This article was originally published in Quillette as a single article. It has been edited for republication as a series of articles here. Part 3 of this series included firsthand testimonies from students.
The records also feature a variety of first-hand accounts left by nuns who taught at a variety of Residential Schools. They kept chronicles over a period of many years, documenting their work on a daily basis. And although media descriptions of Residential Schools now often casually dismiss all of these educators as cruel and predatory racists, this material—typically composed not as historical propaganda, but as private recollections—tells a different story.
From these chronicles, we learn of the great love that many nuns had for the students under their care. Since they lived in the schools full time, they saw themselves as far more than teachers. They nursed students with longstanding illnesses such as tuberculosis (exposing themselves to such diseases in the process). They also dealt with epidemics of measles, scarlet fever, whooping cough, and influenza. Rather than go home to their parents, sick children sometimes remained at school because there they would get better care, and help prevent the infection of reserve populations.
Undated photo of nuns from Marieval Residential School in Saskatchewan at a picnic.
They also provided treats for the children, like trips to the movies, or the purchase of a record player or radio. In 1939, the students at the Residential School near Hobbema, Alberta were taken to Edmonton to see the King and Queen during their visit to Canada—a gesture that many today will interpret as a horrifying rite of colonialism, but which the vast majority of Canadians then saw as a landmark historical event. After graduation, students of many Residential Schools would return to be married in the chapel, or even to come work at the schools as employees.
Parents frequently praised the Sisters for their achievements in educating their children—which helps explain why, on some reserves, parents actively opposed the federal government’s decision to close Residential Schools. The practical advantages of learning English were particularly well-understood. One Moccasin Telegraph article explained that
Lack of English among the Indians was often very harmful, because we have to do business with the white people who do not know our language. In that case, we have to depend upon an interpreter. This often works out badly. For example, he [Mr. Gullion, a local Indian agent] said, Indians often come to him after having made a horse deal, much dissatisfied with the bargain. When it is all explained, the Indian often has to say that this was not the way he understood it. If he could have understood English, he would not have made such a deal.
It is true, as has been abundantly reported in the media, that many Residential Schools suppressed the use of Indigenous languages, sometimes using indefensibly ruthless disciplinary methods in the process. But in many other cases, the opposite approach was taken. The Oblate Fathers, for example, made special efforts to learn Blackfoot and Cree, and often addressed students in those languages. Even Santa Claus is known to have spoken Blackfoot during at least one Residential-School Christmas program in 1967. At Onion Lake, the students were taught Cree syllabics so that they could write letters home to their families. In western Canada, many Residential-School students regularly won prizes for their art and performances at local exhibitions.
In a 2016 article published in the Canadian Journal of Economics, in fact, University of Victoria scholar Donna Feir concluded that attendance at Residential Schools actually reduced cultural assimilation, as compared to students at mixed public day schools: “Those children that lived with and went to school with predominantly non-Aboriginal people were, if anything, more economically and culturally assimilated than those who attended residential schools with their Aboriginal peers.”
One of the reasons why members of the Canadian public were so quick to believe 2021-era claims that hundreds of Residential School students in Kamloops, B.C. had been dispatched to unmarked graves was that they had already been told for years of the thousands of children from Residential Schools who’d simply gone “missing,” never to be seen again by their parents.
The ghoulish idea here is that a journey to Residential School was something like a trip to a gulag or concentration camp—a journey into a black hole of inhumanity, from whence nothing might emerge, not even information about the tragedies that unfolded therein. This is surely one of the most misleading aspects of the genocide narrative that has built up around Residential Schools.
Most schools were situated on or near reserves, so that students would be as close as possible to their parents, and to facilitate visiting on weekends and holidays. Students typically were admitted to a Residential School only after a parent had submitted a signed application, which was forwarded to Ottawa by the local Indian agent, together with a doctor’s certificate. There was an extensive bureaucracy surrounding the intake process. And the idea that school administrators were kidnappers who simply plucked students from reserves and then treated them as anonymous prisoners is wholly invented.
Once admitted, student attendance was documented in the quarterly returns that the school was obliged to submit to the government. It was very much in the school’s interest to hang onto every student in its care, since the grant for that student would be cut off at once if the student stopped attending, for whatever reason. Of the 150,000-plus students who passed through Residential Schools, at least 3,200 are known to have died at some point following their admission. And it is quite possible that the actual number is significantly higher. But the idea that whole legions of them could have simply disappeared due to mass-murder plots or similarly lurid narratives, leaving no trace, is profoundly ahistorical.
In addition, there was typically a constant stream of outside visitors to the schools—Indian Agents, police officers, doctors, dentists, nurses, X-ray technicians, dieticians, school inspectors, farm inspectors, and many officials from Ottawa. One reason why the government officials came was to pay the annual treaty money to which status Indians were entitled. The absence of any child on “Treaty day” would have been noticed and investigated.
A final bit of evidence worth noting: Former students often enrolled their own children in the schools, and returned frequently to the schools for visits. Are these parents to be smeared as agents of genocide?
Even the claim of cultural genocide seems far-fetched. The First Nations Regional Survey covering 2015-17 reported that over 60% of adults who’d attended a Residential School said they could speak a First Nations language at an intermediate or fluent level. Furthermore, those who attended a Residential School were more likely to understand a First Nations language “relatively well” or “fluently,” as compared to those who did not attend (75% vs. 44%). This is not surprising given that several priests who’d taken a leading role in founding Residential Schools had shown their respect and admiration for First Nations cultures by not only creating alphabets and dictionaries for a number of their languages, but also by translating various texts.
It cannot be disputed that Indigenous peoples in Canada were mistreated in abundant ways. And it will be the work of generations to remedy that mistreatment. But it does these communities no benefit to warp the historical record by falsely employing the language of genocide—an idiom that separates Indigenous from non-Indigenous by portraying the former as timeless victim and the latter as timeless criminal. Canadian history, including the history of Residential Schools, shows many instances of these two communities interacting productively and in good faith, often developing great affection for one another in the process. In carving a path for the future, let us find a way to extrapolate from those inspiring examples, rather than engaging in apocalyptic exaggerations.
End of Series