Education and the Residential School System

Prior to contact, Indigenous peoples had their own rich bodies of knowledge. There was an understanding of the special relationship between knowledge holders/keepers and those seeking knowledge. Knowledge was transmitted from one generation to another through the passing of stories through oral tradition. Indigenous people understood the importance that the next generation played in linking the past and the future. Children were raised with the understanding that they would have a responsibility to carry forward our oral history and our culture to the next generation. Unless you understand the incredible value of the system that existed before the imposition of residential school system, you can never truly understand what was taken from Indigenous peoples.

The residential school system was a powerful force introduced by the church and the government to ‘do away with the Indian Problem.’ The belief was that if you could disconnect the child from their influences (family and community) and instill a different belief system, then they could be absorbed into the ‘body politic.’ In other words, they would become like everyone else.

Sir Hector-Louis Langevin and the Residential School system

Sir Hector-Louis Langevin was among the first architects of the residential schools system, which was designed to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. In 1883, Langevin presented a proposal to develop three “Indian industrial schools” in the North-West Territories based on the success of these schools in the United States. His model included separation from their parents in order for the schools to be effective:

“The fact is, that if you wish to educate those children you must separate them from their parents during the time they are being educated. If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they still remain savages, whereas by separating them in the way proposed, they acquire the habits and tastes — it is to be hoped only the good tastes — of civilized people.” (Désilets & Skikavich, 2017, Residential Schools section, para. 2)

‘Re-righting’ History

An article by CBC news (2017), reports that Indigenous leaders want the name Langevin removed from the block that houses the Prime Minister’s Office, citing that it is named after a strong proponent of the Indian Residential School system. Langevin strongly believed that residential schools were the most expeditious way to assimilate First Nations children into Euro-Canadian society. Indigenous MPs stated that the block should be renamed so that this constant reminder of the devastating effects of the residential schools is removed.

The first residential school in New France (what is now known as Quebec) was established in 1620 by the Recollets – a religious order from France whose ultimate goal was to christianize and civilize (Miller, 1996). Following the Royal Proclamation of 1763, Indigenous leaders such as Peter Jones, John Sunday and Chief Shingwauk envisioned an education system based on partnership and mutual benefit that would place Indigenous people on terms with non-Indigenous people, allowing for meaningful participation in society. However, this view was not supported by all. The government of the day, along with focus on religious instruction and agriculture, proposed an educational system that would assimilate Indigenous people into mainstream society.

The imposition of the Indian Act was the first attempt of the government to assimilate Indigenous people into mainstream society. When this did not happen, the policy shifted to placement of children in residential schools in order to assimilate them into colonial culture. In 1920, an amendment to the Indian Act (1876) made attendance at state-sponsored schools mandatory for all school age children; this was enforced by truant officers. Living conditions in residential schools were horrendous with children living in overcrowded, underfunded facilities resulting in widespread disease and many preventable deaths (Bryce, 1922; Milloy, 1999). In addition, Indigenous children were also subject to widespread sexual abuse (Milloy, 1999; Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996).

Art Petahtegoose (personal communication, 2018) tells a different story of the residential school and the impacts that it had in his community as told to him by his father. In his version of the story, residential schools were put in place because Indigenous people were viewed as a threat to the economy. The Indigenous way of life is not a threat if one understands Anishnawbe teachings and how these teachings provide guidance for living life in a good way. Petahtegoose also talks about reconnecting to Mother Earth as a way of healing from the pain and suffering that resulted from that residential school experience.

Our children being put into the residential schools and the people being subjected to that Indian Act law, the school and that law were designed to erase those knowledge systems, those world views because they were viewed as a threat to the economy. This is in part of what we faced and what we saw and interpreted, it is not a threat and if you take time to study and look closely what is carried within those teachings you begin to see that judgment was made without having gone through those considerations.  That’s what we faced in the church, the church that was brought to us, was imposed and our people question what do you think you were doing? There was no consideration and the settlers had said that was just us, and we cannot live like that. My father would always remind the priest or government agent about the way I am living, I am happy with, the way that I have been nurtured, what I understand, is what I know. I know nothing of your government or about your church, what I have seen coming from them has been causing me pain and to recover from that pain I go out into the land and connect with Mother Earth. (Art Petahtegoose, personal communication, 2018)

Learning Activities

  1. What were the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual impacts of the residential school experience on Indigenous people?
  2. What is your impression of why residential schools were developed?
  3. What benefits were there for the development of residential schools?
  4. Indigenous leaders such as Peter Jones, John Sunday and Chief Shingwauk envisioned an education system based on partnership and mutual benefit that would place Indigenous people on terms with non-Indigenous people, allowing for meaningful participation in society. Do you agree with this statement?
  5. If you were a teacher within the residential school system, what would you have done differently?
  6. How do Indigenous people move forward from the residential school experience?

Expanding Your Knowledge

  1. The following link takes you to a CBC news article about the demands from Indigenous leaders to change the name of Langevin Block, the office of the Prime Minister on Parliament Hill:
    Indigenous Leaders Want to Strip Name of Residential School Proponent from Langevin Block

  2. For more information on the residential schools, visit the following link:
    Legacy of Hope Foundation

  3. Take some time to view the ‘Where are the children’ video available from the following link, which is a story of the history of residential schools:
    Where Are the Children? Healing the Legacy of the Residential Schools  (27:49)

  1. A silenced voice is now speaking! The following video shares the stories of Richard Hall & Verna Grozier and their attitudes towards the residential school experience. This video contains some disturbing material about the residential school experience:
    Our Stories… Our Strength

  1. The following link provides a timeline about the residential schools in Canada:
    100 Years of Loss

  2. “Speaking My Truth” is a compilation of stories as told by survivors of the residential school system. These insights into the residential school experience help one to truly understand the devastating impacts of this system on the lives of Indigenous people. The impacts do not erase with time. Indigenous people live with the experience on a daily basis. It affects their lives and the lives of people around them. These stories are difficult to read and one may feel shame about their ancestor’s role in the experience. However, according to Rogers (2012), to feel no shame would be a real shame. Be prepared for graphic stories and seek help from professionals if the stories impact you on an emotional level.
    Speaking my Truth: Reflections on Reconciliation & Residential School

  3. The following is a useful education guide:
    Residential Schools in Canada – Education Guide



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