The 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.
The 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
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 . . .
good Spirit lead us each into the true path, and show us the way by the
The 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.
Government intervention increased in the lives of Aboriginal
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.
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
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 among some
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.
Many of the missionaries who taught in the schools made it their work
to learn about Aboriginal culture, customs and language. They wrote
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
overtaking 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.
Recognizing 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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