Understanding the Indian Residential School Program Through Hansard Records

Understanding the Indian Residential School Program Through Hansard Records

 Photographs of students at Ermineskin Indian Residential School, Hobbema, AB, c. 1940-60.  Engracia De Jesus Matias Archives and Special Collections,  Algoma University. 

Photographs of students at Ermineskin Indian Residential School, Hobbema, AB, c. 1940-60. Engracia De Jesus Matias Archives and Special Collections, Algoma University. 

It has been nearly two and a half years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada delivered their Final Report at the Delta Hotel in downtown Ottawa. I was there on June 2nd 2015, listening to the commissioners alongside residential school survivors, their families, and other settlers. It was an event in my life that continues to give me pause; I am still processing that day, even long afterwards.

On that day, the TRC also released their 94 Calls to Action, which recommend ways for Canada and non-Indigenous Canadians to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.” The calls are divided into two separate parts. The first, Legacy, focuses on how the history of residential schools still affects Indigenous peoples, particularly in the areas of child welfare, health, language and culture, and justice. The second, Reconciliation, looks at the ways the Canadian federal government, provincial and territorial governments, municipal governments, and Canadians can participate in processes that move toward reconciliation.

As of October 17 2017, settler historian Ian Mosby tweeted that only seven of the TRC’s Calls to Action had been completed. In 868 days, 87 conditions of the Calls to Action had not been met.

To consider why, we need to look backward to our shared stories; in the words of Papaschase nehiyaw education scholar Dwayne Donald, “All of us need to own what we have inherited. All of it. We need to own our commitments and histories and only then can we proceed. If we don’t have those stories, we live in poverty.” 

Residential schools were implemented in 1884 by settler Canadians through an amendment to the Indian Act without the consent of Indigenous peoples. Their purpose was to solve what was known as the “Indian problem,” a phrase that Sir John A. MacDonald and other likeminded individuals used to describe Indigenous peoples as obstacles to settler progress into western Canada. The belief was that if Indigenous children were sent to Christian schools and taught the “white way,” they would cease to maintain their traditions and cultures and thus facilitate Canadian settlement.

In the over 100 years the Indian Residential Schools program lasted—the last school closed in 1996—at least 150,000 children were forcibly removed from their families, homes, nations, and territories, many of whom experienced multiple kinds of abuse perpetrated by the religious officials who ran the schools.

Over the years in lecture halls and seminar rooms, I have heard two frequent misconceptions that imply the fault of residential schools is with Indigenous peoples. The first asks, “why didn’t Indigenous people try to stop their children being sent away?” In fact, it was illegal for Indigenous parents to interfere with the school officials or RCMP officers who came to collect children: persons who were caught hiding their children were jailed or fined (or both). To think that Indigenous parents and extended families did not love their children is, frankly, absurd.

The second expresses shock and denial: “the government couldn’t have known that this was happening or they would have stopped it.” Hansard documents prove that not only did the government know, but they did nothing.

In 1907 Dr. Peter H. Bryce released a report on the condition of schools on the Prairies, noting the prevalence of illness among students, the student-fatality rate, the ages and sexes of children in attendance, sanitation conditions, the physical state of buildings, ventilation systems, and plumbing, and if there were any fire hazards. Upon receiving the report, MP George Eulas Foster remarked, “What struck me the most was the amount of appalling carelessness regarding the health of students, causing such mortality.”

Some of this information did reach the general public; as settler historian J.R. Miller indicated in Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada, by the early 20th century the mortality rates of residential schools were being reported in the media. If the government and the public knew, why was there no move to stop the schools?

In 1930, MP George Gibson Coote remarked in the House of Commons:

Two years ago I was interviewed by a number of chiefs of the Blood Indian reserve. They complained that the children were taken from them at too young an age. They think the children should be left with them for another two years. As I understand it, at the age of seven years they are placed in boarding schools, and can return to their parents only once a year unless the consent of the principal of the school is given to their going home oftener. A child taken from home at the early age of seven years and kept at boarding school until sixteen may scarcely know his parents when returned home. It seems to me there is a great deal of reason in their contention.

Though Coote does not report on the treatment of children in the schools, he rightly points out how being away for such a long time would cause issues within the family unit. Once again, the government was aware that Indigenous peoples did not approve of their children being sent away, but nevertheless ensured the program would continue.

A couple decades later, in 1951, MP R.R. Knight declared:

Too many children, for example, who are attending these [residential] schools are paying for their education. In many cases in the form of work…Where you have children in a boarding school away from their parents and there is a lot of work to be done around the school farm, there is room for abuse.

For most of the day children in residential schools were working—cleaning and farming rather than spending time in classrooms—in conditions akin to the Victorian workhouse. Knight also found it detrimental that the schools did not have any playgrounds or play equipment on site. Again, residential schools were not institutions that used fun and play as methods of learning; instead, the priority was work. If Knight was so concerned that children were being abused in these schools, why did he allow the program to remain?

Though residential schools were federally controlled institutions, they were schools in name only. In actuality, they were prisons: food was rationed, clothing and blankets were thin, hard labour was part of each day, and there was corporal punishment for children who did not follow the rules. Not surprisingly, children would run away, hoping that they could get back to their home amongst loved ones. One of these children was Chanie Wenjack, whose story was recently publicized by Gord Downie. Journalist Ian Brown initially covered his death for Maclean’s in 1967, Canada’s centennial year. A major publication once again reminded the Canadian population that residential schools were not places that Indigenous children wanted to attend—some would die trying to get away—but nevertheless the residential school system carried on.

By the early 1950s the federal government began to shift away from forcing Indigenous children to attend residential schools. Instead, and partly because it was more cost effective, Indigenous children would attend provincial schools provided there were ones located close to their community or reserve. MP Walter Harris spoke at the time:

As the house knows, we have followed a policy of permitting Indian children to attend provincial schools wherever convenient and possible, and that policy has shown that we have increased during the past year by something over 400 the numbers attending provincial schools. For example, in the last fiscal year, ending March 1950, there were 1,645. Now there are 2,032.

Being permitted to attend a provincial school was considered a great opportunity for Indigenous children to enhance their learning. Yet it was not easy for these children to do so, since they would have faced considerable racism from their teachers and peers.

Addressing his parliamentary colleagues in 1956, MP John Horne Blackmore stated: “It may be that there are many white people, who are not prepared to accept the Indians as equal.” Blackmore’s words suggest that it was only a few errant white people who did not believe that Indigenous peoples should have the same rights as non-Indigenous people. 1956 was nearly 70 years after the formalization of the residential school system, and more children were attending residential schools than provincial ones. 1956 was also 80 years after the implementation of the Indian Act. It would also be four more years before it was legal for status Indians to vote in Canadian federal elections. The problem wasn’t a few white people: it was all of them.

For nearly as long as those of European descent have been on the lands of what we now call Canada, racism and racist discourses have been pervasive. Specifically, much of this racism was and continues to be anti-Indigenous in nature, derived from the idea that white people are superior to Indigenous peoples. Even though white people have maintained systemic power structures in Canada—discriminating against both Indigenous peoples and peoples of colour—institutionalized discrimination of Indigenous peoples was and is fundamental to the founding and settlement of Canada and Canadian identity.

In Brown’s Maclean’s piece, the unnamed bartender unwittingly provided some poignant words still relevant 51 years later, particularly in the aftermath of the 150-year anniversary of the Canadian colonial project. In reference to an intoxicated Indigenous woman:

One man at the counter turned and looked at the woman. “That’s what they do to themselves,” he said in a tone of amused contempt.

The kid behind the counter suddenly turned whitefaced and angry, “No, we did,” he said.

“We? No, it was the higher-ups, the government,” replied the man.

“No,” insisted the kid, “it was you, me, and everybody else. We made them that way.”

He was right. We cannot use the government as a scapegoat: the job of government officials is to bring the views of their constituents to the government. Thus, those who are eligible to vote in Canada’s participatory democracy are also responsible for the actions of our government. MPs Foster, Coote, Harris, Knight, and Blackmore (and the rest), as representatives of the Canadian people, illustrate that settlers did not want the Indian Residential School program to end. Settler complicity means that we were the problem then and we still are now.

Indigenous peoples have told us explicitly what they need to approach reconciliation with us through the Calls to Action. The reason more of the TRC Calls to Action have not been met is that settlers are invested in settler progress. As a counter, Dr. Paulette Regan calls for unsettling the settler within, a decolonizing process that goes beyond words and instead focuses on what tangible things can be done to move forward. As the first of many steps, we must thoughtfully and critically examine not only the colonial origins of Canada’s history, but also how colonialism has shaped our systems of governance and education. If we do not do so, we cannot begin to advance towards reconciliation. Moreover, without an understanding of settler colonialism and how settlers benefit from the construction of Canada, we will not be able to move forward on the road to restitution.


Danielle E. Lorenz is a PhD candidate in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Alberta. Her work examines the always-already occurrence of settler colonialism in the education systems of Alberta.

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