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Photo: Mi'kmaq girls in sewing class at the Roman Catholic-run Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Shubenacadie, N.S. - NAC/ANC PA-182246
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Aboriginal Residential Schools

Beginning in the 1870s, the federal government worked to convince Aboriginals that they required schools to become productive members of Canadian society. In retrospect, these schools came at a serious price, however: they are the root cause of many social problems within Aboriginal communities today. While the residential schools of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries are well known, attempts at building such schools go back as far as New France.

Pre-Confederation School Policies
Post-Confederation School Policies
Problems


Pre-Confederation Policies

Catholic missionaries, who sought to provide care and education to the Aboriginals, built the very first residential schools in New France and in what is now New Brunswick. These schools were not widespread, however.

After the fall of New France, the first religious schools for Aboriginals were Methodist and Anglican, opening in Upper Canada during the 1830s. The British colonial administration and colonial office gradually began to turn towards a policy of assimilation.

It was hoped Aboriginals could be remade into easily controlled, agriculturally based settlers who believed in a Christian God like their European counterparts. These schools would provide a religious education that would help Aboriginals obtain European values, while teaching them fundamentals about farming and other related industrial trades.

These schools laid the foundation for similar schools that were to appear in the Canadian Prairies throughout the 1880s onward.

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Chippewa Indians of the River Thames (London, Ont.) Industrial School Treaty, Feb. 12, 1849

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Photo: View of Fort Qu'Appelle Indian Industrial School - NAC/ANC PA-118765
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Post-Confederation School Policies
During the 1870s, the federal government strove to set up residential and industrial day schools for Aboriginals during Numbered Treaty negotiations. The day schools would be close to or on the reserves; the residential - or live-in - schools would be located further away. Until the 1950s, students would study in these schools for one part of the day; they would be taught how to farm during the other half.

These schools were funded or managed by the federal government or Anglican, Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian (later, United Church) churches. Over time, the federal government's role decreased and these schools would be forced to rely on Aboriginal student labor and parishioner donations to survive.

The federal government was particularly in favor of residential schools because it believed that as the Aboriginals became more and more self-sufficient, they would be inclined to rely less and less on government funding. Most taxpayers lived in Central and Eastern Canada at the time, so the government did not want to draw the ire of voters by spending a lot of money on Aboriginal peoples living in Western Canada.

The government were supportive of these schools, believing, too, that these institutions would help Aboriginal youths adapt to and better tolerate the white European settlers moving into the Prairies.

Aboriginal leaders initially welcomed these schools. Many chiefs felt these schools would help their nations gain new technologies and teach their nation's youth valuable skills.

However, the churches and federal government felt they could remake Aboriginals into better, more productive citizens using these schools to stamp out Aboriginal culture, customs and languages. This would be a source of conflict between Aboriginals and the federal government for a century.


Did you know?

By 1883, industrial and residential schools began to appear in virtually every Canadian province, with the exception of most of the Atlantic Provinces. The government felt that most Aboriginals in the Maritimes, except Nova Scotia, had been sufficiently assimilated into Canadian society, so these schools were not needed there.


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Iroquois Indian Residential School Treaty, Caughwanaga, Québec, Nov. 9, 1881

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Bay of Quinte (Deseronto, Ont.) High School Treaty, May 17, 1889
(No. 267)

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Assiniboia Industrial School Certificate of Ownership, Mar. 27, 1894

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Assiniboia Industrial School Duplicate Certificate of Ownership, July 15, 1895

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Calgary Industrial School Certificate of Ownership, Dec. 5, 1894

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Calgary Industrial School Duplicate Certificate of Ownership, May 16, 1896

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Alexander Morris's note about the administration of Indian schools

 
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Problems

Photo: Dogs plowing Potato Crops - NAC/ANC PA-121601
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These schools were the source of the many problems and concerns:

  • They were breeding grounds for potentially fatal diseases like smallpox and tuberculosis.

  • Students were not allowed to practice Aboriginal customs or speak Aboriginal languages.

  • They were poorly maintained to the point of posing serious safety and other health hazards.

  • They were the source of great animosity between the government and Aboriginal parents who refused to let their children be taken away from them.

  • They were poorly equipped to properly clothe students, particularly during the winter months.

  • They were source of dangerous fires often deliberately set by problem children.

  • The food served at these schools were particularly lacking in nutritional value.

  • The work was physically demanding and harsh on the students.

  • Teachers were often so ill equipped that they could not teach students much beyond completely alien religious ideologies.

  • They were the source of great absenteeism, on both the students and teachers' parts alike. (Some students would even run away.)

In fact, many historians feel these schools were responsible for grooming children who would grow up with various social behavioral problems. Many blame this failure on government under-funding and disinterest or Aboriginal resistance.

Although the government would increase funding to these schools in the 1950s, they had finally come under intense public scrutiny. One-by-one, they were closed. The last school of its type finally closed in 1996.


Did you know?

In 1907, Dr. Peter Bryce, former Medical Inspector for the Department of Indian Affairs, determined that between 25 and 50 % of Aboriginal students who attended these schools died as a result of disease, racially-motivated abuse or some other reason.Source: Hidden from History: The Canadian Holocaust


For more information on the residential schools, visit:

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