together at some central point, like a school—just as movie theatres and dance halls are closed during an epidemic. General contact helps spread the disease. At the same time, it is likely that any ill students had access to more medical care at a residential school than on a remote reserve.

“Doctors and dentists made regular visits to residential schools to treat sick children, something that may not have happened if they had been living in their home communities, for those in southern Canada, or if they had been out on the land hunting and fishing with their parents, for those in the North” (Rodney Clifton, ‘Residential Schools Story More Complicated,’ Frontier Centre, May 1, 2003).

The death rate might have been higher at the residential schools than among the general population in part because the schools were relatively remote from medical care. But, by the same token, the reserves were even more remote.

So much for the imaginary gas chambers. But the original charge remains. It is, after all, for all it’s worth, “cultural genocide,” not real genocide. The residential schools, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and almost everybody else maintains, were there to wreck Indian culture.

Most notably, according to the reports, schools did this by preventing the students from speaking their own, Indian, languages.

Interestingly, however, although you will see this charge often, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, after its seven-year investigation, seems unable despite its bias to make this claim—at least, it does not claim that this was a systematic practice everywhere. Here is the statement they have produced:

“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.' 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. 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.' 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'” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, op. cit., p. 80).

None of these, presumably examples of the policy at its “worst,” involves a ban on speaking Indian languages. They are to be used, if sparingly, in instruction, or time is to be set aside for them. The issue seems not to be speaking Indian languages, but making sure that pupils also speak English. Is that so bad? Does learning a new language make you lose your first one? If, in aid of this objective, in some places and at some times use of the first language was forbidden, this is recognized standard practice in language learning, commonly found in any language centre. Total immersion is generally thought to be the fastest way to acquire a new language.

Indian residential school students forced to have their hair shorn. No, wait...

Indian languages were indeed discouraged, according to former faculty, in residential schools that included children from different tribes, and so of different languages. English was the lingua franca; using one's native language tended to be divisive, to lead to gangs and cabals, especially hurtful to vulnerable minorities. And as a practical matter, one would not be understood.

“Others had day populations and boarders from farther afield. Some served very scattered populations and were entirely residential; prohibitions against speaking Indian were more common at these, especially where the students came from different tribes historically at war with each other” (Partrick Donnelly, “Scapegoating the Indian residential schools,” Alberta Report Newsmagazine, 01/26/98, Vol. 25 Issue 6, p6).

In other schools, rather than trying to suppress native languages, faculty encouraged their use, sometimes against the opposition of parents.

“The French Oblates and Jesuits, among others, made it a practice to teach in the native tongues even in the face of pressure from the federal government, and, as the years passed, increasingly from native parents themselves, to teach the children in French or English” (J. Fraser Field, ‘The Other Side of the Residential School Question’, Vancouver Sun, December 5, 1996). This is the continuation of a longtime Jesuit policy, remarked upon elsewhere. They were on the whole supportive of Indian culture. Their interests were religious; why carry water for one culture over another? Easier for one Jesuit to learn Dene than for 500 Dene to learn English.

In the Anglican school at Onion Lake, similarly, the children were taught to “read and write both Cree and English” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, op. cit., p. 83). At the Churchill school, according to former student Alex Alikashuak, “there were no restrictions on the use of Aboriginal languages.” “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, or somebody from town that’s not Inuit, but otherwise we, everybody spoke our language” (ibid., p. 83).

“One of us worked as the Senior Boys’ Supervisor in Stringer Hall,” write Rodney Clifton and Hymie Rubenstein in the National Post, “the Anglican residence in Inuvik, N.W.T., for the 1966-1967 school year, and also lived in Old Sun, the Anglican Residential School on the Blackfoot Reserve (Siksika First Nation) in Southern Alberta, in the summer of 1966.
In each of the two sex-segregated junior dormitories at Stringer Hall, there were four female supervisors, two young Inuk women and two older non-aboriginal women. Many of the young Inuit students did not speak English and the Inuk supervisors spoke to them in Inuktitut. None were punished for doing so.
Virtually all of the Dene students spoke English as their second language which was the only way they could communicate with English-speaking Inuit. Most of the supervisors, and especially the residential administrator and the matron, used Inuktituk words and facial expressions when communicating with the children, including the Dene and white children” (Clifton and Rubenstein, “Debunking the half-truths and exaggerations in the Truth and Reconciliation report,” National Post, June 4, 2015).

Even where Indian languages were discouraged, this does not seem to have been strictly enforced; just what one might expect if it was done solely for purposes of efficient language learning. Donald Cardinal recalls that, although speaking his native Cree was officially prohibited at his residential school, “he cannot remember ever being punished for it” (Patrick Donnelly, op. cit.). Rufus Goodstriker, who attended St. Paul's residential school in the 1940s, remembers, “We were supposed to speak English, but I spoke Blackfoot all the time anyway” (ibid.).

“After a 1935 tour of Canada,” the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports, “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'” (ibid., p 80-1).

This supposedly condemns the schools. Yet the main thrust is that speaking native languages was not a serious offense. Any administrators or teachers who acted otherwise were in violation of policy. And church authorities were taking action against it.

Predictably, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission also takes some school administrators to task for objecting to the potlatch and the sun dance. It is no longer fashionable to be against the potlatch or the sun dance. But as we have seen, there were valid reasons to be against both, on the basis not of some religious or cultural prejudice, but of human rights.

“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” writes the Commission. “… 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” (ibid., p. 83).

Even if, however, this was a matter of cultural intolerance, and of wishing to suppress native culture, rather than concern for human rights, the schools and their administrators were not the parties to accuse. At this time, both the potlatch and the sun dance were illegal. Whatever you might think of the actual ceremonies, it is the duty of an educator in a government-funded school to teach his charges, at the least, to obey the law.

Sun dance

“The missionaries who ran the schools,” the summary report elsewhere states, “played prominent roles in the church-led campaigns ... to end traditional Aboriginal marriage practices” (ibid., p. 4). To be clear, that would be traditional marriage practices like polygamy and temporary marriage. The Jesuits were definitely not keen on this. It is hardly suprising to find Catholic religious schools, after all, speaking in favour of Catholic moral teachings. Why else would you have a Catholic school?

On the whole, were the schools hostile to native culture? The answer is not clear. “Some schools even stimulated resistance to assimilative efforts and helped preserve and advance native culture. As one reviewer noted in her review of St. Mary’s School in Mission and the Qu’Appelle Industrial School at Lebret, Saskatchewan, natives in these schools retained their own cultural institutions in the form of dancing groups and traditional gatherings. When St. Mary’s closed in 1984, native dances by native staff were part of the chapel liturgy” (J. Fraser Field, op. cit.). “The Canadian Welfare Council’s 1967 report on nine Saskatchewan residential schools described 'an emphasis on relating course content to the Indian culture' ... By 1968, the Roman Catholic school in Cardston was incorporating Blackfoot into its educational program. In some schools, Aboriginal teachers were brought in to teach dancing and singing” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, op. cit., p. 83).

St. Phillip's Anglican School, Fort George.

Rena Martinson, co-head of St. Phillips Anglican School in Fort George, Quebec, learned Cree. She went with the students on seal hunts, and adopted four native children (Garett Williams, ‘Woman honoured for positive impact at residential school,’ Kenora Daiy Miner & News, December 21, 2010). Oblate Father Antonio Duhaime, principal of Duck Lake Residential School from 1962 to 1968, and of St. Mary’s School from 1968 to 1980, learned Blackfoot and was inducted as an honourary chief. He laments the struggles he had with parents who badly wanted their children to learn English.

“The parents brought us their kids in September, and said ‘Father, I want my children to learn English’ and now they’re accusing us of forbidding them to speak their native languages. If some of the natives are successful today, they can thank the residential schools. No one else was interested in the Indian people back then” (Patrick Donnelly, “Scapegoating the Indian residential schools,” Alberta Report, 01/26/98, 25:6).

As noted before, the natural impulses of missionaries and missionary teachers were to support native culture, not to discourage it. It made evangelization easier, it protected the children from the immoralities attendant on culture shock, and it increased the missionaries’ own influence.

“Some school administrators and supervisors were aboriginals,” reports one former student who later went on to become a staffer. “At Stringer Hall, for example, two of the six residential supervisors were Inuit women. Did aboriginal supervisors abuse the children under their care? Do both the children and the supervisors deserve compensation? Some children in residential schools were not aboriginals. I myself attended a United Church residential school in the early 1960’s, and when I was a supervisor at Stringer Hall, about 12% of the 280 students were non-aboriginal. Children of school administrators, white trappers, missionaries and merchants attended these schools. If aboriginal people are going to receive compensation, do the non-aboriginal students also deserve compensation?” (Rodney Clifton, ‘Residential Schools Story More Complicated,’ Frontier Centre, May 1, 2003). After all, with all the emphasis in some schools on aboriginal culture, weren’t the European students suffering “cultural genocide”?

As we have already seen, there is more than an undertone of hostility towards these religious schools for actually teaching religion. It offends our contemporary secularism, it seems; but to make this charge against religious schools is ridiculous. “The residential school system,” the Truth and Reconciliation Commission explains, “was based on an assumption that European civilization and Christian religions were superior to Aboriginal culture” (op. cit, p. 4). “There was no moral imperative,” the Commission lectures, “to impose Christianity on the Indigenous peoples of the world” (ibid., p. 53). But of course there is such a moral imperative. If Christianity is truth, it is not an act of generosity to leave one’s fellow man in darkness and ignorance. Nor is it necessary to accept that Christianity is truth to understand that those who ran the residential schools were doing so in good faith: one only has to accept that they were not hypocrites, that they themselves believed that Christianity was true.

Mohawk Institute, Brantford

“In the 1960s, when I lived and worked in residential schools,” recalls one former staffer, “it was the evangelistic calling for committed Christians similar to rebuilding houses following disasters in South America. Most residential school employees worked for very little pay, less recognition, and many sleepless nights” (Rodney Clifton, ‘Residential Schools Story More Complicated,’ Frontier Centre, May 1, 2003). This, indeed, may explain why the residential schools cost so little—another complaint levelled against them by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It may not be, or not just be, that the funding was inadequate, so much as that the government got a real bargain by involving religious organizations. Good people are prepared to do much out of compassion and righteousness that they would not do for money. But no good deed goes unpunished—now their very compassion and generosity towards Indians is held against them.

“Although, in most of their official pronouncements, government and church officials took the position that Aboriginal people could be civilized,” the Truth and Reconciliation Commission continues, “it is clear that many believed that Aboriginal culture was inherently inferior” (op. cit., pp. 4-5). Of course, if you believe that Christianity is true, it follows that any other teaching that disagrees with it is, to that extent, false. So some elements of Indian culture, inevitably, would not have been supported by the missionaries. Any more than some elements of mainstream Canadian culture. It also seems perfectly reasonable if they supposed that getting your food by hunting and gathering was significantly less efficient than settled agriculture, that wheels were useful inventions, and that total war was best avoided. The schools and their teachers would probably have upheld all of these propositions. But were these propositions so wrong? After all, most Indians then thought so too. And the Truth and Reconciliation report makes no attempt to disprove them. It instead dismisses any such notions out of hand, apparently on the basis of strict cultural relativism. All cultures are and must be understood to be equal in detail; perhaps, to finish the thought, because all values are themselves culturally determined.

In so many words, as a flat assertion: “there is no hierarchy of societies” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, op. cit., p. 49).

Common sense and common experience say there is. Paris has more to offer, culturally, than Cleveland. Moreover, if there is not, we face some troublesome issues. Do we have any right, then, to condemn what Hitler did, or to have hanged the defendants at Nuremberg? Weren’t they simply following different cultural assumptions? And what if we build a bridge in India following the principles of Canadian mathematics, our own cultural assumptions? Isn’t it likely to fall down, the culture being different?

But it seems that only given this assumption of cultural relativism does the charge make sense that the residential schools suppressed—instead of, say, built upon and enhanced—Indian culture.

“Taken as a whole,” the Commission complains, “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” (op. cit., p. 53). Is that so wrong? Are there no absolute or universal values? Perhaps we should point out that this is exactly what we are doing when we insist on universal human rights. Too bad otherwise for the Jews, for negro slaves, or for the Armenians.

In sum, the charge that the schools were there to wipe out Indian culture would appear to be simply false.

At this point, someone might bring out the common quotation that they were intended to “take the Indian out of the child,” or to “kill the Indian to save the man.” That sounds harsh. It is usually attributed to Duncan Campbell Scott, poet and longtime bureaucrat in the Department of Indian Affairs. Sometimes it is put instead in the mouth of Sir John A. Macdonald. Chief Justice Beverley McLaughlin, for example, in a speech to the fourth annual Pluralism Lecture of the Global Centre for Pluralism, in 2015, said of the residential schools that “The objective – I quote from Sir John A. Macdonald, our revered forefather – was to ‘take the Indian out of the child,’ and thus solve what was referred to as the Indian problem. ‘Indianness’ was not to be tolerated; rather it must be eliminated. In the buzz-word of the day, assimilation; in the language of the 21st century, cultural genocide.”

Scott never said it. If Macdonald did, he was quoting. The original line is from Captain Richard H. Pratt, American civil war hero, friend of the Indians, and founder of Carlisle College, Pennsylvania. Gruff soldier talk. He thought this would be, indeed, a good idea, to take the Indian out of the child in order to save the man. And perhaps he was right, and perhaps he was wrong. But in the same speech, he insisted that all-Indian residential schools were definitely not the way to do it.

General Pratt with a student.

“Indian schools are just as well calculated to keep the Indians intact as Indians,” he objects, “as Catholic schools are to keep the Catholics intact. Under our principles we have established the public school system, where people of all races may become unified in every way, and loyal to the government; but we do not gather the people of one nation into schools by themselves, and the people of another nation into schools by themselves, but we invite the youth of all peoples into all schools. We shall not succeed in Americanizing the Indian unless we take him in in exactly the same way. … Purely Indian schools say to the Indians: ‘You are Indians, and must remain Indians. You are not of the nation, and cannot become of the nation. We do not want you to become of the nation.’” (Official Report of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction, 1892, 46–59. Reprinted in Richard H. Pratt, “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880-1900 [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973], 260–271).

If Pratt was right—and what he says makes sense—the problem with the residential schools was exactly the opposite of what is usually alleged. It is not that they tried to assimilate the Indians, but that they prevented this from happening. They were perfectly designed to keep the Indian in the child. They were segregated schools, of the very sort that Brown vs. the Board of Education and the U.S. civil rights movement fought so hard to end for American blacks. By their nature they preserved a sense of Indian differentness, including Indian cultural differentness, whatever the particular content of that differentness might be.

Far from having been imposed on the Indians, it was the Indians who demanded the residential schools. The European way of getting food, by tilling the land, was obviously far superior, far more secure and far more productive, than hunting and gathering. Periodic starvation is not fun. The Europeans knew how to farm; the Indians did not. Obviously, it would be of great benefit to the Indians, and an act of generosity on the part of Europeans, to show their children how.

“The second means of commending ourselves to the Savages, to induce them to receive our holy faith,” explains Father LeJeune in the earliest years of New France, “would be to send a number of capable men to clear and cultivate the land, who, joining themselves with others who know the language, would work for the Savages, on condition that they would settle down, and themselves put their hands to the work, living in houses that would be built for their use; by this means becoming located, and seeing this miracle of charity in their behalf, they could be more easily instructed and won. While conversing this Winter with my Savages, I communicated to them this plan, assuring them that when I knew their language perfectly, I would help them cultivate the land if I could have some men, and if they wished to stop roving,—representing to them the wretchedness of their present way of living, and influencing them very perceptibly, for the time being. The Sorcerer, having heard me, turned toward his people and said, ‘See how boldly this black robe lies in our presence.’ I asked him why he thought I was lying. ‘Because,’ said he, ‘we never see in this world men so good as you say, who would take the trouble to help us without hope of reward, and to employ so many men to aid us without taking anything from us; if you should do that,’ he added, ‘you would secure the greater part of the Savages, and they would all believe in your words’" (Jesuit Relations 6, p. 143-5).

From the beginning the Indians, unlike the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, wanted these schools to be religious in nature. “An Indian chief, residing in the neighbourhood of Lake Simcoe,” reports Rev. Peter Jones (Kahkxwaquonabt), himself an Ojibwe chief, “came to solicit missionary aid. After unfolding their needy state, he observed that they did not wish the labours of the missionary for nothing. They would hunt deer, beaver, &c., and each one would lay aside some skins, and appropriate the avails of them to the support of the mission. As a demonstration of this generous disposition, and of their ardent desire to have their children instructed, the women stripped themselves of their nose and ear jewels, brooches, and breastplates, which had been given them by Government, and sent them to the missionary to purchase books for the school; and these were exhibited on the occasion, as an evidence of their devotion to this sacred cause" (Rev. Peter Jones [kahkxwaquonabt], History of the Ojebway Indians; with Special Reference to Their Conversion to Christianity. Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society. London: 1861, p. 202).

Rev. Peter Jones (Kahkxwaquonabt)

 Jones himself was among the many Indian leaders who pushed for the schools, and specifically for industrial schools, as the residential schools became. He writes, in question and answer format,

“Query No. 10. — What, in your opinion, is the best mode of promoting the moral, intellectual, and social improvement of the Indians? 

 Answer No. 10. — The establishment of well-regulated schools of industry, and the congregating of the several scattered tribes into three or four settlements, which would be a great saving of expense to the Government and to missionary societies, at the same time it would afford greater facilities for their instruction in everything calculated to advance their general improvement.


 Query No, 24. — Can you offer any suggestions for the improvement of the condition of the Indians?

Answer No. 24. — I would most respectfully suggest — 1st. — The importance of establishing schools of industry as soon as possible, that there may be no further delay in bringing forward the present rising generation” (Jones, op. cit., p. 242-3). 

 “I am now trying to get the Wesleyan Missionary Committee in London,” he writes from England to the Credit River band in 1838, “to establish a central manual labour school. They have given me encouragement to hope that they will take up the subject and put one in operation. I feel very anxious to see an institution of this kind established amongst us, for I am fully persuaded that our children will never be what they ought to be until they are taught to work and learn useful trades, as well as to learn to read and write” (Jones, op. cit., p. 264).

At a general council of the Ontario Ojibwe in 1840, one of the items on the agenda, duly passed, was a request for schooling:

“Thirdly, To consider whether anything can be done to promote their civilization, forming manual labour schools, &c. Colonel Jarvis expressed his happiness to hear that the attention of the chiefs had been directed to this subject ; ... and said that the Home Government was now considering what can be done for the central manual labour schools” (Jones, op.cit., p.115). 

 Chief Jones was no outlier. Most of the Indian chiefs across Canada seem to have made this a priority in any dealings with government. At Treaty 3 negotiations, “Chief Ka-Katche-way of the Lac Seul band came forward to state his willingness to treat, but not without making additional demands for a schoolmaster, seed, agricultural implements, and cattle” (Robert Talbot, Alexander Morris: His Intellectual and Political Life and the Numbered Treaties, U of O 2007, pp. 97-8 ). The demand for schools was made by the Indians for each of the numbered treaties.

And this was no fleeting fancy. It began, as noted, in the early seventeenth century. Rev. Jones was appealing to London in the 1830s. One hundred years later, Gerry Kelly, coordinator for the National Catholic Working Group on Native Residential Schools, noted the same demand, indeed at the time the residential schools were supposedly at their worst: "In several cases, Indian bands asked the government to establish schools. In the 1930s, the Sechelt band near Vancouver lobbied the Oblates for such a school; some aboriginal communities wanted the schools so badly that they built them themselves” (J. Fraser Field, op. cit.).

Alberta: Indian students forced to leave their family and travel to school alone. No, wait...

Some maintain that, if the Indians wanted schools, these were not the kind of schools they envisioned. But this is not so: the residential schools as the government ultimately instituted them seem to follow closely what the Indians asked for. The idea that the schools should be industrial, teaching trades, emanated from the Indians. So did the idea that they should be residential. So did the idea that they should be religious, and run by missionaries.

"Gentlemen,” again writes the Reverend Chief Kahkxwaquonabt/Jones, “… From the knowledge I have of the Indian character, and from personal observation, I have come to the conclusion that the system of education hitherto adopted in our common schools has been too inefficient. The children attend these schools from the houses of their parents, a number of whom are good pious Christians, but who, nevertheless, retain many of their old habits; consequently, the good instructions they receive at school are in a great measure neutralized at home. It is a notorious fact that the parents in general exercise little or no control over their children. Being thus left to follow their own wills, they too frequently wander about in the woods with their bows and arrows, or accompany their parents in their hunting excursions. Another evil arises from their not being trained to habits of industry, so that by the time they leave the schools they are greatly averse to work, and naturally adopt the same mode of life as their parents. 

“Under these considerations, I am very anxious to see manual labour schools established among our people, that the children may be properly trained and educated to habits of industry. I see nothing to hinder the entire success of such a plan, and as [a] school in the Missouri country is answering the most sanguine expectations of its promoters, we may safely conclude that the same success would attend the like operations among our Indians. I am happy to inform you that all the Indians with whom I have conversed highly approve of the project. They are ready and willing to give up their children to the entire control and management of the teachers....” (Jones, p. 276-7). 

Jones/Kahkxwaquonabt went so far as London to put his request for residential industrial schools to the British Foreign Secretary (Jones, p. 277). 

That covers residential and trades education, as part of the Indian design. As to the religious nature of the schools, the Ojibwe Grand Council of 1840 passed the following resolution, addressed to Colonel Jarvis as Chief Superintendent of Indian Affairs: 

 “'Father, — It is our earnest desire that one or more manual labour schools should be established at some of our settlements for the religious education of our children, and at the same time to train them up in industrious and domestic habits. And we beg to state that if our Great Father would render assistance in the formation of such schools, we are willing ourselves to appropriate part of our land payments for these objects” (Jones, op. cit., p. 127).

During his negotiations of treaties 3 through 6, Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris similarly reported a “universal demand” for teachers and for missionaries (Talbot, op. cit., p. 157).

If, in the residential schools, the Indians got exactly what they wanted, it was not what the government wanted. By their residential nature, Indian residential schools were obviously more expensive for the government, who was footing the bills, than ordinary day schools would have been. They were paying to feed, clothe, and house as well as educate Indian kids. It was an obvious social benefit for the parents; something rather more impressive than the common current demand for free day care. Accordingly, by 1949, the official policy was to educate the Indians in ordinary schools wherever possible. Most Indians did not go to the residential schools, and from that point there was an official plan to phase them out, on sheerly economic grounds.

Having the right to send your kids to a separate residential school sounds, after all, suspiciously like an upper class privilege. Was this really necessary? Was this fair to non-Indians?

The TRC summary report, apparently aware of this troublesome appearance, asserts, without evidence, that the residential schools were modelled after English “Industrial Schools,” for children convicted of begging or vagrancy, rather than on Harrow and Eton. “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” (op. cit., p. 59).

This claim seems simply false. The historical record is clear that the Canadian residential school system was, on the basis of a government study by Nicholas Flood Davin, modelled on the US Indian residential school system. That system, in turn, was built on the model of the Carlisle Residential School in Pennsylvania. As to Carlisle’s perception of its position in the world, and the extent to which this was accepted, in its early days it competed in football against Harvard, Yale, and other Ivy League schools. The school band played regularly at presidential inaugurations and at the Paris World Exposition in 1900. Some reformatory.

Carlisle School Band

In any case, the parallel of the English public school removes from all plausibility the objection that it is cruel and unusual to take children away from their families for schooling. If some former residential school students remember their experiences with loathing, so do some former Etonians or Upper Canada College graduates. Witness the movie “If,” George Orwell’s memoir “Such, Such Were the Joys,” or James FitzGerald’s Canadian entry, Old Boys. At the same time, just as with Rugby, Selwyn House, or Brebeuf, many former students remember the residential schools with much fondness.

“The nuns taught us so much. I only remember one nun who was very strict and one nun who made us pray too much. In every society you have people with personalities that are on the bad side. But, I can swear on the Bible that my time in the convent was good. We ate three meals a day, not fancy but nourishing, a lot of recreation, every winter they built us a big slide and we would have fun sliding and we went on many picnics in summer time and in the winter we would go for hay rides, sleighs pulled by oxen” (Cece Hodgson-McCauley. ‘Positive stories from residential school,’ Northern News Service, December 3, 2012).

“We set rabbit snares and ate rabbit. They had pemmican, .... They taught us how to knit stockings for ourselves, to do fancy beading for moccasins and to do quill work, from two quills up to 12 quills. We learned to make our own dresses, they taught how to cook and bake and clean” (ibid.).

“As a journalist since 1979, I’ve heard people credit residential schools with the foundation for learning that allowed them to pursue successful academic careers. … Others tell of being introduced to skills that became lifelong careers, and still others, like my mother, talk of being introduced to a faith that guided the rest of their lives…” (Richard Wagamese, ‘The good side of the residential school story is valid, too’, Calgary Herald/Vancouver Sun, May 12, 2008).

The celebrated Canadian playwright Tomson Highway, Cree, agrees.

"’All we hear is the negative stuff, nobody's interested in the positive, the joy in that school. Nine of the happiest years of my life I spent it at that school. I learned your language, for God's sake. Have you learned my language? No, so who's the privileged one and who is underprivileged?

"’You may have heard stories from 7,000 witnesses in the process that were negative,’ he adds. ‘But what you haven't heard are the 7,000 reports that were positive stories. There are many very successful people today that went to those schools and have brilliant careers and are very functional people, very happy people like myself. I have a thriving international career, and it wouldn't have happened without that school’” (Joshua Ostroff, “Tomson Highway Has a Surprisingly Positive Take on Residential Schools,” Huffington Post, December 15, 2015).

On the grounds that they were too expensive, as noted, the federal government tried to phase out the schools as early as 1945. Guess who objected.

“Having concluded that it was far too expensive to provide residential schooling to these students,” the Truth and Reconciliation Commission explains, “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. 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.’ 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.” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, op. cit., p. 68).

Brother and sister cruelly segregated at residential school by sex. No, wait...

However, many Indian parents rebelled.

“When the government revised the Indian Act in the 1940s and '50s, some bands, along with regional and national native organizations, wanted to maintain schools in their communities. Motivations for support of the schools included their role as a social service in communities suffering extensive family breakdown; the significance of the schools as employers; and the seeming lack of other opportunities for children to receive education. In the 1960s, when the government decided to close certain schools, some Indian bands pleaded to have them to remain open" (Wikipedia).

The missionaries added their weight.

“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. These were all issues that students and parents raised, as well” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, op. cit., p. 68).

In the summer of 1970, hearing that the Blue Quills residential school was slated to be shut down and their children sent to a local public school, Indian parents took the measure of occupying the school. “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” (ibid., p. 70). Instead of being closed, the school was handed over to the local band to operate.

Why now, after wanting them so much for so long, have Canadian Indians generally and officially turned so against the residential schools?

Negotiating for residential schools at Treaty Number 1 talks.

One reason is surely that the schools are a useful scapegoat. If things go wrong on the reserve, if someone drinks too heavily, if folks are poor, if band money goes missing, if someone gets caught in a crime, the residential schools are there to take the blame, avoiding individual or corporate responsibility and preserving community solidarity. Everybody wins. This works despite the obvious fact that areas that never had a residential school, like Labrador or New Brunswick, have exactly the same problems in the same degree as areas that did. Indeed, only thirty percent of native children ever went to residential schools even at their height of popularity. Can you tell the difference?

The second obvious reason for slandering the residential schools is, sadly, there is money in it. Under an agreement reached in 2005, the federal government set up a $1.9 billion fund to pay out an average of $24,000 to anyone who had attended a residential school. Anyone claiming specific abuse can still sue for more. More money is being shovelled in from the various churches who ran the schools.

That’s a good deal more than thirty pieces of silver.

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