________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 29. . . .April 1, 2016


Residential Schools: The Devastating Impact on Canada’s Indigenous Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Findings and Call for Action. (Righting Canada’s Wrongs).

Melanie Florence.
Toronto, ON: James Lorimer, 2016.
128 pp., hardcover, $34.95.
ISBN 978-1-4594-0866-1.

Subject Heading:
Native peoples-Canada-Residential schools-Juvenile literature.

Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.

Review by Joanne Peters.

**** /4


As a result of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canadians are now much more aware of the facts regarding residential schools and the impact of this system on generations of Aboriginal people in Canada. The Commission’s final report made numerous recommendations, including that non-Indigenous Canadians be more fully educated on this topic.

One of the Commission’s calls to action states: “Make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students.”

This book makes extensive use of the information and analysis provided in the Commission’s report and addresses difficult topics that, up until now, have not been fully dealt with in Canadian schools. It is my hope that this book will be useful for the education of Canadians by helping to make those topics more accessible and sparking some long overdue discussions. (Statement by author Melanie Florence, in the “Introduction”.)


The first four volumes in Lorimer’s “Righting Canada’s Wrongs” series have dealt with injustices dealt to immigrant groups who came to Canada, either as economic or political refugees (and sometimes, as both), who settled in our country, and who worked hard to become members of Canadian society. Although their labour was valued, their presence was not always welcomed, but, over generations, they became Canadian in the fullest sense of that word. Then, due to the impact of international politics, Japanese-, Chinese-, Italian-, and Indo-Canadians became victims of racism and discrimination and were treated as enemies of the Canadian people.

     With Residential Schools: The Devastating Impact on Canada’s Indigenous Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Findings and Calls for Action, the fifth volume in Lorimer’s “Righting Canada’s Wrongs” series, the focus is on Canada’s First Nations. It is authored by Melanie Florence, a Canadian journalist and YA novelist of Plains Cree and Scottish heritage whose skills as a storyteller and as a writer of nonfiction blend seamlessly in this work. It is often said that one cannot understand the present without knowledge of the past, and so the book begins with a comprehensive overview of Aboriginal life in Canada long before European contact. “Aboriginal peoples lived rich and full lives, steeped in tradition and ceremony. The First Nations population in Canada has always been a diverse one, often divided by historians into six distinct groups based on geographic location. Each lived according to what the land provided. . . In addition to the First Nations were the Inuit, formerly called Eskimos. . . Despite differences in lifestyle, language, food, and dress, there were many similarities among First Nations and Inuit peoples.” (p. 8) As well, this first chapter profiles the Metis, the children of unions between Aboriginal women and men of European or French-Canadian origin, a group who “developed their own lifestyle and culture, which combined both sides of their heritage.” (p. 11)

     Aboriginal peoples were hardly primitive: they successfully lived off the land or the waters, harvesting game and fish, or growing crops in those places supporting permanent habitation. All the necessities of life - food, clothing, shelter, and medicine - were the products of their environment, and they lived in harmony with, and in deep respect for, the lands and waters which sustained them. But, with the arrival of European traders and colonists, they were introduced to products previously unavailable to them, and the outcome wasn’t always positive. Guns made hunting easier but also led to depletion of the animal population. Trade also brought alcohol to Indigenous peoples with negative results that have haunted generations.

     Aboriginal culture and society were also highly developed. Although language differentiated the various Aboriginal nations, core values were shared by all, in particular, “a sense of community and focus on their families” (p. 24). Not surprisingly, the specifics of cultural practices and religious ceremonies differed amongst the nations, but similarities, such as the importance of traditional dance, outweighed the differences. The section on “Families, Community, Language, Culture and Religion” describes and depicts many traditional practices (e.g. the Sun Dance, the Potlatch, and the Sweat Lodge) and the nature of social organization, both through illustrations of artifacts, reproductions of paintings, and concise text captions. Education took place in the context of the family and the community: children learned the skills of daily living by playing with toy implements and weapons, as well as the responsibilities learned from tasks performed for parents. Elders held revered positions in the community, as the tellers of stories, and as the conduits through which the traditions of culture, language, and spirituality would be imparted to future generations.

     But the arrival of Europeans brought more than warm wool blankets, durable metal cooking pots, and fine English calicos. Christian missionaries began their work as early as the seventeenth century, and despite undoubtedly good intentions and sincere beliefs, they did much to undermine and destroy the rich and vibrant social, cultural, and spiritual life of Canada’s native people. Some Indigenous peoples converted to Christianity, some held strong to their traditional beliefs, and some chose to follow a blend of both spiritual traditions. As early as the 1840’s, both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches established schools, and with the passage of The Indian Act of 1876, the Canadian government undertook initiatives which supported the assimilationist nature of church-run education.

     The book’s second chapter, “Conflict Arising from Contact”, focuses on the increasing tensions which developed between the Canadian government and Aboriginal peoples. Prior to 1867, Canada was still an Imperial colony, and British colonialism was a strong force in international politics. “The British Crown . . . believed that its way of life, culture, and values were superior to those of First Nations peoples and began seeking greater control over them through treaties.” Promises of “housing, healthcare, education and hunting territories” (p. 38) were made to the Aboriginal peoples, but government promises are rarely without conditions, and shamefully, the processes used by the Canadian government were often unfair, coercive, or intentionally deceptive. The mid and late 19th century saw waves of Europeans leaving their countries to escape poverty and/or political unrest. Populating the lands inhabited by the Aboriginal peoples with European immigrants was an attractive concept for the Canadian government. The building of a trans-national railway facilitated their movement to settlements, and, as a result, lands inhabited by generations of Aboriginal peoples were lost as they were re-located to reserves. As stated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “In some locations, Canada negotiated Treaties with First Nations; in others, the land was simply occupied or seized. The negotiation of Treaties, while seemingly honourable and legal, was often marked by fraud and coercion.” (p. 39)

     By the time of Canadian Confederation (1867), relations between the Canadian government and Aboriginal peoples had become a problem, “the Indian problem”. The government’s solution to the problem was to develop and undertake an aggressive policy of assimilation, and the most effective way to enact the policy was to focus its efforts on the heart and soul of the Aboriginal community: its children. By removing Aboriginal children from their families and relocating them to residential schools, government officials believed that “they could ‘kill the Indian’” while educating them. (p. 42) The well-known Canadian poet, Duncan Campbell Scott, was Canada’s Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932. His goal was to see the day when “there is not a single Indian in Canada who has not been absorbed into the body politic.” (p. 43) The terms of The Indian Act of 1867 began a period of increasing control over First Nations lands and its people. Should an Aboriginal person wish to have the same privileges as other British subjects (voting, serving on juries, owning property), he would have to renounce Aboriginal status, turning his back on his heritage, “a distinct people with their own governments, cultures, and identities.” (p. 44) The 1884 Amendment to the Indian Act was even more punitive: Aboriginal women who married non-Aboriginal men were made to relinquish not only their own status but also that of their children, ceremonies such as the Sun Dance and Potlatch were banned, and cultural artifacts such as totem poles and ceremonial regalia were seized and sold, often to museums or to private collectors.

     But the most damaging impacts were the result of the residential schools, established in 1878 and modelled on “reformatories and industrial schools established in Britain as penal institutions for children of the urban poor”. (p. 48) Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, and later, the United Church, partnered with the government which paid for the schools under agreements established between the two parties. By 1920, attendance at residential schools had become compulsory for Aboriginal children, with “Indian agents” forcing parents to relinquish their children. Those who failed to do so lost their Family Allowance and, in some cases, were arrested and jailed. The book’s third chapter, “The Children Are Taken”, is one of the most heart-wrenching to read, with numerous accounts of the children’s overwhelming sadness at separation from their families, their fear, and homesickness. Recall that one of the core values of Aboriginal culture was family and community: a 19th century missionary, Gabriel Sagard, commented on the closeness of parent-child bonds, saying that “They love their children dearly.” (p. 32) The pain (and guilt) experienced by parents was overwhelming; alcohol abuse was frequently the response to the stress of the situation.

     Starting or going to a new school is a major life-change for any child. “Life at Residential School”, the book’s fourth chapter, details the shock experienced by Indigenous children. After travelling for the first time by truck, boat or plane to a distant building, staffed by adults wearing strange black and white robes and speaking a language they don’t understand, the children were stripped of their personal clothing, deloused, dressed in uniforms, and perhaps, worst of all, shorn of their hair. In Indigenous culture, hair has powerful cultural significance: “long hair was considered sacred. . . Hair could be braided with the three pieces of the braid representing body, mind, and spirit. Often, hair was cut only in mourning. It represented a cutting off of the past and a new beginning.” (p. 17) The cutting of their hair truly marked a break from the past for these children, and their grief was profound.

     Food is a cultural and family touchstone for almost everybody, but, at residential school, the healthy traditional diet of Aboriginal children was replaced by a nutritionally-deficient diet of cheap carbohydrates (porridge, dried beans), and processed meat. The students worked in gardens and fields surrounding the schools, labouring to raise agricultural products which were sold, rather than consumed on site. It was a policy of enforced hunger, and one former student at the Kamloops School recalled that “hunger is both the first and last thing I can remember about that school.” (p. 58)

     The “academic” portion of residential life was rarely more than a half-day of classroom instruction in English and/or French, religious study, and basic instruction in math and reading. The rest of the day was spent at work: girls worked in the school’s kitchens, laundries, or in keeping the buildings clean, while boys worked at jobs requiring heavier labour, such as farm or carpentry work. Although such work was, in theory, designed to provide vocational training, in fact, students provided “highly repetitive labour that provided little in the way of training. Rather, it served to maintain the school operations.” (p. 61) While the schools were failures as vocational training institutions, in one respect, they were very successful: the destruction of culture through the loss of traditional language. Students were punished severely for speaking their own tongue, and many quickly learned the price of peace: “They took my language. They took it right out of my mouth. I never spoke it again.” (p. 61)

     Substandard diet and education, poorly-maintained and over-crowded buildings, as well as inadequate medical and dental care, are but a part of the disgraceful legacy of the residential school system. If one has heard and remembered nothing else in the many accounts of Aboriginal student life at a residential school, the stories of abuse – physical, mental, verbal, and sexual – are the most distressing to hear and the most damning of those who worked in the system. The section entitled “Abuse” offers powerful and painful stories by Survivors who testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Remarkably, some students had good memories of both their teachers and of the schools, enjoying friendships and the opportunity to develop their creative and artistic talent. But for some students, the only alternative to life at residential school was escape through death. “The death toll at the residential schools has been estimated to be from 3, 000 to as high as 6, 000.” (p. 80) Death from disease or starvation was frequent, but others died as victims of fires, as suicides, or in their attempts to run away and escape.

     By the mid-1940’s, the Canadian government began to face the reality that the residential school system was a failure. By 1969, First Nations began working to regain control of their children’s education and with the patriation of Canada’s Constitution in 1982, the rights of Indian, Metis, and Inuit peoples were recognized, leading to the closure of the last residential school in 1996. The schools may been failures as educational institutions, but as the chapter entitled “Life After Residential School” indicates, they had succeeded in “killing the Indian”. Bereft of their families, their spiritual and cultural ties, many Survivors of the residential school system were incapable of re-integrating themselves into their home communities. Those who had suffered terrible abuses struggled with ongoing emotional and psychological problems. “Poverty, homelessness, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, suicide, divorce, prostitution, and criminal activity became the legacy of many residential school Survivors.” (p. 87) And these are problems which are intergenerational, affecting not just Survivors, but their children and grandchildren.

     Nevertheless, many Survivors have come forward, speaking out about their experiences, and working actively for the causes of acknowledgement and reconciliation. The book’s final chapter, “Apology and Redress”, details the long and painful process of various authorities – the Canadian government, and the United, Anglican and Presbyterian churches, as well as the Roman Catholic Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate – in accepting and apologizing for their individual and collective responsibility for their faults and failures, in their participation in the residential school system. Although the Roman Catholic Church oversaw more than 70 percent of the residential schools, it has never offered a formal apology. However, in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI did hold a private audience with Phil Fontaine and other Native representatives, expressing “sorrow”, “sympathy and prayerful solidarity” (p. 105), and Fontaine considered this to be a significant statement. The text of the Government of Canada’s apology, delivered in Parliament on June 11, 2008, is reprinted in its entirety, and a web-link to the video-cast is provided. A key outcome of the Indian Residential School agreement is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, charged with fact-finding truths and experiences about the residential school system, as well as offering recommendations as to how Canada can achieve reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians on this painful chapter in Canadian history. The Commission’s work was completed in 2015, and the first volume of its findings was published in a summary report. “Coming to Terms with Our History” presents numerous excerpts from the TRC’s summary report, and “Calls to Action” provides a selection of calls for action on a variety of key issues. It is powerful reading, and it is followed by series of responses indicating the ways in which government and institutions will commit to those calls for actions.

     Residential Schools opens with a map of Canada, showing the location of the residential schools identified in the Indian Residential Schools Agreement, an image which shows the breadth and reach of the system. As with previous volumes in the “Righting Canada’s Wrongs” series, images of all types convey as much, and sometimes, more than the textual captions, enhancing the accessibility of the work’s content. Art in its many forms – paintings, sculpture, or artifacts, created by Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal artists – offers perspective on Aboriginal life, both pre and post-Contact. Colour and black and white photos enhance the power of the many poignant personal accounts offered by Survivors. and the many excerpts from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), indicated by its unique logo, reinforce the TRC’s message. A Timeline of significant events in the history of residential schools in Canada, a Glossary of terms, and a listing of materials “For Further Reading”, all add to the book’s value as an acquisition for high school libraries and as a supplementary work for use in social studies classrooms. If I were purchasing materials for a high school library, I would buy at least two copies, and I would urge Social Studies and Aboriginal Studies classroom teachers to have at least one copy on their bookshelves. Perhaps the strongest work to date in the “Righting Canada’s Wrongs” series, Residential Schools underscores the importance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work. It reminds all of us that, regardless of our ethnic background or the length of our ancestral heritage in Canada, “Reconciliation is not an aboriginal problem – it is a Canadian problem. It involves all of us.” (Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.)

Highly Recommended.

Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, resides in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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