Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, last month called on all Canadian provinces to include the history of Indian residential schools in their curricula. This request is not surprising, and presumably it is a recommendation in the Commission’s Final Report which will be released in early June.
The provinces are very likely to take up that recommendation, but there are a number of misconceptions that need to be corrected before millions of tax dollars are spent on the curricula and in-service programs for teachers. Among them there are four particularly egregious myths which, left unchallenged, are likely to be presented as facts to future generations of Canadian teachers, students, and parents. They are: all Aboriginal children were forced to go to residential schools; only Aboriginal students attended these schools; Aboriginal students were systematically punished for speaking their native languages; and vast numbers of Aboriginal residential school students died of abuse and neglect.
The exhaustive 1996 Report of The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples found that the first Indian residential school opened in 1849 and the last one closed in 1996. The federal government was responsible for funding and educating the students, but various churches – Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, and United – were commissioned to operate most, but not all, of the approximately 130 schools. Not surprisingly, most people who worked in these schools, both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal, were Christians who understood their job was to educate and convert their students. Through most of the residential school era, neither was considered harmful.
I worked as the Senior Boys’ supervisor in Stringer Hall, the Anglican residence in Inuvik, NWT, for the 1966-1967 year. I also lived in Old Sun, the Anglican Residential School on the Blackfoot Reserve (the Siksika Nation) in Southern Alberta for four months in the summer of 1966. I took hundreds of photographs and kept hundreds of pages of notes about what happened to the children. I have also read the seminal books, Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools by J. R. Miller and A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System: 1879 to 1986 by J. S. Milloy, and hundreds of other reports and newspaper articles.
Undoubtedly, it is very difficult for children to be taken away from their homes at a young age and reside in large institutions with hundreds of other children. At age 2, in the late 1940s, I contracted TB meningitis, which was a deadly and highly contagious disease. As a result, I was sent to a sanatorium in Vancouver, then more than a day and a half train ride from my family home in Jasper. For almost two years I lived in the sanatorium, where I received injections of streptomycin every four hours. It wasn’t a pleasant experience; I was very sick and lonely for much of the time.
I am not suggesting that my experience was equivalent to those who attended residential schools, but simply acknowledging that in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s it was quite common for young children to be sent to reside in large institutions – hospitals, orphanages, and schools – for long periods of time and to be treated in ways that may seem inhumane today. For all children in these institutions, it was certainly difficult living with many other children, conforming to the supervision of adult strangers, and most significantly being away from their parents and siblings.
We now know that some residential school children were physically and sexually abused by adult staff members, both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal. This behaviour is abhorrent and should not have happened. But it did, to Indians in residential schools and many other children in other public and private institutions. The adults who violated these children should be brought to trial, and if convicted, they should be punished. We also know that some children abused other children, which is also abhorrent and should be condemned. Nevertheless, we call all Aboriginal children who resided in residential schools “survivors”. This implies that they were all mistreated and the schools were more akin to genocidal death camps than the public schools that most Canadian children attended.
This is patent nonsense, but many Canadians believe it because they know very little about the actual conditions that children endured in these large impersonal institutions. Instead, they are endlessly bombarded in the media with the four key misconceptions listed above. Hopefully, they will not be repeated in the final report of the TRC and the history courses that will likely flow from its recommendations, but just in case, here are the facts:
1) Were all Aboriginals forced go to residential schools?
It is estimated that in the long history of Aboriginal education approximately 150,000 children attended residential schools. According to the Royal Commission, this number represents only about 20 percent of the total number of Aboriginal school-aged children over this time period.
The federal government also supported day and hospital schools for Aboriginal children. Both Miller and Millroy acknowledge that most Aboriginal students attended day schools, which were almost identical to the public schools that other Canadian children attended.
My wife Elaine, a Blackfoot, attended Old Sun Anglican Residential School, on the Blackfoot Reserve from 1951 to 1961. Later she resided at Old Sun and attended public schools off the reserve. During those years, many Blackfoot children were in residence from Sunday to Friday. They went home for the weekends returning in time for church on Sunday. In other words, during the school year most Blackfoot children were home on weekends, and they spent summers and holidays with their families. In Inuvik, on the other hand, most students were in residence full time for nine or 10 months of the year because travel to their far-flung home communities was so difficult.
2) Were Aboriginals the only children who went to residential schools?
When I was in high school in Alberta, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was quite common for rural students who could not complete their education locally to attend residential schools in cities so they could enroll in courses they needed for high school graduation. In the 1960s I attended Alberta College, a residential school in Edmonton managed by the United Church, along with many other students from small Alberta towns and farms. There were also some Aboriginal students and many students from English-speaking Caribbean countries.
Also, when I worked at Stringer Hall in Inuvik approximately 12 percent of the 280 students were non-Aboriginal. At that time, almost all school-aged children from small communities and hunting camps, Aboriginal as well as non-Aboriginal, stayed in one of the residences, Grollier Hall (Roman Catholic) or Stringer Hall (Anglican), while attending Sir. Alexander Mackenzie School.
3) Were children universally punished for speaking their native languages?
At Stringer Hall, the students ranged in age from five to 21 years. In each of the two junior dorms (one for females and the other for males) which had 55-60 students under 12, there were four female supervisors, two young Inuk women and two older non-Aboriginal women. Many of the young Inuit students did not speak English and the Inuk supervisors spoke to them in Inuktitut.
Virtually all of the Dene students spoke English as their second language. It was the only way they could communicate with English-speaking Inuit. Most of the supervisors, and especially the residential administrator and the matron, the Rev. and Mrs. Holman, used Inuktituk words and facial expressions when communicating with the children, including the Dene and white children.
Rev. and Mrs. Holman knew most of the children’s parents and in many cases, their grandparents. Occasionally they would come to Inuvik for medical appointments or to get supplies for their hunting and trapping camps, and to visit their children. The Holmans would often invite them to stay in rooms that were reserved for visitors. The parents would eat with their children in the staff dining room, while speaking their native languages. None were ever punished for doing so.
As a supervisor, part of my job was encouraging the students to speak English. Sometimes when I heard kids speaking their native languages, I would point my finger at them in mock reprimand. The girls would put their hands over their mouths, turn their backs to me and continue speaking their languages. The boys were even less intimidated; they simply smiled and carried on their conversations.
Since I was responsible for 85 senior boys, 22 hours a day, six days a week, in three dorms, there was simply no way to stop them from speaking their native languages. Invariably, when the children were playing in the gym or outside, they spoke the languages they preferred. Even J. R. Miller, no apologist for residential schools, acknowledged in his book that language rules were flexible: “Clearly many schools ‘allowed’ the use of Native languages in carefully defined situations, and students took advantage of those and other occasions to use their own languages. At the Blood Anglican boarding school, students were allowed to use their own tongue after seven o’clock in the evening”. My wife spoke Blackfoot in the residence and on the playground, and neither she nor her parents lost their language as a result of attending Old Sun.
4) How many Aboriginal children died of abuse and neglect in residential schools?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has estimated that more than 4,100 students died while attending residential schools. It has not said how many of them died of abuse and neglect.
Undoubtedly, during the same period many children who attended public schools also died, but they rarely died while at school because most of them were sent home or to a hospital. Residential schools, on the other hand, had infirmaries for sick children, so it understandable that some of the students died at school.
Did more residential school students die in numbers grossly disproportionate to public school students? Did residential school students routinely die of abuse and neglect? Are there mass graves of unnamed Aboriginal children while non-Aboriginal children were buried in separate, marked plots? It has become conventional wisdom that the answer to all these questions is yes. The truth is, there’s no evidence to support any of these conclusions.
When the Report of the Aboriginal Truth and Reconciliation Commission is released at the beginning of June, its findings will undoubtedly be presented and reported as the truth about residential schools. We should hope that it is the whole truth, including the facts that not all Aboriginals went to residential school; some non-Aboriginal students attended these schools; residential school students were not always punished for speaking their native languages; and we don’t know how many residential school students died from abuse and neglect. If these facts are not included in the findings, the Commission will have failed to advance either truth or reconciliation, now, or in the courses taught to future generations of Canadian students.