Residential schools an appalling chapter in Canada’s history

In this week’s Remember This, History Hound Richard MacLeod begins a two-part series on the long history of the schools

This is the first of a two-part series on residential schools in Canada. In part one, we will examine the subject from a national perspective, while in part two, we will narrow our focus to southern Ontario.

I hope to start the discussion by addressing some facts that you may not currently know or perhaps are perhaps unclear about. This article is a result of my research on the subject over the past months and is intended as a primer to the history. 

The research and documenting of our collective histories is a process that I have relished over the years. I have written about the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, Prohibition, and a variety of local fires and floods in my past articles on NewmarketToday, but this article is the saddest recollection that I have done in this series.

Sadly, residential schools have been a part of our history going back over nearly 200 years of our history. The first residential facilities were developed in what was then New France by the Catholic missionaries, their stated purpose was to provide care and schooling to our Native Peoples. 

Initially, the colonial governments were unable to force the Indigenous Peoples to participate in the schools, as at that time, they were largely independent, and Europeans were so inter-dependent on them from an economic and military perspective for survival.

Documents indicate residential schools were intended to become part of government and church policy starting in the 1830s with the creation of the Anglican, Methodist, and Roman Catholic institutions within Upper Canada (Ontario). 

The oldest continually operating residential school in Canada, the Mohawk Institute in what is now Brantford, Ontario started as a day school for Six Nations boys, but in 1831 it began accepting boarding students. The colonial experiment had begun, setting the pattern for the government’s post-Confederation policies for the next 100-plus years.

Beginning in the 1870s, both the federal government and Indigenous wanted to include some type of schooling provisions in treaties, though it is obvious it was for entirely different reasons. 

The Indigenous leaders hoped Euro-Canadian schooling would help their young learn many of the skills of the newcomer society, assisting in their successful transition in a rapidly changing world. 

The current situation has its roots in the passage of the British North America Act in 1867, and the implementation of the Indian Act of 1876. The government was now required to provide Indigenous youth with an education, but they also saw it as an opportunity to assimilate them into their version of Canadian society.

The federal government argued its support for schooling established a path to making the First Nations economically more self-sufficient. Their underlying objective was obviously to decrease the “Indigenous factor” in Canada. 

The government would collaborate with Christian missionaries to encourage their religious conversion and their “Canadianization.” The result was the development of an educational policy post 1880 that would rely heavily on the establishment of custodial schools. Clearly that was not the kind of schools the Indigenous leaders had hoped to create.

Over the next half-century, the federal government and churches were to develop a system of residential schools that would stretch across much of the country. Most of the residential schools were created in the four Western provinces and the Territories, but there were also a significant number in Ontario.

The Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches operated most of the residential schools even before the Indian Act made such schools official government policy. These churches ran the two largest religious organizations behind the residential schools: the Roman Catholic Oblates Order of Mary Immaculate and the Church Missionary Society of the Anglican Church (the Church of England). Overall, the Roman Catholic diocese managed as many as 60 per cent of the schools, and the Anglican Church managed 25 per cent.

To both Protestant and Catholic missionaries, Indigenous spiritual beliefs were little more than superstition and witchcraft. Missionaries led the campaign to outlaw sacred ceremonies such as the Potlatch on the West Coast and the Sun Dance on the Prairies. 

Strangely, on the one hand missionaries were engaged in a war on Indigenous culture, while on the other they often served as advocates for the protection and advancement of their interests in their dealings with government and settlers.

Many learned Indigenous languages and conducted religious ceremonies at the schools in those languages. These efforts were not unrewarded: the 1899 census identified 70,000 of 100,000 the Indigenous in Canada as Christians.

At its height around 1930, the residential school system totalled 80 institutions with the Roman Catholic Church operating three-fifths of the schools, the Anglican Church one-quarter and the United and Presbyterian Churches the remainder. 

It should be mentioned that before 1925, the Methodist Church also operated residential schools; but when they amalgamated with the United Church, the schools fell under the banner of the United Church of Canada.

Let us look closely at the prevailing methods employed by the schools. A policy of isolation and assimilation was quickly adopted. Students were isolated and their culture was disparaged or scorned. They were removed from their homes and parents and were separated from some of their siblings, the schools being segregated according to gender.

In some cases, they were forbidden to speak their first language, even in letters home to their parents. The attempt to assimilate children began upon their arrival at the schools: their hair was cut (in the case of the boys), and they were stripped of their traditional clothes and given new uniforms. 

In many cases they were also given new names, losing their traditional names, to be replaced by English names.

Christian missionary staff focused a great deal of time and attention on Christian practices, while denigrating Indigenous spiritual traditions.

Until the late 1950s, residential schools operated on a half-day system, students spending half the day in the classroom and the other at work. The theory behind this was that students would learn skills that would allow them to earn a living as adults. However, the reality was that work had more to do with running the school inexpensively than with providing students with vocational training.

Tasks were separated by gender. Girls were responsible for housekeeping (cooking, cleaning, laundry, sewing), while boys were involved in carpentry, construction, general maintenance, and agricultural labour. 

Funding was a pressing concern in the residential school system. From the 1890s until the 1950s, the government attempted to shift the burden of the system onto the churches and students, whose labour contributed financially to the schools. 

By the 1940s, it was clear to many that the half-day system had failed to provide residential students with adequate education and training. However, the half-day system was not eliminated until the late 1950s, when funding became more readily available.

School days began early, usually with a bell that summoned students to dress and attend chapel or mass. Students then performed chores (usually referred to as “fatigue” duty) before breakfast. 

Breakfast, like all meals, was spartan, and eaten quickly in a refectory or dining hall. This was followed by three hours of classes or a period of work before breaking for lunch. The afternoon schedule followed a similar pattern, including either classes or work, followed by more chores before supper. 

Time was also set aside for recreation, usually in the afternoon or evening. Some schools had small libraries, while many schools offered organized sports as well as musical instruction, including choirs and brass bands. The evening closed with prayer, and bedtime was early. It was a highly regimented system.

On weekends there were no classes, but Sunday usually meant more time spent on religious practices. Until the 1950s, holidays for many of the students included periods of work and play at the school. Only from the 1960s on did the schools routinely send children home for holidays. Many students in the residential school system did not see their family for years and years.

It seems clear that overall, the students received a poor education at the residential schools, both in terms of academic subjects and vocational training. Teachers were generally ill-prepared, curricula and materials were derived from and reflected an alien culture and lessons were taught in English or French, languages that many of the children did not speak. 

The federal government failed to set clear goals and standards for the education at the residential schools. The curriculum was set at an elementary level, reflecting the belief that the Indigenous were intellectually inferior. There was no effort to establish or implement a set policy regarding teacher qualification. The teaching staff was often underqualified, overworked and poorly paid.

The curriculum (which emphasized the “four Rs” — reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion) was basic, irrelevant to the students’ needs, experiences or interests. They  would leave the schools without the skills needed to either succeed in their home communities or in the “broader labour market.” 

Often, they left without completing their education. Clearly, the education and vocational training provided by residential schools was extremely inadequate.

One of the lasting effects of the school system was that it left them disoriented and insecure with the feeling that they belonged neither to Indigenous nor settler society.

While the topic of abuse and sometimes death in the residential schools is again in the headlines, it most certainly is not a recent revelation.  

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) highlighted the fact that some of the staff were sexual predators, and many students were sexually abused. 

If one looks at the topics of health, death and disease at residential schools, one will likely be appalled. At least 3,200 Indigenous children were initially reported as having died in the overcrowded residential schools. 

Now we know that due to poor record-keeping by the churches and the federal government, it is unlikely that we will ever know the total loss of life at residential schools. 

In May, results from a ground survey at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, B.C. uncovered the remains of possibly 215 children buried at the site. The process of identifying the children’s remains had been ongoing since the early 2000s, but a recent grant provided the funding for the ground-penetrating radar technology led to the discovery.  

The Kamloops Indian Residential School had reported to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) that it had up to 500 children registered each year from 1890 to 1969, with a total of only 50 deaths during that period. We now know that there was obviously a much bigger problem.

There have been findings using ground-penetrating technologies at a few residential school burial sites over the years. It’s clear historical records pertaining to deaths at the institutions are flawed, true statistics being withheld. Sadly, it is expected that similar findings will occur in the future.

Underfed and malnourished and the frequent overcrowding that was experienced led to regular outbreaks of diseases such as tuberculosis and influenza (including the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918–19), along with outbreaks of smallpox, measles, typhoid, diphtheria, pneumonia and whooping cough.  

Reports show that medical experts recommended measures to improve health and medical treatment, these were not implemented by the government, largely due to concerns about cost and opposition by the churches.

A report by food historian Ian Mosby (published in 2013) revealed that students at some residential schools in the 1940s and 1950s were subjected to nutritional experiments without their consent or the consent of their parents.

Approved by various federal government departments and conducted by leading nutrition experts, selected students had restricted access to essential nutrients and dental care to assess the effect of improvements made to the diet of other students.

There is evidence that the students and their parents resisted and protested the harsh regime that was put in place. Some children refused to co-operate and sabotaged the operations of the kitchen or classroom, stole food and supplies, or ran away (as did little Chanie Wenjack in 1966). 

At least 25 fires were set by students as a form of protest. Their parents and political leaders protested the schools’ harsh conditions and pedagogical shortcomings, though their objections were mostly ignored.

By the 1940s, it was obvious to both the government and most missionary bodies that the schools were ineffective. In 1969, the system was taken over by the Department of Indian Affairs, ending church involvement. 

The government decided to phase out the schools, but this met with resistance from the Catholic Church, which felt that segregated education was the best approach for Indigenous children. Some Indigenous communities also resisted closure of the schools, arguing either that denominational schools should remain open or that the schools should be transferred to their control. By 1986, most schools had either been closed or turned over to local bands.

Sources: Files from Andrew Graham, Rebecca Lau, Raquel Fletcher, Rachel Gilmore and Katie Dangerfield at Global News; Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, They Came for the Children; Historical Canada Website – A summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Canada’s Residential Schools: The History; Indian School Days (1988) by Basil H. Johnston; A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986 by John S. Milloy; Robert Carney, “Aboriginal Residential Schools Before Confederation: The Early Experience”, Historical Studies: Canadian Catholic Historical Association; Residential Schools and Reconciliation: Canada Confronts Its History by J.R. Miller; A Lost Heritage: Canada’s Residential Schools CBC News; Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools by J.R. Miller; The Canadian Encyclopedia – Residential Schools in Canada; Residential Schools in Canada, an article by J.R. Miller; Library and Archives Canada Website; Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs.  


Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town’s history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews. 


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