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The use of the terms “assimilation” and “integration” to describe the purpose of the Residential Schools system has declined in recent years, replaced by the emotionally and politically inflammatory term “cultural genocide,” a concept synonymous with ordinary enculturation – learning about and internalizing features of a different culture — but one intended to maximize the cultural harm the schools supposedly did to Indigenous people.


However, the claim of intent to eradicate Indigenous culture is not grounded in facts. While there is evidence of hostility toward some Indigenous beliefs and practices by authorities at particular schools, the same cannot be said about the experiences of students at all Residential Schools.


There is much evidence that many of the people who worked in the residential schools respected Indigenous culture and sought to preserve and encourage it. In fact, many Indigenous people often worked in the schools, often making up 50 percent of employees.


The chapels in some schools, located on or near reserves, also served as the churches for the local community. The chapels and classrooms often hosted Indigenous cultural events including dances, pow wows, and other celebrations.


The Indian Act never specified that residential school students must speak only English or French. While the children’s use of a native language was discouraged, or even forbidden in some schools, especially in classroom settings, in other schools students were free to speak their native tongue outside the classroom, in the dorms and the play areas, as is the established practice in French immersion schools today.


Some administrators learned to speak their students’ native language, and there are dozens of examples of administrators promoting the use of Indigenous languages. One Christmas program in Crowfoot Roman Catholic Residential School, close to Cluny, Alberta, in 1957 included a Santa speaking Blackfoot and a Christmas service with Blackfoot hymns. The principal of the Onion Lake Residential School even taught the children how to read and write Cree syllabics so they could send letters to their families.[1]


At least one credible national study reported that use of a native language was more prevalent among former Residential Schools students, and that former Residential Schools students were more likely to be active in the preservation of native language and culture than other Indigenous people.[2]


While it is likely, given the commonly held beliefs of the time, that some Residential School administrators and staff held European supremacist views and did what they could to erase traditional beliefs and practices from their students, others took so much interest in those beliefs and practices that they took steps to preserve them, including multiple examples of Indigenous dances taking place at celebrations in the schools. For example, in Crowfoot Residential School, a Blackfoot acting troupe performed a pageant about their cultural traditions for the children. [3][4]


These facts directly contradict the claim that the IRS system as a whole was a tool of cultural genocide. Indeed, certain schools may even deserve credit for preserving Indigenous language and cultural celebrations.

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