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Before/After PortraitsThe residential schools operated by Canadian church organizations have come to be regarded as the arm of cultural and religious imperialism that erased and undermined Aboriginal traditions and culture. It is important to explore the conditions and understandings in which these institutions were established.

Dunbow Industrial SchoolThe first of these schools, the Dunbow Industrial School, was chartered by the government in 1882. When Father Albert Lacombe and Father Emile Legal (later to become Bishop Legal) visited the Blood Indian Reserve seeking students for the school, they encountered Methodist missionary John Maclean. While acknowledging the differences in their religious views, Maclean was sufficiently concerned about the poor health and destitution of Aboriginal people in that region that he noted:

I cannot with my present opinions and feelings oppose them. I hope they will succeed in getting some to go to school . . .  May the good Spirit lead us each into the true path, and show us the way by the true light.

Elizabeth BarrettThe residences for orphans and children at schools were operated by women wherever they were active in the mission field. Upon arriving at Lac Ste. Anne, the Grey Nuns gathered the children determined by the priests as needing a home. Sickness had taken a toll on the Aboriginal population and in the eyes of the missionaries, the ability of the community to care for its own was extended beyond its limits. These religious sisters were invited to many missions for the sole purpose of providing care for the sick and a home for children.

Pigeon Lake StudentsGovernment intervention increased in the lives of Aboriginal people through the signing of treaties, settlement on reserves and the treaty provision of rations, farm equipment and schools. The industrial schools were developed as government-sponsored institutions, operated by the missionaries. Statistically speaking, five percent of the total population of Aboriginal peoples during the time attended these schools and often left their families and communities in order to do so. Many more attended day schools on reserves.

Red Deer School Natl ArchThe schools operated according to the teaching practices of the era. The benefits of contemporary pedagogical and sociological insights on the impact of children living outside of their family and home culture were lacking. Practices pertaining to cultural sensitivity were not well developed. The churches that historically operated the schools have more recently reflected on their role in the residential school period. They note with pain and regret that their actions often had devastating consequences. These include the separation of family and cultural relationships with a child's home community. Regimented approaches to discipline common in public schooling at the time were severe and at odds with traditional approaches to raising children in many Aboriginal cultures.

Given the circumstances of sickness and scarcity amongHospital Ward some Aboriginal peoples, the establishment of schools and clinics was also a response to a difficult dilemma. In 1902, when the first Oblate bishop arrived in the present-day Northwest Territories, many of the 5,000 Dene people had contracted tuberculosis and the establishment of hospitals and schools arguably saved much of the population. Had these people been dependent on their own resources to cope with the changes and adjustments visited upon them by the expansion of political authority and economic activity, the dislocations for Aboriginal peoples may have been more difficult.

Letter - FrontMany of the missionaries who taught in the schools made it their work to learn about Aboriginal culture, customs and language. They wrote grammar and language instruction texts, recorded traditional stories and observed ways of life and community rituals. In doing so they documented valuable knowledge regarding Aboriginal communities, now useful for revitalizing language and cultural practices.

At the same time, Aboriginal leaders saw the need for schooling, given the dramatic changes Letter - Backovertaking their communities. One such leader was Maskepetoon who in his later years would be known as a supporter of Methodism. The Aboriginal leaders were alarmed by the scarcity of game and materials that supported their previous livelihoods given the constraints of the reserves and the pressures of land settlement. Many of these leaders requested schooling and introduction in Western ways for themselves and their children. English was generally the language of instruction in the schools, but some classes were conducted in maternal languages. The most stringent banning of Aboriginal languages seems to have occurred in schools where students from different Aboriginal traditions that had historically warred with each other were placed together.

The schools were but one element of missionary work, albeit one that has garnered great attention, given the historical trust placed in schooling by parents and communities. The legacy of the missionary era is also that of community organizations and co-operatives, clinics, libraries, museums, credit unions, church parishes and the education of many contemporary Aboriginal leaders.

League of IndiansRecognizing that no actions taken today can undo the past, the churches involved in operating the residential schools-the United Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church, the Anglican Church and various missionary orders of the Roman Catholic Church-have taken steps to help the healing process of the Aboriginal community. Redress has been sought by some in the form of litigation, seeking financial settlements for cultural deprivation, as well as family and personal suffering. These are being dealt with through the courts. In the relatively rare instances of sexual abuse, criminal proceedings have proceeded.

In addition, initiatives have been set up to fund community and personal healing. These include movements for the revival of cultural practices, community economic stimulation and educational opportunities. Many of these initiatives extend to non-Aboriginal persons in the hope that education about the Aboriginal community will develop a better understanding and appreciation of Canada's Aboriginal peoples and the road they have travelled.

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