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Not a Genocide, Part 2: Conditions at Home

This article was originally published in Quillette as a single article. It has been edited for republication as a series of articles here. Part 1 of this series dealt with questions of health and nutrition.

The well-being of a student cannot be captured with merely physical indicators. As many former Residential-School students have attested, there can be crippling psychological stresses associated with being separated from one’s home community. At some schools, severe forms of corporal punishment were common, not to mention (less common, but far more scarring) instances of sexual abuse. Since the purpose of these schools was to assimilate Indigenous children into white society, moreover, children often were forbidden from speaking their native languages and practicing traditional forms of spirituality. Even though these students were free to return to their home communities during the summer months, their exposure to their ancestral culture was diminished. These facts are at the root of the charge of “cultural genocide” that became common in the 2010s.

At this point, however, it should be noted that only a minority of First-Nations children ever attended a Residential School, as their purpose was largely to supply a school for communities that didn’t already have an accessible day school located on (or very close to) their reserves. And in many cases where they did attend, those schools had been set up with the support of local Indigenous communities. As noted above, it was only in 1920 that Canada’s federal government made such schooling compulsory for Indigenous youth.

Even at peak attendance, in the 1930s, Residential Schools accounted for only about one-third of First-Nations children who were attending any school. By 1968, it was down to 13%. And by the early 1980s, there were only about 20 facilities in operation across the entire country. It’s hardly unreasonable to scrutinize Residential Schools as being a factor in the decline of Indigenous culture. But the available data suggest that their effect in this regard has been overstated.

Another complication in the narrative is that, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report states, Indigenous parents and leaders often preferred Residential Schools over racially integrated provincial public schools—in part because of (not unreasonable) fears that Indigenous children would be bullied in a racially mixed environment. In 1961, for instance, the principal of the Residential School in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, warned government officials that:

…many of our children who will be attending the integrated classes next term, or should be, have indicated to me that they are not going to return to school as they do not like the idea of going to school with the other children. With many of these youngsters, I do not feel there will be any great problem, however there are families who are quite put out by the thought of their children attending the school in Sioux [Lookout].

In other cases, Indigenous parents objected to their children being transferred out of the boarding arrangements at Residential Schools, on the basis that they didn’t have the means to care properly for their children at home—a phenomenon that became apparent after 1950, when the federal Indian Affairs Department began systematically transitioning away from Residential Schools, so as to enrol more children in day schools and provincial public schools. As late as the 1960s, a Saskatchewan official reported that they were “inundated with applications [for enrolment of children in Residential Schools.] That was one of the times of the year I dreaded the most … when we had to go through these applications and turn down any number of people.”

Skill Training

The residential and especially industrial school system often taught skills that the students could use later in life to gain employment.  

One thing that should be emphasized here is that Indigenous parents consistently exercised agency over the education of their children—a fact somewhat obscured by efforts to (falsely) portray the Residential School system as a network of prisons full of children who were (literally) ripped from their helpless parents’ arms. There is no doubt that many Indigenous parents sent their children to Residential School because (after 1920, at least) they had no other legal option. But to suggest that most Indigenous parents passively submitted to government pressure is insulting to them. Indeed, there are numerous examples of Indigenous communities negotiating extensively with government officials over the schooling question—which featured, in some cases, Indigenous leaders campaigning actively in favour of residential schooling options.

One study of Residential Schools in British Columbia, for instance, notes that heads of families would sign contracts with the schools, stipulating the nature of the education their children would receive. While cases of forced enrolment undoubtedly occurred, one scholar found, “they were scattered and usually unauthorized.”

Parents often had firm expectations. One late nineteenth-century government document, for instance, reports of one First Nations that “although there are only a few children in this band, the older members take an active interest in education, as they wish to see all their people put on a level with their white neighbours.” Others expected that their children would experience improved health at school; or sent their children to Residential School because the other parent had died, or their marriage had broken down. In two B.C. schools for which records have survived, almost 50 per cent of the students were orphans. Other parents simply concluded that their children would fare better in a Residential School than amidst the challenges of life at home.

Air Cadets

IRS students were sometimes provided opportunities to take part in summer activities, including in various cadet programs.  

According to one former student at the Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia, “I could tell you that our lives outside the Residential School was bad enough that she [my mother] felt … that it was better for us to be there than with other family members … We were safer in her eyes to be there than at home.” Tragically, many Residential Schools betrayed these expectations. But many did not. And on balance, the research indicates, “Residential School does not seem to harm parental socio-economic status.”

Needless to say, the fact that many Indigenous families often felt they had no better choice than to let strangers care for their children during the school year does not speak well for their status in Canadian society. Certainly, I don’t want my argument here to be misinterpreted as asserting that these parents were fortunate. The desire of parents to be with their children is universal. And the fact that many still chose to send their children to Residential Schools speaks to the dire straits in which they found themselves. This state of affairs does not speak well for Canadian society. But it also does not suggest a genocide in progress.

As already noted, there are numerous accounts of Residential School students enduring strict forms of discipline—including forms of corporal punishment that would be seen as inhumane and criminal in our own era. Getting a strap on the palm or posterior, or a wooden ruler on the knuckles, was hardly uncommon. What is often forgotten is that corporal punishment was standard practice in Canadian schools until the 1960s and beyond. Some private schools, such as Selwyn House in Montreal, didn’t retire “the cane” until the 1980s.

It is absolutely true that corporal punishment meted out against children is alien to most Indigenous cultures (a fact that was noted as early as the sixteenth century by the first French explorers to Canada). But in general, the men and women staffing Residential Schools did not see themselves as imposing disciplinary measures that their own (white) children would not be subject to at their own schools.

In some cases, there were instances of real sexual predation and sadism—as has been the case at other Canadian schools, sadly. But according to the Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat—a quasi-judicial tribunal established to assess legal claims made under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement of 2007—“the vast majority of schools in most decades have five or fewer cases of [physical or sexual] abuse.” It need scarcely be noted that even a single case is one case too many. But no society, Indigenous or otherwise, is immune to the problem of sexual abuse.

Students in front of the main building at Gordon’s Indian Residential School (1888-1996) north of Regina. This school was run by the Anglican Church until 1947, at which time it was taken over by the Indian and Eskimo Welfare Commission until 1969 and the Government of Canada until it was closed. William Starr, director of the school between 1968-1984, was one of the most notorious abusers in the history of the system. He was convicted of 10 counts of abusing children. 

I will not dwell here on the high reported rates of sexual abuse in some Indigenous communities, because the roots of this problem are complex (and often tied up with the effects of colonialism). But suffice it to say that while some Indigenous students left safe reserves to become abuse victims at Residential Schools, there were also students for whom the level of risk actually increased when they went home for their summer break.

End of Part 2

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