Truth: 2 Years In

Welcome to the second installment of my perspective of Truth as it relates to the Canadian experience of facing the Truth and Reconciliation of treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada (go back to the first installment).

Before proceeding, please note there are intense sections below. Support is available for survivors of Residential Schools. The Indian Residential School Survivor Support Society has established a 24-hour Crisis Line for former students and their families. Call: 1-866-925-4419.

One year ago, resources were starting to surface, but they were still somewhat scarce. In 2022, the second anniversary of Truth and Reconciliation Day, a fountain of wealth has sprung. A casual internet search reveals plenty of resources for those wanting to know. One year ago, I plotted an outline to fill in resources that I thought were lacking. As a reference point, here was that intended outline:

    • Timelines resources
    • Origins of Residential Schools
    • Case studies on theft of land, or at least one that will take us on a journey to the United Kingdom
    • Comparisons with Holocaust memorials in Germany and elsewhere

I’ll still provide a few samples of Timelines that I find particularly useful – as mentioned, the resources have increased in abundance and other websites are better resourced than I can be here, so I’ll point to those further below.

In addition, I will provide an interesting reference that I initially read a year ago that deserves to be promoted still, to provide some context to where things took a dark turn.

I will refrain from discussing the third and fourth topic, because my inspiration was going to come from a place that will be better captured in fascinating work that I am working on elsewhere.

Finally, I will add a new piece – a reflection on a very local (to the Metro Vancouver region) case of the journey of Truth and Reconciliation.

Timeline Resources

The following resource from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation first appeared in June of 2021, but it has been tweaked and improved upon. A great cursory reference beginning in 1831 with the opening of the Mowhawk Indian Residential School in Brantford, Ontario, to the Closing Ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015.

Residential schools timeline screenshot from Truth and Reconciliation website.

The following resource from The Canadian Encyclopedia also offers a brilliant timeline of the Residential School system, tracing the system to its roots in 1620 when the Catholic Church ran missionary schools in a new Canada, prior to the system that eventually came to be where the Canadian government embarked up on an era of forced assimilation through contracts with many of these religions organizations.  This timeline also has informative links to other pages on the Encyclopedia, such as Residential Schools in Canada (Plain-Language Summary). One informative entry from the latter nicely debunks the myth that these institutions were scholastic in nature:

Only a few hours a day were spent in the classroom. Most teachers were unqualified, and the curriculum they taught was basic. Students learned reading and writing in either English or French, basic math, and religion. The schools received little funding from the government, so students were forced to spend half of their day working to maintain school buildings and grow food. Girls cooked, cleaned, sewed and laundered. Boys took part in carpentry, construction and farming. All students had a variety of other daily chores in addition to their work. When they left school, most did not have the skills they needed to find a well-paying job.

Residential Schools timeline screenshot from The Canadian Encyclopedia website.

But the tragedy of treatment of Indigenous peoples goes way beyond the experience of Residential Schools. Residential Schools is just the most unimaginably cruel depiction of a system that was designed to eradicate the identity of a whole segment of the population. Residential School were a particularly insidious method to remove children from their families to interrupt the transference of culture and identity between generations. This system was simply a more cost-efficient and perceptibly kinder way to encourage Indigenous people to vacate their lands either by assimilation, death or dysfunction so that European settlers could step into the void left behind. For this more complete history, Canadian Encyclopedia provides this more extensive timeline of Indigenous Peoples, documenting the earlier trials of eradication through battle and disease up to modern day.

Indigenous Peoples timeline screenshot from Canadian Encyclopedia website.

A relatively recent addition to the internet, the Indian Residential School History & Dialogue Centre Collections site at the University of British Columbia has produced an excellent scale-accurate timeline of the History of Residential Schools, dating from 1497 as John Cabot arrived on the shores of North America, thru to the discovery of modern burial sites into modern day. Scroll a few clicks downward to find this comprehensive timeline. Zoom in/Out controls are located to the left, and you can slide left/right to navigate.

Scrolling timeline from the Indian Residential School History & Dialogue Centre Collections at UBC.

Another great resource that is worth picking up for an engrossing read and maintain as a reference is 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act. In addition to learning about. Author Bob Joseph is founder and president of  Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., founded to help non-Indigenous people work effectively with Indigenous Peoples through paid training and free resources. In addition to providing a detailed chronology of Residential Schools, Joseph takes the reader through the legislative aspects of the Indian Act (article on CE; the Act) that forever altered life for Indigenous Peoples in Canada. While researching this post, I came across another fantastic resource that takes us away from a Timeline and into daily life, a free downloadable e-book from Indigenous Corporate Training Inc.:

Click to download this informative e-book produced by Indigenous Corporate Training Inc.

A Global Perspective

While researching Truth and Reconciliation last year, I stumbled upon the resources to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Therein, I found a fascinating read titled Indigenous Peoples and Boarding Schools: A Comparative Study.

Although the other is not without personal controversy, the now University of California Professor, Andrea Smith, documents a fascinating comparison between the origins and evolution of Indigenous boarding institutions across various regions including:

    • North America
    • Australia
    • Asia
    • Latin America
    • Russian Federation
    • Scandinavia
    • East Africa
    • New Zealand

Like many things in Canada, culture was influenced by other locales. In the case of Residential Schools, what smith terms Boarding Schools, Canada borrowed a page from the United States of America. In this context, legislation in the form of Grants’ Peace Policy of 1869-1870 enlisted Christian denominations to administer Indian reservations (p. 3). Congress funded the construction of day and boarding schools upon reservation lands. The policy changed in 1879 with the establishment of off-reservation boarding schools to impede the success of children who tended to run away.

The American context

Smith identifies that there were two sides in the American context that grew out of solutions to the “Indian Problem.” The problem  was how to wrest control of lands away from Indigenous Peoples. On one side, “friends of the Indians,” were people who advocated for cultural assimilation – on the other side were folks who advocated for all-out genocide. Smith quotes Henry Pancoast, a Philadelphia lawyer (1882), who stated

“We must either butcher them or civilize them,
and what we do we must do quickly.”

It was under this context that American military officer Captain Richard Henry Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania in 1879 as the first off-reservation boarding school. Pratt, identified as being on the “friends of the Indians” side was also the notorious source of the quote “Kill the
Indian in order to save the Man.” However, the motivation to be a ‘friend’ was not solely humanitarian. Smith recounts how Carl Schurz, a then Commissioner of Indian Affairs estimated that it was a more economical solution.

Carl Schurz concluded that it would cost a million dollars to kill an Indian in warfare, whereas it cost only $1,200 to school an Indian child for eight years. Likewise, the Secretary of the Interior, Henry Teller, argued that it would cost $22 million to wage war against Indians over a ten-year period, but would cost less than a quarter of that amount to educate 30,000 children for a year.

Because the schools were seen as an economical alternative, the government also underfunded the schools, resulting in inadequate food, medical care, and overcrowding conditions which would exacerbate the spread of illness. Additionally, to supplement the cost of the institutions, children were often assigned to tasks of farming and industrial work to support their institutions’ self-sufficiency. Even abuse was self-sufficient, as older children were required to enforce corporal punishment over younger children (p. 6). Furthermore, in these remote conditions, predatory sexual abuse was also rampant. As Smith documents, in 1987, the FBI found an Arizona teacher had sexually abused over 142 – crimes that were never investigated by the Arizona Hopi day school’s principal. In another case, a teacher who admitted to sexual predation during a job interview was hired into the role anyways and went on to commit more acts of sexual abuse. These are just some of the more milder cases that Smith identified.

Although not being discussed in detail here, Smith documents the experience in other locations – with may similarities to the American and Canadian experience. In Latin America, boarding schools were largely driven by religious (Christian) denominations, bringing Spanish and Portuguese education to countries where colonial empires had established resource industries after local populations were largely decimated by disease. In Australia, children were removed from homes as a source of cheap labour for colonial settlers. As a result, children were distributed between industrial-style boarding schools, and non-Indigenous families – in both cases, they were prohibited from speaking their native language and had strictly limited contact with their families. The case in other areas such as Russia, Asia and the Middle east was simply of inattention or underfunding of indigenous groups, resulting into a deeper slide into poverty.

Canada Learns from America

In 1879, a Member of Parliament from Regina ,Saskatchewan, Nicholas Flood Davin, was dissatisfied with the effectiveness of the Day School system in Canada. Davin, impressed by the success of Richard Pratt’s Carlisle Boarding School, advocated that Canada adopt a similar system. Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald commissioned Davin to produce a report, which was subsequently titled “Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds,” or commonly referred to as “the Davin Report.”

Inspired by the model being promoted throughout the United States, Davin saw the need for boarding institutions that focused on industrial education for boys and domestic training for girls, with a diminished emphasis on academics. The schools were to be strategically located away from the children’s home communities in order to diminish their cultural influence.

By 1896, the Canadian government was funding 45 church-run residential schools, intentional as Christian indoctrination was mandatory. The same trends experienced in the United States came to be in Canada – where disease, overcrowding, and sexual abuse became more common. Institutional self-sufficiency was also an important aspect, where the children were forced to farm and produce equipment that was meant to support their stays. Also similarly to the American experience,  because scholastic outcomes were de-emphasized, literacy levels remained poor – children were barred from practicing their familial cultures, and were ill-equipped to enter into Canadian society. Remarking on a 1998 study, Smith notes that:

By 1986, nearly half of all aboriginal peoples on reserve had less than a grade nine education, and less than one quarter had obtained a high school diploma. Educational achievement is increasing for aboriginal peoples, but it is still substantially lower than the general population.

Residential schools dominance peaked in 1931 with over eighty schools. Excluding Day Schools which were no better, about one out of every three children were confined to schools for the majority of their childhoods between the mid-1800s through the 1970s.

Moving On

The last Residential School in Canada, Kivalliq Hall in Rankin Inlet, Northwest Territories closed in 1997. The largest school in the system was Kamloops Indian Residential School – where this story began. Enrollment at KIRS peaked in the early 1950s at 500.

Kamloops Indian Residential School (Deschatelets-NDC Archives in Richelieu, Quebec – date unknown)

The first Residential School in British Columbia was established in Mission; St. Mary’s Residential School was also one of the last to close in 1984. Our story goes there next…

Coming Soon: St Mary’s Residential School, Mission, British Columbia.