A Note Before We Begin:

***I realized a little while back that I was going to have to set down some of the basics about the Residential School System in Canada, and I’m kind of freaked out by the prospect.  The issue here is – like I’ve said many times before – I’m not Indigenous.  Not even part.  I have no personal connection to this very painful chapter of my country’s history.  Meanwhile, the last Residential School closed a bit more than twenty years ago, so we’re talking about a chapter of history that is recent andongoing.  There are Survivors across the country and for me (as an outsider) to be talking about their experiences is a kind of fucked up.

That having been said, this blog has managed to attract some readers from around the world, including places that might not have much in the way of a historical frame of reference for Canada.  So I need to face the fact that, for a reader in say…Norway (Hello!) I may be their first point of contact on this issue.  Since the subject of Residential Schools is going to come again and again throughout the rest of this deconstruction, I feel have an obligation to at least lay out some of the basic facts for readers who don’t know.

The main takeaway is that I’m only going to scratch the surface here in this – and future – posts.  The full story belongs rightly to the people who lived through it, so there’s only so much I can do.  A few of these Survivors have had the chance (directly or through others) to tell their story and I’ll be mentioning a few of them along the way (as well as in future posts).  If you want to know more than just the basics, I can do no better than to point you in their direction.***

A story before we begin:

Back in 1929, the Governor General of Canada, Freeman Freeman-Thomas (Viscount Willingdon) visited the Province of British Columbia, a tour which included a visit to the Nuuchah-nulth community of Yuquoth (then called Friendly Cove or Nootka Sound).  A classic Imperialist, Governor General Willingdon approached the visit as a typically patronizing way, delighting in the natives as they performed quaint songs and dances, while dressed in their traditional costumes.  As a culmination of this event, there was a great giving away of gifts, among which was a “Crest Pole” – an early example of what we now know as a Totem Pole[1] – as a gift from the Band to the Governor General.

His Excellency was absolutely thrilled to receive the Crest Pole, and immediately went about making the necessary arrangements to have it transported back to Ottawa (which was more than a bit inappropriate, but…Imperialism).  Overall, the visit seemed to be a positive re-affirmation of British Imperial power as translated through the lens of a young Canada.  It wasn’t until sometime later that an important point got raised: The ceremony which the Governor General had participated in had featured the large scale distribution of gifts by the senior members of the Band.  In other words, it had been a Potlatch ceremony.

The Potlatch had been illegal under the Indian Act for more than fifty years.

Needless to say, this was awkward as fuck.  The Crest Pole that Lord Willingdon had just finished raising at Rideau Hall was basically proof of his complicity in a crime.[2]  It was (in my opinion) a brilliant piece of political protest that helped highlight the unfairness of the Potlatch ban and other aspects of the Indian Act.  This event would be one of many by the West Coast First Nations that would gradually break down the laws intended to suppress their culture.

The point of this story is that, no matter what hardships they may suffer, no matter how legally disempowered they may be, a healthy community can find a way to push back.  The law may have forbidden the West Coast Bands from practicing their traditions.  But the actual people enforcing these laws had a fascination with First Nations culture which could be harnessed and played off against it.

So long as there was a healthy sense of nationhood and community, even a poor and destitute nation could resist assimilation.  This made culture one of the chief obstacles to assimilating the First Nations.

The Indian Act:

Okay, it terms of bare bones facts: Canada officially came into being in 1867 through the British North America Act (the BNA Act, now called the Constitution Act) which established our government and delineated its official powers.  Within that act (Section 91:24), the First Nations were mentioned exactly once with the phrase “Indians, and lands reserved for Indians” as part of a list of subjects under Federal domain (as opposed to Provincial).  This was ‘remedied’ in 1876 with the Indian Act, which laid out the system by which the Federal government would deal with First Nations which were still independent, and how they would govern those that had been brought into Canada via the Treaties.

The Indian Act was a deeply racist and colonial document that specifically laid out how the Government of Canada would absorb, contain and eventually assimilate the Indigenous peoples as part of the nation’s westward expansion.  In really simple terms, native peoples were to be contained in Reserves administered entirely by the Federal government.  Although they would be subjects of the crown, they would have none of the rights common to a Canadian citizen unless they left the Reserve and renounced their heritage and by extension, their Treaty rights.

The intention of the Indian Act was that the First Nations would simply melt away over the next few generations.  That the Reserves would shrink as their inhabitants were drawn into ‘civilization’ until finally there were no Indigenous people at all.  Simply a different type of ‘white’ person living appropriately Anglo-Protestant lives in Canada.[3]

The problem was that these stubborn natives didn’t seem to be ‘fading away’ like they were supposed to.  While a lot of people were indeed leaving the Reserve for various reasons, many more were staying.  And contrary to expectations, their allegedly ‘inferior’ civilization was proving to be surprisingly resilient.  They were living their lives, having children, and growing their communities as best they could despite the circumstances.  As I mentioned in the above example of Lord Willingdon’s Crest Pole, every now and then these people who were supposed to be fading away were pushing back against the system in some brilliant ways.

Following the Indian Act, a number of laws were passed which expanded and clarified its powers.  Of all of these, one of the most impactful was the revision of the Indian Act in 1951. There’s probably a dozen motivations that factored into these laws, but racism and colonialism were definitely central.  Whatever the case, the Indian Act was revised and expanded, and this put two programs (which had already existed albeit at reduced levels) into overdrive: The Residential Schools, and the adoption programs that came to be known as ‘the Sixties Scoop.’

The Sixties Scoop:

The term Sixties Scoop refers to the policy of taking native children from ‘troubled homes’ and placing them with stable ‘white’ families either as part of a foster care program or for permanent adoption.  The reasoning being that it was easier to take a child out of a troubled community than it to provide help to that community so it would no longer be troubled.  Although it had always been around in some form (and it technically went into high gear in the mid-50s) the sixties is when the impact really began to be felt on the Reserves, hence the name.

A child in a family deemed ‘at risk’ would be taken away (often without warning or recourse for the parents) and placed with a ‘stable’ (typically ‘white’) family for their protection.  Sometimes this was a foster home, but in all too many cases it was a permanent adoption.  In some cases, the child was in actual danger.  In many others, the home they were taken from was unstable, but salvageable.  In some other cases the household was actually not at risk, but ‘white’ police and social workers failed to understand the dynamics of how this particular family was coping with a problem (like having a grandparent move into the home in support of a young mother, for example).

The main thing here was that the children would be seized and there was no recourse for the parents.  Even supposing a case where the child was at genuine risk (say, with an alcoholic parent who was becoming abusive), there was no way for the parent to redeem themselves (by say, getting clean and going to counselling) and bring their children home.  Worse, any parent who’d lost one child might find other children of theirs at risk of being seized by the state due to their being known as a ‘bad parent’ regardless of how their behaviour might have changed.

To compound the harm of this policy, these children were often placed with families far from their home communities, and contact with their birth parents was blocked.  In many cases proper records weren’t even kept[4].  This not only left the kids growing up without a sense of their heritage or history (which would be especially challenging for brown skinned children placed in ‘white’ communities) but the parents would be left without hope of seeing their children again.[5]

buffy st marie
There’s a reason why folk singer Buffy St Marie can trace her heritage to the Piapot Plains Cree of Saskatchewan, even though she speaks with the New England accent of her adopted parents in Massachusetts.  (Image Source)

The Residential Schools:

There’s a way to look at the Residential School system, where it almost seems to make sense.  A lot of the Reserves were small and isolated, so the reasoning was that schools would be set up in central locations where the children could live during the school year and receive their education.[6]  Resources could be pooled to provide a better education and the children would also receive exposure to the ‘white’ settler-colonial society which they were expected to live alongside.

These are among the reasons cited by apologists.[7]

The fact that these schools were often underfunded, lacked oversight, and effectively served as prisons for the children sent there would be enough on their own to make them a disaster.  But the search for efficiencies was not the driving force behind the Residential Schools.  They were literally intended to break the bond between Indigenous children and their communities, thereby destroying First Nations culture as a whole.  The often quoted expression being “kill the Indian in the child.

In addition to being poorly run institutions that often propagated disease and malnutrition, Residential Schools were frequently abusive by design.  Under the supervision (largely) of the Catholic and Protestant churches, native children were forbidden to speak their own language or associate with members of their own family or band (even if those children were in the same school).  Their hair was cut, they were often given new ‘Christian’ names and any effort to reassert their identity was punished. Physical abuse was common, ranging from simple spankings to violent beatings that could land a child in the hospital or even kill them.  Sexual abuse was common as well.

Children died.  Some were killed by disease and malnutrition.  Some were killed by the teachers and priests who ran the schools.  Some ran away and died of exposure trying to get home.[8]

Some survived the school only to succumb to the long term effects of trauma and destroyed themselves through addiction or suicide.  Some survived only to pass the trauma on to their children through abuse or neglect.  Although they don’t get counted in the final tally, children who died in this manner should properly be considered victims of the Residential School system as well.[9]

There is no definite number that can be placed on exactly how much damage was done by the Residential Schools.  The current, accepted figure is around 6,000 children killed  but these are only recorded deaths for which the cause can be definitely attributed to abuse and neglect.  And this is for a total Indigenous population that, for most of the 20th century, only numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

There has never been a proper, detailed government study on the mortality rates for a child entering the Residential School system at age five and coming out at age fifteen/sixteen.  The closest we came to such an examination came in 1907 when Medical Inspector Dr Peter Bryce conducted a series of surveys in the West which suggested the mortality rate for schools in British Columbia and Alberta may have been as high as 30% and 50% respectively.  Duncan Campbell Scott (superintendent of the Deptarment of Indian Affairs), dismissed the conclusions, declaring that “it did not justify a change in policy.”  He later abolished the post of Medical Inspector entirely.

This is important to remember: Even at the time, the government knew these institutions were killing children, and considered this acceptable.

Counter arguments:

In 2008, (the Conservative Party’s) Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized on behalf of Canada for the treatment of Indigenous children (official video).  As a part of this apology, he acknowledged the fact that, whatever else may have happened, the implied and expressed purpose of the Residential School system had been to assimilate the First Nations and their culture by assimilating their children.  He went so far as to quote the infamous line: “To kill the Indian in the Child.”

This same government laid the groundwork for what became known as the Truth and Reconciliation Committee of Canada, a nation-wide government inquiry into the full extent of the Residential Schools and the impact they had on their surviving students.

Anyone wanting to piss and moan about revisionist history and political correctness can start by complaining to the Conservative Party for making the acknowledgement of guilt into official Government of Canada policy.

Also go fuck yourself while doing it, please.

That having been said, there’s still a lot of people trying to impose their own rose-coloured filter on the past.  Probably the most infamous recent example would be Senator Lynn Beyak  who decided back in 2017 to argue that the Residential Schools hadn’t been that bad, and a number of reconciliation initiatives (such as the push to re-name the Langevin Block) were therefore unwarranted.[10]

So for ease of reference, I’m listing some of the more common counter-arguments I’ve come across, along with an answer to each one:

  1. Not all the schools were bad!  First off, define bad.  While some of the schools weren’t actively abusive in a physical or sexual sense, psychological abuse is still a thing.  And even in the event of a perfect school causing no direct harm at all, the purpose behind these schools was to remove the children from their communities and teach them a language, faith and culture different from their own in order to undermine and destroy that culture back at home.[11]
  2. Here’s a person who went through the Residential Schools and they came out okay!  Yeah, statistics are a funny thing.  Flip a coin often enough and one of these days it will land on its edge.  Some people came through the schools without a scratch.  A few even have fond memories of a particular school.  Native author Thomas King attended a Catholic boarding school for a few years in the late 1950s, describing his experience as not much worse than a “fraternity hazing, or a mugging.”  He also declares that, had he experienced a Residential School at its worst, he likely would have died.  (He’s also the guy who pointed me to the statistics I quoted above about the BC and Alberta Residential School mortality rates.[12])
  3. It was the 1960s!  Why can’t they get over it?  Interestingly enough, I see this one popping up a lot on Facebook from people who also spend a lot of time on theatrical patriotism centred on the First and Second World Wars.  Well, a child born in the late 1950s who got forced into Residential School in the mid-60s would today be in their sixties or seventies.  In other words, they would be the elders and senior leadership of today’s First Nation communities.  This is part of the reason the issue has been pushed more and more to the forefront: The survivors are coming of age.  On top of that, the last Residential School closed in 1996, so don’t expect the problem to be going away any time soon.  Depending on how you date it, this reckoning has got twenty to forty years of depth for all of us to deal with.
  4. This is how a lot of the current First Nations leaders got their education!  Yes.  A lot of today’s chiefs and elders were children who went through the Residential School system.  So tell me, why are you so surprised that this has now become such a huge issue in today’s day and age?
  5. Here’s a (cherry-picked) example of a native leader who supported the Residential School!  See my above comment about statistics.  This is the more outrageous aspect of Lynn Beyak’s arguments, using a handful of isolated examples to try and gloss over a tragic big picture.  Again, “not all residential” schools doesn’t exonerate all residential schools.  Even in the stories of children who survived some of the worst abuses, you’ll find stories of decent people in the schools whose behaviour ran counter to the system.  There’s always some decent soul who shows up in the most horrible conditions to do something righteous.  That doesn’t change the background against which this person was working.
  6. They treated white people the same way!  Uh…I’m not sure how the horrible treatment of one group of people mitigates the horrible treatment of others.  Yes, the history of the welfare state is littered with examples of horrific policies forced upon the powerless in the name of ‘helping them.’  It’s only last year that they discovered a fucking mass grave behind ‘the Home’ in Tuam (an orphanage & single mothers’ home in County Galway, Ireland), with the remains of nearly eight hundred children and babies inside.  That was an atrocity, and so was the Residential Schools.  Suffering compounds, it doesn’t cancel.
  7. But some of these people weren’t racist!  They were honestly trying to help!  So there’s this thing called critical race theory, and one of the really scary conclusions it draws is that individuals don’t have to be actively racist if the system in which they’re participating in was built on racist foundations.  A social worker might honestly believe they were helping a child by taking them away from their family, but that doesn’t change the damage that was being done.[13]
  8. If all this was so horrible, why don’t the Indigenous people stand up for themselves?  Why do they expect us to do everything for them?  [Deep breath]  Part of the reason I included the story about the Crest Pole at the beginning was to show that the First Nations are standing up for themselves and have been for generations.  We just don’t always notice.[14]  The thing is, trauma like this can devastate a community psychologically.  Take a look at the Humbolt Bus crash.  Twenty nine people out of a community of five thousand, and the town was devastated.  It’s a year later and they’re still feeling it.  Now at the worst there were periods when First Nations communities had more than seventy percent of their children gone from the Reserve at any given point in time.  And no idea when (or if) the children would come back.  There’s a lot to come back from, and a lot of harm that needs to be addressed.  Nobody’s looking for a handout.  They’re looking for justice.

The Sixties Scoop and the Residential Schools were massive programs encompassing generations of Indigenous children and youths.  Clearly summarizing the sheer expanse of its dimensions is going to be beyond the scope of this four thousand word article.  The main takeaway is that these two events hit much of the First Nations like a series of body blows from the time of the original Indian Act all the way up to the end of the last century.  Far from being one single event, they functioned as a series of calamities that struck native communities again and again on their most vulnerable level, through their children.

That we are seeing a reckoning come about today is a testament to the resilience of native culture.  But the damage is severe, and the wounds run deep.  It is going to be a long time before this reckoning comes to an end.


[1] Fun fact: What we think of as a Totem Pole (a free standing wooden pole carved with representation of various figures) is actually a relatively modern creation of what we now call the Haida Renaissance.  The earlier versions of these poles typically had only one figure at the top, and tended to vary depending on the nation (Canada’s West coast is home to a number of nations commonly grouped together as ‘Haida’).  Putting all the Totems together on a single pole was a recent development by turn of the century artists such as Mathias Joe and Mungo Martin.

[2] I don’t know exactly how this news got broken to the Governor General, but I like to imagine some Haida joker walking up to him just as the Crest Pole went up at Rideau Hall and saying (in the voice of Bender from Futurama) “Hey your Execellency!  Guess what you’re now an accessory to!”

[3] And Catholic.  Tolerance of Catholicism (and even occasionally Irish Catholicism) was early Canada’s version of multiculturalism.

[4] The official number is over 11,000 children ‘Scooped’ over the 30+ years that the program was in effect.  Some estimates place the number at well over 20,000.

[5] Serious question:  Why get sober if your kids are gone for good?  Why would you want to deal with that reality without the numbing haze of drugs and alcohol?  I’m not arguing against getting clean.  But if my family got taken away forever, I’m pretty sure I’d be crawling to the very bottom of the largest bottle I could find and staying there until I died.  And I don’t think I would be alone in this.  What I’m saying is, if your goal is to motivate someone to get clean and kick their addictions, don’t take away their kids forever!

[6] Over the last two decades, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (comprising more than 40,000 people but scattered across dozens of Reserves through Northern Ontario) essentially tried this when they established Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in the city of Thunder Bay.  Journalist Tanya Talaga describes the struggles of this effort in her book ‘Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City.’ (2017 House of Anansi Press.)

[7] I cannot believe we actually have apologists for the Residential Schools in this day and age.  Then again, I didn’t think we’d also have literal Nazis making a comeback.  So what do I know?

[8] While most of these children simply disappeared, the fate of some were eventually discovered.  Probably the most famous today is Chanie (Charlie) Wenjack, who ran away from the infamous Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in 1966 and died trying to walk home along the railway tracks.  Over the last few years his story has been commemorated in books, animation, and music, and other tributes by different artists.

[9] One of the major themes of Wab Kinew’s memoir “The Reason You Walk” is the challenge of building a relationship with his father, a Residential School survivor.

[10] Go figure. As I was putting together this article, Lynn Beyak popped up in the news again for posting a number of supportive e-mails she’d received on an official Senate website.  Sen Beyak has defended them as being edgy and blunt, but many of these were openly racist and ignorant.  At the time of this writing, she has been ordered by the Senate Ethics Committee to take the page down.

[11] I personally don’t like the term ‘Cultural Genocide’ since I feel that the word genocide is a loaded term that should only be employed in extreme cases.  That having been said, I can’t think of a better term to describe the process of undermining and destroying a culture through the (often violent) indoctrination of that culture’s children.  So I guess for now we’re stuck with it.

[12] This is the main fallacy of Senator Lynn Beyak.  As far as I know, she’s not explicitly lying about the examples she’s cited, but that these examples are in a minority against the overarching effect of the government’s policy of assimilation.  Also, many of the cases and testimonies she cited back in 2017 were ones that pre-dated the 1951 revision of the Indian Act, or even the original 1876 version.  Meaning they didn’t accurately reflect the Residential School system at their height.

[13] I took a couple of classes in Social Work a few years ago and one of the things they were adamant about was the harm that could be caused by good intentions that lacked awareness or understanding.  They also spoke at length of the challenges of working with First Nations communities, given the harm which had been inflicted by previous generations of Social Workers.  This is a case where the cliché is true: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

[14] In the case I sited, it’s almost like ‘Civil-Rights Jiu-Jitsu’: Using the covetous power of colonialism against itself.


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