This article was originally published in Quillette as a single article. It has been edited for republication as a series of articles here. Part 2 of this series dealt with conditions at home.
If Residential Schools were indeed bent on genocide, of the cultural variety or otherwise, how are we to explain the array of both extra-curricular activities and skills training that most of them appear to have provided? A 1941 government report offers us this glimpse into some of these:
The progress made at Indian day and residential schools in the Province of British Columbia has been particularly gratifying. In addition to the regular academic courses, special vocational courses have been successfully organized. These courses, for girls, consist of the treatment and spinning of locally grown wool and the knitting of woollen garments, Cowichan sweaters, and socks, dressmaking, fruit preserving, crochet work, and home management; and for boys, boat-building, auto mechanics, Indian arts and crafts, and elementary agriculture. The Koksilah, Inkameep, and Ste. Catherine schools have been outstandingly successful in the organization of these courses, all of which are based on the needs of the Indians on the adjoining reserves. The teacher in charge of the Inkameep Indian day school has succeeded in the dramatization of a number of Indian legends. The presentation of these at the Banff Drama School created a great deal of interest amongst Indian educationists in Canada and the United States.
Another report, this one from 1961, provided this description:
”Indian students are encouraged to participate with non-Indians in such extra-curricular activities as track and field contests, as well as meetings of Guides, Scouts, Cadets, and 4-H clubs. Indian pupils enjoy participating in music and drama festivals as well as contributing many excellent items for display in exhibitions of school work and of Indian craft. School bands are not uncommon, and several excellent groups of dancers are active among Indian students. To enrich their experience, tours are sometimes arranged to local historic or scientific points of interest in connection with their school studies, or to nearby industries or places of employment, to introduce older students to the ‘world of work’ outside the reserve.”
La Tuque Indian Residential School Hockey Team, Les Indiens du Quebec, photographed in 1967.
This helps explain why there are a surprising number of testimonies from former Residential School students attesting to happy experiences. For instance, Tomson Highway, one of Canada’s most distinguished First Nations authors, has written in unmistakably positive terms about how the Guy Hill Residential School near The Pas, Manitoba helped launch him on a professional musical and literary career that would have been otherwise impossible. Run by the Oblate Fathers and Sisters of St. Joseph, the school was situated on the edge of an “emerald-watered lake.” Its facilities, he writes, constituted “a labyrinth … a kingdom of magic.” At night, “with the crisp clean sheets, warm wool blankets and central heating I am in heaven.” Elsewhere, he has declared,
Nine of the happiest years of my life I spent at that school … 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.
Members of The Sturgeon Landing, Saskatchewan, Residential School hockey team.
The late Senator Len Marchand also reported positively on his experience at a Residential School. Notably, he attended the Kamloops school, whose former grounds are routinely described in Canadian media as the site of unspeakable horrors.
Marchand enrolled in the 1949-50 school year, at the age of fifteen. The classes, he wrote, took place in “big, well-lit rooms, with desks as modern as any you could have found on the west side of Vancouver in 1949. And the teachers were just as good.” Marchand enjoyed playing sports at the school—baseball, basketball, and hockey. He took pleasure in the achievements of his fellow students, and wrote proudly about the school’s Holstein cattle winning blue ribbons at an agricultural air, and Sister Anne Mary’s “superb” choir, which “cleaned up at the annual local music festival.” He declared, “I was never abused, and I never heard of anyone else who was mistreated at the Kamloops school.” About the priests, nuns, and other religious officials, “they meant well by us, they genuinely cared about us, and they all did their duty by us as they saw fit.”
This is the very same Kamloops school where, we have been assured since 2021, the bodies of over 200 children supposedly lie in unmarked graves, the presumed victims of systematic criminal behaviour—even mass murder. The fact that no bodies have been found should not surprise those who know the school’s history.
When alumni from the Kamloops school organized a reunion for former students in 1977, no fewer than 280 individuals showed up—including well-known figures such as Marchand and former principal Bishop Fergus O’Grady. According to one account, “events included Indian dancing with Ernie Philip; slides of the ‘good old school days’ presented by Father Noonan, ‘where many of the students will recognize themselves’; more slides presented by former Indigenous teacher Benny Paul; ‘Bone Games’ and a salmon barbeque and dance.” I haven’t the slightest doubt that, as with all boarding schools, some alumni of the Kamloops Residential School have dark memories of their time there. But truly genocidal institutions do not host joyous two-day reunions featuring slideshows and visits from former administrators.
1991 reunion photo at Shingwauk Indian Residential School in Ontario.
Another well-known First Nations writer, Richard Wagamese, wrote about his mother’s experience at the Cecelia Jeffrey Residential School outside Kenora, Ontario. “My mother has never spoken to me of abuse or any catastrophic experience at the school,” he wrote in 2008. “She only speaks of learning valuable things that she went on to use in her everyday life, things that made her life more efficient, effective and empowered.”
As an aside, it’s worth noting the recent campaign, led by a number of public figures, urging the criminalization of something called Residential-School “denialism.” While this term has been vaguely defined by campaign proponents, it seems that the object of such a (presumably unconstitutional) law would be to censor anyone seeking to present Residential Schools as anything but instruments of abuse and cruelty. As the testimonials above indicate, a primary effect of such a law would be to criminalize Indigenous people offering honest recollections about their own experiences in regard to Residential Schools. Even the staff who worked at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, were they to republish certain writings produced by that body, might be held criminally liable under such a dubious law.
Other (apparent) Residential-School “denialists” would include a number of less well-known former students who testified to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Many of them are included in a document created by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called The Survivors Speak.
Speaking of his two-and-a-half years at the Stirland Lake School in Ontario, Paul Johnup stated, “I learned things there … I got to know people … from other communities… I learned carpentry, mechanical, electrical.” Lillian Kennedy related, of her time at the Fort Alexander School in Manitoba, “I learned lots from the nuns … And I got along with everybody. I had lots of friends.” Martha Mingoose spoke of the times she shared with her beloved friends at the Cardston School in Alberta: “We always laughed, we always shared stories, we always talk[ed] Blackfoot.” Alphonse McNeely, who attended the Aklavik School in the Northwest Territorries, said there were frequent school picnics where they “played all kinds of games on the lake, and … just [had] fun.” Saturday was the highlight of the week for the boys at The Presbyterian School in Kenora, B.C., Donald Copenace recalled, because a big box of comic books would be brought out for them to dive into. Mary Rose Julian valued what she learned at the Shubenacadie School in Nova Scotia, where “I learned English. That was my objective for going there in the first place … I was there a year and a half; a nun never laid a hand on me.”
Percy Tuesday, who, like Donald Copenace, attended the Kenora School, reports having stood up for himself and winning justice from the principal. He and his friend were keen guitarists who loved to jam together. One day, a supervisor confiscated his guitar, apparently for no reason. “So I went, I went storming up to the principal’s office, and I told him, ‘this guy took my guitar, I want it back now.’ And I was, I was mad. I had it back within ten minutes.”
These are all the memories of individuals. And it is important to emphasize that the majority of witnesses appearing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered recollections that were far more negative. Many of the stories in this latter category have been told and retold in great detail in the Canadian media. And they are an important part of the historical narrative—even if (as with the positive stories) many are impossible to prove or disprove.
(It is also the case that, as a matter of statistical representation, those students who report negative experiences have more of an incentive to make their stories public, since they are typically seeking justice or accountability—a more urgently felt moral project than simply reporting that everything was fine.)
What is provable is that organized sports were typically a big feature of student life at Residential Schools. Gyms, skating rinks, and playing fields were common facilities. A few institutions, such as the Kamloops School had swimming pools—a rarity at most Canadian public schools during the early and mid twentieth century. Some students said that playing sports was the main thing—sometimes, the only thing—they liked about the schools. It wasn’t just fun—it instilled a sense of pride and accomplishment. At the Blue Quills school, Alice Quinney reported, “track and field day was a day when your … parents got invited to come and watch you perform in your track events.”
At the Residential School in Beauval, Saskatchewan, one principal exhibited a particular interest in hockey. “We started having new skates [and two sets of sweaters], Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens,” according to one report. “And Maple Leafs, we used them at home, and then when we go out and play, we have to be Canadiens.” Orval Commanda recalled that a wide range of sports played a positive role in his life at the Spanish, Ontario, boys’ school, which boasted basketball, track events, pole vaulting, high jumping, shot putt, hockey, softball, baseball, and lacrosse.
Undated photo of the football team at the Spanish, Ontario Residential School.
Other students focused on the arts. A dance troupe at the Kamloops Residential School, run by one Sister Leonita, became well-known throughout British Columbia—though participants reported decidedly mixed memories of the required training regimen. Jean Margaret Brown recorded that “being in a dance troupe, I was made to feel special. But the work that we did to be in that dance group was really, really harsh.”
By the 1960s, famous Indigenous Aboriginal artists such as Henry Speck, an alumnus of Alert Bay Residential School in British Columbia, were being brought into some schools to give lessons in drawing and carving—experiences that artistically inclined students later recollected as being inspirational.
A sample from “The Trailblazing Art of Chief Henry Speck”
Almost all of the material I am citing here comes from official Truth and Reconciliation Commission documents published in 2015. And as I review those documents, it is amazing to think that in the space of just eight years, simply repeating this information has become taboo—a form of suspected “denialism.” The same is true of the more general acknowledgment in The Survivors Speak, that
many students have positive memories of their experiences of residential schools and acknowledge the skills they acquired, the beneficial impacts of the recreational and sporting activities in which they engaged, and the friendships they made. Some students went [on to] develop distinguished careers.
Visual corroboration may be found in the over 20,000 photographs contained in the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation archives. Unfortunately, many of these photos don’t feature dates, or even information about the school being depicted. Moreover, it should also be noted that (for the most part) the only people who had cameras were officials connected with the school in some way. And so it should be expected that the choice of subject matter would reflect the photographers’ desire to capture the school in a positive light. Needless to say, few were anxious to take photos of decrepit facilities or cruel behaviour.
With those caveats in mind, it remains notable how many pictures show rows of students, often smiling and well-dressed, betraying no indication of being sick or malnourished. In many cases, the students seem lost in their artistic or athletic pursuits, oblivious to the camera. There is little evidence of this being professionally curated or polished propaganda, as the photos often seem to have been taken by amateurs who are simply collecting shots for a yearbook or student newspaper.
Buried in the archives are back issues of school magazines, written, edited, and published by the students themselves. Again, skepticism is warranted: Then, as now, this kind of student journalism was done under the supervision of educators and school administrators, none of whom were interested in shocking investigative exposés. And so it is no surprise that their tone is consistently upbeat.
That said, they do catalog an extensive variety of extra-curricular activities that can’t have been invented by the writers. The Moccasin Telegram, published by students at the above-mentioned Blue Quills School in Alberta, included articles in both English and Cree. One Grade 5 student reported, “in the girls’ room, we have a new radio this year, which Father Balter bought for us. We enjoy it very much. We like best the dance music and the cow-boy songs.” Another student, also in Grade 5, wrote that “we played foot-ball against the Indian men. The score was 3 to 2 in favor of us. In the afternoon, we played baseball with them and we won the game, 7 to 4. Father bought us a base-ball out-fit. ”
Another entry, this one from a student named Victoria Janvier: “On Father Balter’s birthday, we had a big picnic… When we got there, all the girls went in wading in the water. Then the boys started to play games … After the games, we took our dinner under the trees … Then we had more games and then it was time for supper … When the boys and Sisters were back, we had fire-works … That was the nicest holiday we ever had.”
“This year, we go often sliding down hill and have lots of fun,” wrote a student named Caroline Cardinal in 1938. “We go everyday after dinner and at four o’clock till half past four … Father gave us thirty-six new sleds this year and we still have the sleds from last year, too.”
Two years later, a student named Caroline Piche wrote that “fifteen of the big girls went for a sleigh ride. One of the Sisters and two boys came with us. It was a little cold, but we did not care … We went as far as St. Brides, which is about eight miles from our School … While coming home, we tipped over, but I am glad to say that no-one was hurt. Some were all covered with snow and many of us lost our rubbers. After this … it was quite dark already … We were all cold, but we surely enjoyed our trip even though we tipped.”
End of Part 3