CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number . . . .June 19, 2015
However, by the end of the nineteenth century, beaver hats stopped being fashionable, and the fur trade declined. At the same time, a tide of European settlers swept across the prairies, and, as a result, the huge herds of bison which roamed the grasslands were slaughtered, making it nearly impossible for plains Aboriginal people to make their living from the land. John A. Macdonald’s National Dream of “a nation stretching from sea to sea had one major obstacle . . . Aboriginal people were in the way.” (p. 8) An apparent solution lay in the creation of designated settlement areas: reserves. Indians (as they were then called) were relocated to the reserves. Through a series of numbered treaties between indigenous tribes and the Canadian government and the Indian Act of 1876, treaty rights to such provisions as health care and education were established in exchange for government control of the reserves and their inhabitants.
Central to that control was a policy of “aggressive civilization” (p. 9), in which Aboriginal children would be assimilated into European culture and beliefs, and the residential school system was central to that process. Residential Schools, authored by a survivor, Larry Loyie, tells the story of Canada’s national residential school system, from its beginnings to the closing of the last government-funded school in 1996. 1892 marked the opening of government-funded Canadian residential schools, typically under the auspices of one of four churches: the Roman Catholic Church, and three Protestant denominations, the Methodist (United), Presbyterian, and Church of England (i.e. Anglican Church). The schools were continually underfunded: students experienced inadequate food, poor clothing, and substandard living conditions. Nor was school attendance an issue of choice. By 1920, amendments to the Indian Act demanded that children between the ages of 7 and 15 attend residential school; parents who did not comply with the law had their Family Allowance payments suspended, received threatening letters and visits from legal and religious authorities, and faced the possibility of prosecution. The physical distances between the children and their families were often huge, and the emotional impact of that separation was profound, with trauma extending through successive generations.
For the most part, children spent their mornings in classrooms: “religious instruction came first, followed by the basic subjects of reading, writing, and arithmetic.” (p. 45) Afternoons were spent doing the manual labour necessary to maintain the schools: cleaning, cooking, laundering, carpentry work, and working on farm lands attached to the schools. Classrooms, residences, and even playgrounds were gender segregated, and even siblings rarely saw each other. Although students sometimes did have time off for recreation, life at a residential school was highly scheduled. Irrespective of their religious denomination, the staff at church-run residential schools “shared a common goal: to eliminate ‘pagan’ Aboriginal beliefs and replace them with Christianity.” (p. 46) In some cases, residential schools were staffed by men from military backgrounds. Whatever their intentions, many teachers were lacking not only pedagogical skill, but also the empathy needed to deal with children living in isolation from their families and all that was familiar to them.
The chapter entitled “The Truth is Heard” details the many abuses which remained hidden until former students found their voices in the mid-1980’s and began to speak about the many abuses – physical, verbal, emotional, spiritual, and sexual - suffered during their school years. Inadequate nutrition was a commonplace, and, in 2013, a scientist at the University of Guelph revealed evidence of experiments performed on students in six residential schools across Canada. Nearly 1,000 already undernourished residential school students were further deprived of food, vitamins, and dental treatment as unwitting subjects in nutritional research studies. Death rates in residential schools were high, the result of a variety of infectious diseases, accidents, falls, and inadequate medical treatment. Some students sought escape, either by running away, or tragically, by suicide.
Still, some students demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of their situation. “Friendship and laughter helped many children survive their residential school years. At school, their friends became a substitute for family.” (p. 63) Sport, especially hockey, provided a goal for some young men while, for others, art served as an important creative outlet. But as post-war Canadian society changed, so did the need for changes within residential school system. Over time, it had become clear that the system was not working. In 1969, the church-government partnership ended, and by 1996, the last government-run school closed. 1996 was also the year in which the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People’s Final Report was published, describing the sad legacy of the residential school system, empowering many former students to tell their stories of abuse and maltreatment, and the filing of lawsuits against the churches and government which ran the schools. The culmination of all this activity came in 2006, with the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, offering cash settlements to survivors, and the historic apology for residential schools, delivered in Parliament by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed to assist with the healing process, but, for some, healing will never come.
Residential Schools is an ambitious work which covers a great deal of ground. The book is rich in graphic images, both colour and black and white, including images of students (many of which are rare personal photographs) and the school buildings, offering a real sense of their lived experiences. Pull quotes, particularly those with the heading “A Survivor Speaks”, offer short reminiscences by former students; it is clear that, for many, the hurt still remains decades later. Further enhancing the book’s value as a classroom and library resource is a map of the Residential Schools of Canada, a listing of key dates, a glossary and an index. The history of Canada’s residential school system is both multi-dimensional and multi-generational. However, in order to do so within the limits of 112 pages, some depth must be sacrificed in order to provide breadth. Nevertheless, with Residential Schools, Loyie and his co-writers have provided an accessible and much-needed resource for high school libraries, useful both to students and teachers of Canadian History.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, resides in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any
other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.