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Pope Francis took the easy path, not the right one

Pope Francis, 2022: “It is necessary to remember how the policies of assimilation and enfranchisement, which also included the residential school system, were devastating for the people of these lands.”  “I apologized, I asked forgiveness for this work, which was genocide.”  

How dissonant are these statements from the two heads of the worldwide Catholic Church during their respective visits to Canada:  John Paul II’s enlightened and hopeful remarks; Francis’ uninformed and dark admonishments.

European contact and colonization did indeed bring about profound changes to Indigenous cultural and social life.  But the notion that the Department of Indian Affairs, churches, and schools collaborated to forcibly and genocidally assimilate the Indigenous people into a Euro-Canadian Christian identity does not hold up to scrutiny.

Missionaries from the various Christian denominations were by definition involved in proselytizing. Their methods, however, were neither forcible nor absolutist. There were no forced conversions or baptisms.  The provision of material aid, such as treaty payments, was not made conditional on conversion to Christianity.

Nevertheless, in response to missionary teaching and preaching, the majority of Indigenous people adopted the Christian faith.  The Department of Indian Affairs categorized the Indian population by religion in the censuses it published in its annual reports.  In 1897, just under a fifth of the Indian population in the provinces, and nearly half in the Northwest Territories, were identified as adherents of an aboriginal belief.  (The term “pagan” was used until 1913, when it was replaced with “aboriginal belief”.)  By 1940, 4 percent of the population was identified as holding aboriginal beliefs, and by 1957, the last year in which Indian Affairs reported religious affiliation, the proportion fell to under 3 percent.

Relationships between Indian Affairs and the churches, on the one hand, and the Indigenous who kept traditional beliefs on the other, were mostly conciliatory.  The 1892 Department of Indian Affairs Annual Report (DIAAR) stated that at the Six Nations (Ontario) reserve, “Eleven church services are held every Sunday and all are well attended; about seven hundred and eighty-three members of the band who call themselves Pagans, hold their old custom services regularly.” (p. 43)  One “pagan” chief offered the use of his house for Christian church services.  At least until the early 1900s, the Indian Affairs annual reports recorded grants made to bands for “pagan” ceremonies and conventions.

Indian Affairs encouraged and supported economic development on all reserves, regardless of whether or not the population was predominantly Christian.  Some bands that had largely kept the aboriginal beliefs made substantial economic progress. One example of this was the Obidgeweng Band in Ontario:  They “are all pagans, [but] they are industrious and well-to-do.” (1890 DIAAR, p. 61)

The residential schools are presented as the primary instrument of Canada’s policy of “forced assimilation”.   The notion, firstly, that the vast majority of Indigenous children attended residential schools and that their impact, therefore, was all-encompassing, is unfounded. This idea was given impetus and wide currency by the former head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Murray Sinclair, when he declared at the United Nations in 2010 that, “For roughly seven generations nearly every Indigenous child in Canada was sent to a residential school. They were taken from their families, tribes and communities, and forced to live in those institutions of assimilation.”1

The truth is that no more than one-third of school-age status First Nation children, and even a smaller proportion of the general population of Indigenous children, were ever enrolled in residential schools. 2

Enrolment and attendance figures taken from Annual Reports of the Indian Affairs Department

In many periods, particularly after the 1950s, the percentage of enrolment was far lower.  The vast majority of children attended on reserve day schools, or, in later periods, integrated provincial schools. But attendance at day schools was abysmally low, and before the mid 20th century, as many as one-third of Indigenous children did not attend any school at all.

Residential schools primarily served reserves that did not have sufficient population to support a day school.  Even today, dozens of remote reserves do not have high schools. Young people in those communities who want to finish their schooling are “forced” to leave their families to board in distant towns or cities.

In 1920, Indian Affairs attempted to bring the Indigenous population into compliance with general Canadian compulsory attendance law through an amendment to the Indian Act. The amendment, however, did not require attendance at a residential school, but rather that, “Every Indian child between the ages of seven and fifteen years who is physically able shall attend such day, industrial or boarding school as may be designated by the Superintendent General. Provided, however, that such school shall be the nearest available school of the kind required.” 3

It has been well documented that the Canadian compulsory school attendance laws were only loosely applied in the case of Indigenous children, and that forced attendance at the residential schools was rare, occurring primarily in cases of neglect or abuse in the home. 4

Far from being instruments of cultural suppression, as Pope Francis has asserted, the residential schools were committed to a process of integration of the Indigenous and “Canadian” cultures, rather than the eradication of Indigenous culture. The 1937 Indian Affairs Annual Report states, “An encouraging feature of the educational effort during the year was discovered in the…tendency and willingness of the Indians to recognize the value and distinctiveness of their arts and crafts. Consideration has been given to ways and means whereby the Indian population can be encouraged to conserve still further their ancient values and skills and thus contribute to the cultural life of the nation.”  (1937 DIAAR, p. 254)

The residential schools aided the survival of Indigenous traditions by incorporating traditional music, dance and art into classes and school activities. The Indian Affairs reports and other sources are replete with examples of the residential schools’ encouragement of Indigenous cultural expression:

At the Cluny, Alberta school in 1938, students dressed in beaded costumes danced to the rhythm of Indian drums and war songs to an audience of over 300.5

In 1963, a residential school on the Blood Reserve / Kainai First Nation in southern Alberta hosted a troop of Blackfoot actors who showed a film on Blackfoot life in the early days, followed by a pageant depicting Blackfoot traditions and featuring a sundance.6

Students from the Kamloops IRS give a dance performance in Mexico City in 1964.

A choir from the Portage La Prairie school sang in English and Cree at Expo ‘67 in Montreal.7

In the 1950s, the Gordon’s School in Saskatchewan established a powwow dance troupe that travelled extensively in Canada, the United States and several European countries.8

The Alberni school in British Columbia hired Victoria artist George Sinclair to teach classes.  One of his students, Judith Morgan, became renowned throughout North America for her work depicting Indigenous themes.9

In 1958, students at the Sir John Franklin School in Yellowknife were helped to achieve a high standard in Inuit handicrafts.  Some of the students did commissioned work on their own time.10

Although tensions between the residential schools and the parents and bands occasionally surfaced, in most periods the schools enjoyed strong support from First Nations. Several residential schools were established under Indigenous leadership.  The Chief of the Kamloops band, Louis Clexlixqen, was a strong champion of education, and in 1890 he founded the Kamloops Residential School.11

John Brant, son of the famous Mohawk Chief, Joseph Brant, established a school at Six Nations that was the predecessor of the Mohawk Industrial School.12

At a Catholic Indian League convention held in Hobbema, Alberta in 1959, the 100 Indian leaders in attendance urged the creation of a central residential vocational school that would serve Indian children from throughout the province.  The leaders further maintained that “Catholic parents have the duty and the right of educating and training their children in Catholic schools.” 13 (Hobbema, Alberta, renamed Maskwasis in 2014, is the very place where Pope Francis delivered his excoriation of residential schools in July, 2022.)

Official request to have the old St. Paul’s IRS replaced with a new school, signed by prominent members of the Kainai First Nation

The government began implementing a policy of closing residential schools in the late 1950s. The schools at that time struggled with long waiting lists as parents did not want their children placed in integrated schools, where, it was feared, they would be subjected to racism. A Saskatchewan Indian Agency Superintendent reported in the early 1960’s that, “We were inundated with applications…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.”14

An Indian Affairs plan to close the Marieval Residential School in Saskatchewan in 1971 met with vehement opposition from band members. The band cited three reasons it wanted the school to remain open:  1) their children would face certain discrimination in the provincial schools as had occurred elsewhere; 2) the residential schools met an essential need by providing a home and education for orphans and children from broken homes or from impoverished families who could not properly care for them; and 3) the children sent to foster homes were not receiving proper discipline or religious instruction as they (the elders) had received in the residential schools. One band spokesperson stated, “The Indian people passed a resolution asking that the school remain open and it should not be up to the department to say whether the school should be closed.”

As the residential schools were in most cases administered by churches, it is unsurprising that they were imbued with a Christian ethos. As most parents had converted to Christianity, at least nominally, the Christian character of the schools met with little objection, and as we have seen, often had the parents’ strong support.  Parents who were not Christian were encouraged, but not forced, to send their children to residential schools. “This band [at Qu’Appelle, Northwest Territories] continues to send a few children to the Regina and Qu’Appelle industrial schools, but the pagan element, which largely predominates, is still pronouncedly averse to parting with their children. There is reason to believe, however, that the spirit of opposition to the schools is diminishing, and that before long substantial progress will have been achieved in this respect.”  (1900 DIAAR, p. 295) The schools held the view that Christian teachings would foster a better morality, as they saw it: “The moral conduct of the pupils has been highly commendable, and about two-thirds of the number have made a profession of religion and have given many proofs of sincerity.”  (1888 DIAAR, p. 141)

It is alleged that residential schools were responsible for the loss of traditional languages.  In fact, residential school students were far more likely to retain their traditional languages than Indigenous children who attended other types of schools.15

St. Paul’s IRS newsletter of 1957 – “Sokapi Aginixin” – Blackfoot for “Good News” 

This pattern continued into the next generation.  Youths whose parents attended a residential school were twice as likely to be fluent in an Indigenous language than youths who had no family history of attendance.

Immersion in English was clearly part of the residential schools’ goal of preparing students for integration into the Canadian society and economy.  But the schools did not seek to eradicate the traditional languages. Whereas residential schools typically restricted, or attempted to restrict, the use of native languages in settings such as the classroom, students had many opportunities for using them, for example on playgrounds and other places outside classes.16

At the Cluny, Alberta school, the national anthem was sung in Blackfoot or Cree, and church services were sometimes conducted in those languages.17

Half the staff at Stringer Hall in Unuvik, was Indigenous, and they, as well as visiting parents, spoke to the children in their native language.18

Some schools proactively encouraged the preservation of traditional languages.  Students at the Onion Lake School (situated on the Alberta/Saskatchewan border) wrote in a local newspaper:  “Father Principal comes to teach us the Cree Syllabics. We are very glad to learn this writing because it is our own language and we will be able to write to our parents and grandparents. Then they will be able to understand the writing and to write letters to us when they wish. Our sincere thanks to Father for teaching us this writing.19

Students at the Shubenacadie IRS in Nova Scotia craft pottery in the 1950s. Female students practised traditional basketmaking.

While the residential schools were in many respects devoted to sustaining traditional languages and customs, they were also aimed at integrating Indigenous people into the Canadian economy. The teaching of English, academics, and farming and trades skills was viewed as essential to this goal.  Indian students were encouraged to join 4-H clubs, and given tours to scientific points of interest in connection with the school studies and industries or places of employment to introduce them to the “world of work” outside the reserve. (1961 DIAAR, p. 22)  There were cases in which the residential schools assisted former residential school students to set up businesses. The Grouard, Alberta, school helped graduates establish a cooperative for the manufacture of beaded slippers and leather goods in which the students were to “share equally in the profits”.  (1944 DIAAR, p. 15)

Students were encouraged to attend schools that offered them the best opportunities for educational progress: “Quite a number of the more advanced pupils have gone from these schools [day schools on Walpole Island] to the Mount Elgin Institution at Muncey, to the Shingwauk and Wawanosh Industrial Institutions at Sault Ste. Marie, and to the public schools at Sarnia, in quest of education of a higher order than the day schools on the reserve afford. One of these youths, after completing a course at the Shingwauk institution entered Trinity College school [a prestigious private boarding school] at Port Hope, where he distinguished himself by carrying off some prizes…” (1888 DIAAR, p. 20)

The residential schools offered students a greater chance of future success than other types of education available to them.  Residential schooling was associated with greater likelihood of being employed in the labour market and less future reliance on welfare income.20

The 2008-2010 First Nations Regional Health Survey found that 38 percent of adults who had attended a residential school had less than a high school education, versus 40.5 percent of adults who had not attended a residential school; 22.2 percent had a diploma from a trade school, community college, or university, versus 17.9 percent of those who had not attended; and 4.1 percent of the residential school group had an undergraduate degree, versus 3.6 percent of the non-residential school group.21

These results are especially impressive because children from severely disadvantaged backgrounds were given priority for enrolment in residential schools.

Blood and Peigan college graduates in the 1970s and early 1980s

It is claimed that the residential schools committed a form of “removal” genocide by permanently separating children from their families and home communities. The reality was that many of the students at residential schools located near or on their home reserves went to be with their family at the end of the school day. Most of the others spent holidays and long summer breaks with their families.  A 1920 amendment to the Indian Act stipulated that “a regular summer vacation is provided for, and the transportation expenses of the children are paid by the department.” (1920 DIAAR, p. 14)  When the students’ residential school years were complete, they returned to their home communities or other places of their, or their parents’, choosing.

Many parents took a proactive interest in their children’s school experiences. There are records of parents attending the schools’ special events and programs.22

Although it was difficult for parents who lived far away from the schools to visit their children, such visits did occur.23

Some schools were able to provide accommodation for the parents’ overnight stays.24

Although Indian Affairs viewed some Indigenous customs as highly objectionable, with only a few exceptions that I note later, the government did not forcibly ban them.  Polygamy, a custom followed in many tribes, was one such practice. It was common for Blackfoot men, for example, to have several wives, and some of the Chiefs had more than a dozen.25

In some tribes, girls as young as ten were entered into polygamous marriages.26

Indian Affairs and the missionaries sought to limit the practice of plural marriage, not by compulsion, but through persuasion:  “The inculcation in the minds of Indians of principles that will lead them, from conscientious convictions, to abandon voluntarily the habit of polygamy … is, I submit, the work of those who charge themselves with the responsibility of imparting instruction to them in the tenets of Christianity [emphasis added].”  (1884 DIAAR, p. 61)

Some “progressive” historians suggest that the suppression of polygamy among the Indigenous was an unjustified intrusion that was harmful to the tribes’ social harmony.  They dismiss contemporaneous accounts by persons who observed that polygamous arrangements were often accompanied by serious abuses and harms, and give unquestioned credence to the representations of others who suggested that  the practice was innocuous and even positive.  The judgment of history, however, is that polygamy has been, and remains, a hindrance to human progress. That is why the overwhelming majority of countries, including all Western democracies, have outlawed the practice.  It has been settled long ago that plural marriage is born of the notion of an inherent inequality between women and men, and invariably causes great harm to society, and to women in particular.

Canada formally outlawed polygamy in 1890.  The prohibition, however, was almost always unenforced in the case of the Indigenous.  Only one Indigenous man, a member of the Kainai band in Alberta, was ever prosecuted for having plural wives (in 1899).  Despite the adoption of the anti-polygamy law, Indian Affairs continued to maintain the position that polygamy should be ended gradually through persuasion:  “To this [missionary] influence must also be attributed, to a large extent, the…ever-increasing willingness to abandon the old-time custom of plural marriages…. (1896 DIAAR, p. 474)

Another practice that met with the strong disfavour of Indian Affairs was the buying and selling of wives.  The practice was common among Chiefs and wealthier “commoners” in the West Coast tribes.27

An Indian Affairs agent at Heshquiaht, on Vancouver Island, reported, “I found all well at the mission and was present at two marriages in church, this tribe having given up the heathen custom of buying their wives.” (1885 DIAAR, p. 181)  The practice was abandoned over time, not as a result of legal prohibition, but in large part as a result of missionary influences. (Indian Affairs’ use of the term “heathen” was abandoned in the early 20th century.)

A wedding takes place at St. Paul’s Anglican IRS of two of the school’s graduates

The damaging impacts of certain Indigenous mourning traditions were of grave concern to Indian Affairs.  One such practice is illustrated in this account of what followed the deaths of two leaders of the Brokenhead Band in Manitoba in 1890:  “[Brokenhead] met with a heavy loss this year, when two of their councillors died, John Raven and Wayashishsing; they were both good men, one a Christian, the other a pagan – their places will be hard to fill, as they were conscientious, sober and industrious men.   Wayasbishsing, before he died, called his family and friends around him, and made his family promise him, in the presence of all, not to leave the house, and to continue to make improvements on his place and that they were only to mourn for him two days. This is a great advance for a pagan, and one which I hope will be followed; as heretofore, when one of the family died, they left the house, gave away all their property, cut up and scarified themselves, and did nothing sometimes for months, and then, as it were began life again some distance from their old home. This is one of the great drawbacks to the prosperity of the pagans, and I am glad to say that the family of Wayasbishsing faithfully carried out his wishes.” (1890 DIAAR, p. 107)

This custom gradually died out in a voluntary manner along with polygamy and the selling of wives.

Government prohibitions on aspects of the Sundance are often cited as examples of unjust and  forced assimilation.  Indian Affairs and the churches did in fact object strenuously to the torture ritual that was central to the ceremony, and that was an element of the initiation of young men into the status of “brave”.  It involved making cuts to the skin of the chest and legs, inserting sticks, attaching ropes to the sticks and tying them to a pole, and having the young man dance around the pole until the stick inserts were torn away.28

This ritual was often preceded by penitential mutilations carried out on a number of other young men.29

Ritual torture as part of the Blackfoot Sundance

Over time, missionary teaching led to the voluntary abandonment of the torture test (1888 DIAAR, p. 61). In 1885, “The Indians [at the Sarcee Reserve in Alberta] held their usual “sun dance”… but on account of the wet weather, and lack of candidates for the torture act, I do not think it was a success from an Indian point of view…”  (1885 DIAAR, p. 173)  And, in 1886, “The usual sun dance was held in June [at the Assiniboine Agency], the interest taken in it is quickly dying out and they express themselves to the effect that ‘it is their last.’”  (1886 DIAAR, p. 266)

The renowned and influential Blackfoot Chief, Crowfoot, played a prominent role in the decline of the sundance, and the torture element in particular: “When the renowned Head Chief of the Blackfeet, Chapo-Mex-i-co, Anglicé Crowfoot, objects to the continued celebration by his people of these heathenish ceremonies, we may surely be said to have heard their death knell. And their partial cessation furnishes an additional proof of the progress of civilization among the Indians of the North-West.”  (1888 DIAAR, p. 62)   On one occasion, Chief Crowfoot lent his voice and aid to an Indian Affairs agent to stop the infliction of torture on a young man at a sundance. (1888 DIAAR, p. 70)

Sundance ceremonies typically lasted many days, and Indian Affairs officials were concerned that they interfered with farming schedules.  An Indian agent at the Assiniboine Agency wrote, “I should be glad if they were disgusted as it is an unmitigated nuisance, always occurring at the time they should be working at the crops.”  (1885 DIAAR, p. 173)  Over time, many Bands made adjustments to the scheduling of the sundances to accommodate the farming needs:  “Almost all the Indians attended their annual sun dance at Indian Head, but waited until seeding and fencing were completed before going, and returned to their work immediately upon the conclusion of the dance, an encouraging improvement upon their conduct last year.”  (1887 DIAAR, p. 237)  And, “The Peigans did better in weeding their fields on account of their not having had any sun dance. It would appear that they have given up this annual feast, as they did not hold it this year.” (1887 DIAAR, p. 265)

Through an amendment to the Indian Act, the government in 1895 outlawed “any celebration or dance of which the wounding or mutilation of the dead or living body of any human being or animal forms a part or is a feature“.  Indian Affairs adopted the following policy governing the  implementation of the law:  “In the matter of sun-dancing and similar rites of a quasi-religious character, so long as these do not involve the depraving and ruinous features of torture, mutilation or the giving away of property [there was a particular concern about the disposal of property families had received from the government], the religious aspect in which they are regarded by the pagan Indians, who alone engage in them, cannot advisedly be disregarded, and in such instances only methods of persuasion can be pursued.” (1896 DIAAR, p. 474)

Prohibitions on the sundance were generally ignored, and in 1951 the ban was struck from the Indian Act.30

Blackfoot sundance circa 1908

Whether the ban on the torture rite was a progressive step, or an unjust intrusion into a cultural practice, is a debate that could be had.  We know which side of the issue the Chief of the Blackfoot Confederacy would have supported.

The potlatch was another cultural practice that was subjected to a degree of prohibition. The traditional potlatch of the West Coast tribes is described in the Canadian Encyclopedia:  “Valuable goods, such as firearms, blankets, clothing, carved cedar boxes, canoes, food and prestige items, such as slaves and coppers, were accumulated by high-ranking individuals over time, sometimes years. These goods were later bestowed on invited guests as gifts by the host or even destroyed with great ceremony as a show of superior generosity, status and prestige over rivals.31

Most of the slaves held by West Coast Chiefs and “nobles” had been captured in internecine wars.  Slaves were kept as chattel, and sometimes they were executed at potlatches as a symbolic disposal of property.32 Slavery continued long after contact and well into the 19th century.

The status of “Chief” was ascribed by birth, and potlatches served to validate and solidify the Chiefs’ wealth and prestige.33

The “commoners” participated in the giving away of property along with the Chiefs, but the Chiefs were soon re-enriched at the next potlatch, while the commoners remained poor.34

Potlatches continued well into the latter part of the 19th century, but their character had significantly evolved by that time:  “The excitement of these and kindred gatherings is the chief attraction to Indians of the present day, though of course many attend to buy or sell canoes, horses, skins, & c. The great majority care nothing about the potlach itself…”  (1885 DIAAR, p. 179)  Some chiefs wished to continue the old style potlatches, but many disagreed. “Chief Lohar and his family have long expressed themselves anxious to do away with the potlach, and the object of this gathering was to pay their debts, i.e., blankets and other articles lent them at former potlaches.”  (1885 DIAAR, p. 179)

The federal government banned the potlatch in 1884 via an amendment to the Indian Act. The ceremony was seen as wasteful of personal property, and as with the sun dance, there was worry that the multiple-day ceremonies interfered with farm work. (1885 DIAAR, p. 179)

The ban on the potlatch was lifted in 1951, but today it is practiced mostly as a cultural festival.

One hopes that Pope Francis, in making his charge of genocide, was not in any way comparing the Indigenous experience in Canada with an atrocity on the scale of the Nazi holocaust. Some activists, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, do suggest such an equivalency.  In particular, they  allege that the schools practiced a physical genocide through purposeful neglect and abuse, and, in some cases, homicide. The evidence, however, shows that the very opposite was true, that the schools actively and compassionately promoted the physical well-being of the students:

By mid-20th century, the residential schools essentially eliminated the scourge of tuberculosis that ravaged First Nations communities. This was accomplished through a program of comprehensive vaccination.35

The incidence of tuberculosis was always much lower in the schools than in the reserves.36

Whereas residential school death rates were significantly higher than in the general Canadian school-age population in the early decades of school operations, by the mid-20th century they were virtually equal.37

The residential schools began renovating and constructing buildings with proper ventilation very early in the 20th century (1911 DIAAR, p. 41), several years before the Toronto Public Schools built its first such school in 1914.  The Toronto school has been falsely touted as the first of its kind in Canada.38

The charge that the residential schools wantonly neglected the health of students by ignoring the presence of contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, is absurd on its face, given that the staff lived in close proximity to the students and were well aware that diseases were spread through person-to-person contact.

Many residential schools served as medical centres for surrounding communities; for example, for the prevention and treatment of trachoma in the Prairies in the 1930s (1932 DIAAR, p. 10).

Rural schools in Canada were described at a 1919 Dominion Council of Health meeting as “not fit to raise swine in”, and as having inadequate heating and lacking playing areas.39

From early on, most residential schools provided indoor and outdoor facilities for sports and exercise.  In 1898 the Kuper Island School in 1898 built a “new gymnasium…[which] proves to be a very useful addition to the school, for besides giving opportunity for athletic and calisthenic sport, it is supplied with a permanent stage which makes it of great value for receptions and entertainments.” (1898 DIAAR, p. 580)  At the Blood school, “Recreation three times a day after each meal, football, swimming, fishing, shooting with bows and arrows…Boys and girls each have their own playgrounds, and are always under the supervision of an attendant.” (1910 DIAAR, p. 726)  Throughout the residential school era, and particularly after WWII, residential school  teams won numerous local, national and international championships in hockey, boxing, lacrosse, cross country skiing, and other sports.  Although school administrators sometimes submitted complaints to Indian Affairs about the lack of funds to improve recreational facilities, the numerous sports successes could not have been achieved had the players not had access to good sports facilities and equipment.

School hockey players at Moose Factory

Residential schools implemented the rigorous nutritional standards set by the Canadian government in the 1950s.  The health benefits to the students were long-lasting. Research has found that residential school students were taller and less obese as adults than would have been the case if they had attended other kinds of schools.40

The residential schools attended to the nutritional needs of students in earlier periods as well.  The 1925 Indian Affairs Annual Report states, “Milk herds are being tested [there was a concern broadly in Canada about diseases carried in milk] and the children’s diet at these institutions carefully controlled.  In the Prairie Provinces, travelling nurses visit Indian schools regularly to this end. The department is co-operating with the Canadian Junior Red Cross in the promotion of better health for Indian children.”  Indian Affairs noted in its 1944 report that in outlying districts where the supply of vegetables was limited, the Department distributed 13 tons of vegetable biscuits fortified with vitamin B flour.

Students at St. Anne’s IRS enjoy a meal in the school cafeteria.

The close association between poor nutrition and the incidence of disease is well known.  Had residential school students been exposed to severe and chronic malnutrition, the schools would have experienced persistently high levels of disease and morbidity.  The residential schools, however, experienced a precipitous decline in all-cause death rates 41 and mortality from tuberculosis 42 from the very early 1900s on.  There were periods in which residential schools struggled to provide a nutritious diet.  But the schools were not alone in this.  The general Canadian population had difficulty securing adequate nutrition in times of economic hardship.  Malnutrition was so widespread in Newfoundland and Labrador during the Great Depression that it was considered to be a major factor in the uncontrolled spread of beriberi and tuberculosis.43

Nearly half of Canadians enlisting for service in WWII were malnourished, and health researchers found that 60 percent of all Canadians were undernourished at that time. 44

A 1920 study found that 26 percent of students in the Toronto public schools were malnourished and in a “serious state of health”.45

That residential school attendance was associated with so many favourable health outcomes is especially remarkable in light of the fact that the schools gave priority to the admission of orphans and children from severely disadvantaged or abusive backgrounds.

In summary, relations between Canada and the Indigenous people have always been, and remain, complex.  They have featured both cultural assimilation and cultural integration.  Occasionally, they involved the suppression by law of elements of traditional customs.  But in making sweeping assertions of forced assimilation and genocide, Pope Francis has distorted the history of Canada’s relations with its Indigenous people.  In doing so, he has committed a grave injustice against the Indigenous people and all Canadians.


1 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, For the child taken, for the parent left behind, 9th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Speech by Chairperson, The Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair, (April 27, 2010), p. 3

2 Nina Green, Two-Thirds Did Not Attend Residential School, The Dorchester Review, (July 13, 2022)

3 Consolidation of Indian Legislation, Volume II, 1868-1975, Department of Indian and Northern Affairs

4 Nina Green, Brian Giesbrecht, Tom Flanagan, They Were Not Forced, The Dorchester Review, (April 21, 2022)

5 Nina Green, “Our Dear Children”:  Sisters’ Chronicles of Indian Residential School, The Dorchester Review, (April 01, 2022)

6 “Our Dear Children”

7 Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 2 1939 to 2000, The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 1, p. 479

8 History Part 2, p. 479

9 History Part 2, p. 482

10 History Part 2, p. 483

11 Duane Thomson, Clexlixqen, Louis, Dictionary of Canadian biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 1998

12 The Mohawk Institute, Indian Affairs,Report of the Superintendent Genera, 1930l

13 Indian League Urges Vocational Schools, Indian Record, Vol. XXII, No. 9, November 1959 (file:///home/chronos/u-efd03e67da9608473e1d563e287d7d190c62e26c/MyFiles/Downloads/c637e3ac-5992-494b-b741-a7a4a7529964.pdf%20(7).pdf)

14 Vic Satzewich and Linda Mahood, Indian Agents and the Residential School System in Canada, 1946-1970, Historical Studies in Education, (1995), pp. 61-62

15 First Nations Information Governance Centre, National Report of the First Nations Regional Health Survey Phase 3: Volume One, (Ottawa: March 2018) pp. 164-165

16 Rodney A. Clifton, Some Other Truths About Indian Residential Schools, C2C Journal, (May 19, 2015)

17 Nina Green, “Our Dear Children”:  Sisters’ Chronicles of Indian Residential School, The Dorchester Review, (April 01, 2022)

18 Rodney A. Clifton, My Life in Two Indian Residential Schools, C2C Journal, (September 5, 2022)

19 Nina Green, “Our Dear Children”:  Sisters’ Chronicles of Indian Residential School, The Dorchester Review, (April 01, 2022)

20 Donna L. Feir, The Long Term Effects of Forcible Assimilation Policy: The Case of Indian Boarding Schools, University of Victoria, Victoria, B.C., Department of Economics, (November, 2013), p. 435

21 First Nations Regional Health Survey, First Nations Information Governance Centre, p. 205

22 Nina Green, “Our Dear Children”:  Sisters’ Chronicles of Indian Residential School, The Dorchester Review, (April 01, 2022)

23 Rodney A. Clifton, Some Other Truths About Indian Residential Schools, C2C Journal, (May 19, 2015)

24 Nina Green, “Our Dear Children”:  Sisters’ Chronicles of Indian Residential School, The Dorchester Review, (April 01, 2022)

25 Sister Annette Potvin, The Sun Dance Liturgy of the Blackfoot Indians, Ottawa, Canada (1966), p.27

26 Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 1 Origins to 1939 The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Volume 1, pp. 655-656

27 Eugene E. Ruyle, Slavery, Surplus, and Stratification on the Northwest Coast: The Ethnoenergetics of an Incipient Stratification System, Current Anthropology, Vol. 14, No. 5 (Dec., 1973), p. 612

28 Sister Annette Potvin, The Sun Dance Liturgy of the Blackfoot Indians, Ottawa, Canada (1966), pp. 110-115

29 “The Sun Dance Liturgy of the Blackfoot Indians”

30 Rene R. Gadacz, Sundance, (February 7, 2006)

31 Rene R. Gadacz, Potlatch, (February 7, 2006)

32 John Douglas Belshaw, Canadian History: Pre-Confederation, Slavery, (October 2020)

33 Eugene E. Ruyle, Slavery, Surplus, and Stratification on the Northwest Coast: The Ethnoenergetics of an Incipient Stratification System, Current Anthropology, Vol. 14, No. 5 (Dec., 1973), p. 605

34 Ruyle, p. 616

35 Dr. Scott Hamilton, Where are the Children buried?, Dept. of Anthropology, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario, p. 11

36 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015), Graph 5, p. 92; Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 2 1939 to 2000, The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 1, Table 36.1, p. 193

37 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015), Graph 4

38 Melanie Zettler, How Toronto’s first open-air school responded to the tuberculosis crisis more than 100 years ago, Global News, (September 30, 2020)

39 Christopher Rutty, PhD, and Sue C. Sullivan, This is Public Health: A Canadian History, p. 2.8

40 Donna L. Feir, M. Christopher Auld, Indian residential schools: Height and body mass post-1930, Canadian Journal of Economics, (April 08, 2021)

41 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015), Graph 3, p. 91

42 Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, Graph 5, p. 92

43 Jenny Higgins, Great Depression – Impacts on the Working Class, Heritage Newfoundland & Labrador, (2007)

44 Transcript: Ian Mosby: Food in Canada During WWII, TVOToday, (May 13, 2015)

45 Aleck Samuel Ostry, Nutrition Policy in Canada, 1870-1939, UBC Press, (2006), p. 23

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