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Canada wanted to close all residential schools in the 1940s. Here’s why it couldn’t.

Canada wanted to close all residential schools in the 1940s. Here’s why it couldn’t

Previously published by True North on March 18, 2024, and the original, longer version of this story first appeared at C2CJournal.ca

Greg Piasetzki

By the 1940s, federal bureaucrats knew there were better options for educating native students and sought to shut down Canada’s residential school system. But they were unable to do so because they weren’t prepared to abandon the vulnerable native children whom the schools served. Without acknowledging this difficult truth, it is impossible to understand the full story of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools.

In 1942, during the darkest days of the Second World War, the House of Commons took the heroically optimistic step of convening a special committee to “study and report upon the general problems of reconstruction and re-establishment which may arise at the termination of the present war.”

By February 1944, the Reconstruction and Re-Establishment Committee turned its attention to Canada’s now-notorious Indian Residential School system. The opinion expressed was clear and pointed: “I do not like residential schools at all,” Saskatchewan MP Dorise Nielsen declared. The federal bureaucrats who appeared before the committee agreed and recommended the schools all be shut down and that Indigenous students moved to on-reserve day schools, where they could live with their parents.

A 1948 report from another federal committee went even further and recommended that “wherever and whenever possible Indian children should be educated in association with other children.” That is, they should attend provincially-run public schools alongside the rest of Canada’s school-age population. Ottawa then essentially froze enrolment at its residential schools in anticipation of shutting them down imminently.

And yet, Canada’s last residential school didn’t close its doors until 1996, nearly half a century later. Why did these schools – now widely accused of perpetrating a genocide on Canada’s Indigenous population – stay open so long after Ottawa wanted to shut them down? Because Ottawa wasn’t prepared to abandon vulnerable native children. 

Students at Gordon’s Indian Residential School in Punnichy, Sask., the last of the federally-run schools to remain open

As painful as it is to admit today, the vast majority of Indigenous children attending residential schools during the post-war period were there for reasons other than an education. In particular, the devastating intergenerational effects of alcoholism on reserves had turned federal residential schools into a de facto native child welfare system. And had the government shut those schools down in the 1940s, as it very much wanted to, these children would have had no other place to go.

Considering this, accusations of genocide are not just wrong, but outrageously so.

While a few dormitory-style residential schools existed throughout Canada’s colonial era, the system took form after Confederation as the new country’s government fulfilled its treaty promises to provide an education to all Indigenous people. Residential schools, along with on-reserve day schools, were meant to provide Indigenous children with basic language and other skills required to function in Canadian society and were largely inspired by the populist reform movement sweeping across North America at the time.

Publicly-provided, compulsory schooling was widely seen as the solution to poverty and disharmony throughout society. In 1871, for example, the province of Ontario required that all children aged 7 to 12 attend school at least four months a year. Attendance at native residential schools was entirely voluntary until 1920, however, and rarely enforced thereafter. About half of all students who attended between the 1880s and 1950s dropped out after Grade 1, and few students made it as far as Grade 5. Clearly these schools were not prison camps, as is often argued.

A much greater complication for native education was the disastrous effect of alcohol abuse on Indigenous communities, and in particular Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, or FASD. FASD was only formally identified as a medical condition in the 1970s, but its impact likely goes back centuries. It is caused when a pregnant woman consumes alcohol, damaging the developing fetus. Children with FASD typically have serious difficulties in school both academically and behaviourally.

Tragically, these problems follow them into adult life and are reflected in high rates of family violence (including spousal and sexual abuse), suicide, and addiction, and often repeat down through subsequent generations.

While this pathology can occur within any race or culture, its effect seems particularly devastating within native communities. Studies suggest FASD occurs among Indigenous children on and off reserves at rates between 10 and 100 times greater than in the rest of Canada. And while the enormous shadow cast by FASD is rarely discussed in official circles, its pernicious effect is readily apparent throughout the federal archives.

During the post-war period, Ottawa actively sought to close its residential school systems for both financial and pedagogical reasons, as described above. But as Trent University historian John S. Milloy has observed, this planned shutdown was foiled by “the emergence of a new role for the schools, that of social welfare institutions.” 

From a 1997 Dalhousie University thesis written by Ph. D candidate Marilyn Elaine Thomson-Millward

Children identified as suffering from “serious neglect” at home were prioritized for admission to residential schools because federal officials decided they required a safe refuge. “Both parents excessive drinkers,” states one typical report. “The father is a veteran and has some difficulty controlling his appetite for liquor,” reads another. Milloy’s research identifies “thousands” of examples of similar situations in federal files.

A census taken by Indian Affairs in 1953 found that 43% of the 10,112 Indigenous children in residential schools nationwide were listed as neglected or living in homes that were unfit because of parental problems. A similar study eight years later in B.C. put the figure at 50% and observed that a similar percentage would likely apply to the rest of the country as well.

By 1975, children from “broken or immoral homes” constituted nearly the entire student population at three Saskatchewan residential schools: Gordon’s Residential School (83%), Muscowequan Residential School (64%) and Cowessess Residential School (80%). 

Children and parents from Alberta’s Saddle Lake Reserve on their way to the Red Deer Indian Industrial School, date unknown

This near-complete takeover of residential schools by high-needs children, many of them likely suffering from undiagnosed FASD, would have made the experience for all students extremely difficult, especially the minority who were attending only because there was no day school near their home reserve. This likely explains the negative experiences of so many residential school students.

As the problems associated with forcing residential schools to serve as child welfare institutions multiplied, Ottawa sought a way out of its conundrum. The solution was to transfer responsibility to the provinces.

In 1964, the Federal-Provincial Conference on Indian Affairs settled “the terms under which Indian children may be accepted in provincial schools.” Native child welfare was also transferred to the provinces in a similar manner around the same time. This has since been further devolved to Indigenous-run agencies, with recent federal legislation now fully “Indigenizing” native child welfare.

And yet, despite the closure of the residential school system, several decades of provincial devolution and the rapidly ascendant role of Indigenous-controlled child welfare agencies, the foundational issues have never gone away. 

In Manitoba, 91% of children under the care of a family services agency are Indigenous. Nationwide, according to the 2021 Census, native children under 14 account for 53.8% of children in care, despite representing less than 8% of children that age in Canada. The native child welfare crisis is as intractable today as it was in the 1950s. And if so, how much can be blamed on residential schools?

Regardless of the many problems associated with residential schools, they existed to fill a necessary and irreplaceable role. In the beginning, it was to provide Indigenous children with the language skills and other Western knowledge essential for their successful participation in Canadian society. As time went on, however, these schools evolved to serve a very different purpose. They became a de facto child welfare system for vulnerable children from dysfunctional homes brought on by centuries of alcohol abuse within Indigenous communities. 

By the 1940s, federal bureaucrats knew there were better options for educating native students and sought to shut down Canada’s residential school system. But they were unable to do so because they weren’t prepared to abandon the vulnerable native children whom the schools served. Without acknowledging this difficult truth, it is impossible to understand the full story of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools.

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