"Residential schools.” On the surface, the term sounds benign, even bucolic, the sort of place where upper-class Britons would send their children in preparation for Oxford. But for Native Peoples in Canada, residential schools are the stuff of nightmares.
For a century, from the 1880s until the mid-1980s, the government of Canada maintained a system of boarding schools for Native children that were operated by churches, including the Anglican and Presbyterian churches, the United Church of Canada, and the Roman Catholic Church. The schools’ ostensible purpose was to provide education for Native children. But that education served a larger purpose, one that can only be termed genocidal: to eliminate indigenous culture from Canada. “The problem with the Indians is one of morality and religion,” said the Reverend A. E. Caldwell of his school in 1938. “They lack the basic fundamentals of civilized thought and spirit, which explains their childlike nature and behavior. At our school we strive to turn them into mature Christians who will learn how to behave in the world and surrender their barbaric way of life and their treaty rights, which keep them trapped on their land and in a primitive existence. Only then will the Indian problem in our country be solved.”
Modeled on the Indian boarding school system in the United States, the residential school plan was based on the idea that the most effective way to eliminate Indian culture was to break the chain of transmission: to remove children from their cultural environment and indoctrinate them in complete isolation. To be sure that there was no chance of backsliding, children were put in schools far from their homes, in some cases thousands of miles away. Their parents were not allowed to visit and the children were not allowed to return home (though this did not stop them trying, and some died in the attempt). At first, attendance was voluntary, but in 1920 the government passed a law requiring every Native child, including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, to attend the schools. Thereafter, children were forcibly removed from their homes by clerics and government officials and sent away for retraining.
The education they received did not include Latin or biology or philosophy; they were limited to trades like carpentry, blacksmithing, shoemaking, farming, cooking, knitting, and ironing—fodder for the engines of prosperity. And with that practical training came such cultural-realignment courses as “The Practice of Cleanliness, Obedience, Respect, Order, and Neatness”; “Evils of Indian Isolation”; and “Labor the Law of Life.” Conversion to Christianity was also a fundamental part of the agenda, which was one of the reasons the schools were operated by churches.
To invalidate their identities, children were not allowed to speak their own language. If they had the temerity to ignore this rule, they would be beaten into compliance. And the beatings were the least of it.
The conditions of the schools and the behavior of the people running them were appalling. In 1999 the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples issued a report on the schools that followed extensive interviews with Native people across the country. That report, an unflinchingly honest appraisal, lays out a detailed scenario of neglect and abuse of a kind and on a scale that would be hard to credit if it were described in anything but a government document. To begin with, the schools were badly under-funded and largely staffed by unqualified or questionable people. The food was in short supply and often contaminated; sanitation was almost nonexistent; the buildings were cheaply built and poorly heated; and because the schools were paid on a per capita basis, they were badly overcrowded. The children, already disoriented, malnourished, and abused, were ripe for illness, and tuberculosis and other diseases were rampant. By some estimates, 50,000 children died in those schools, out of 100,000 who attended. To make matters worse, there is evidence that in many schools the death rates had a helping hand. Dr. Peter Bryce, the chief medical officer for the Department of Indian Affairs, conducted a survey of the residential schools in 1909 and issued a report in which he said, “I believe the conditions are being deliberately created in our residential schools to spread infectious diseases. It is not unusual for children who are dying from consumption to be admitted to schools and housed alongside healthy children.”
As alarming as Bryce’s findings were, the response from the government was even more so. After reading the report, Indian Superintendent Duncan Scott wrote to a colleague about it, using language that is now chillingly familiar: “It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habitating so closely in these schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this department, which is geared towards the final solution of our Indian Problem.”
The practices Bryce described were not restricted to those early years. According to a controversial report by former clergyman Kevin Annett, Anglican Church leaders told the Globe and Mail in 1953 that it was standard practice in their schools to deliberately expose children to deadly diseases and then offer no medical treatment.
There was more. The testimony of residential school survivors is a litany of human depravity. Rape, murder, medical experiments, forced sterilization, and electrocution, among other things, were common. The Royal Commission report describes the preparation for a conference of residential school principals, during which six “successful” former students were invited to talk about their experiences. Two of them, the report says, “were brutally frank.” One of them talked about the many punishments at the “mushole,” the Mohawk Institute at Brantford, Ontario. He said that besides the usual beatings, “I have seen Indian children having their faces rubbed in human excrement.” He also described what happened to students who ran away and were caught: “They were forced to run a gauntlet where they were struck with anything that was at hand . . . I have seen boys crying in the most abject misery and pain with not a soul to care.” The report goes on to say, “Some did get away from the schools, however, and some of those children met their deaths. Other children tried to find escape in death itself. In June 1981, at the Muscowequan Residential School, ‘five or six girls between the ages of eight and ten years had tied socks and towels together and tried to hang themselves.’”
Clergyman Kevin Annett discusses in his report the testimony of Marian MacFarlane, a Caucasian staff member at the Alberni school. In 1998, she told a forum about her experiences with residential schools: “The local dentists were given free Novocaine by the government for the Native kids, but the traditional practice after the war years was for them to hoard the Novocaine for their practice in Port Alberni and just work on the Indians without painkillers. Everyone in the school knew about this and condoned it, from the principal on down. No one minded when Indians were hurt, naturally; they were being beaten every day.”
“To give you an example of the prevailing mentality towards Indians,” MacFarlane went on, “I once caught a matron beating a little girl with a piano leg. She was just murdering that kid, who was maybe six years old, and she would have killed her if I hadn’t have grabbed the matron and socked her one. So off the matron goes to complain to John Andrews, the principal. That would have been in 1962. You know what Andrews did? He fired me for hitting the matron! And you know what he said? ‘I couldn’t let the matron go because she plays the organ on Sundays. Anything she did to that little squaw would have been better than us losing our organist.’ Well, that shows you what we were dealing with: the lives of the Indian kids were completely expendable. They were considered less than human, almost like a disease we had to get rid of.”
Rape was routine in the schools, with thousands of former students reporting sexual molestation by staff members, by teachers, by clergy, by nuns. And when the female students became pregnant, the fetuses were aborted. There are many reports of secret graveyards, and at least one of a school wall packed with tiny skeletons. There is testimony about elementary-school-age children being kicked down stairs, whipped with electrical cord, dragged behind a wagon for miles, thrown out of third-story windows, forced to eat maggot-infested and regurgitated food, and stripped naked and publicly humiliated. Harriett Nahanee, who attended the United Church school in Port Alberni between 1945 and 1950, told residential school activist Kevin Annett about one typical incident: “I saw my friend Maisie Shaw kicked down a flight of stairs by Reverend Caldwell on Christmas Eve, 1946. She was crying for her mother. I was hiding under the stairs, and as I looked up I saw Caldwell kick her hard in the stomach and she came flying down. She lay there on the floor, not moving or breathing, her eyes wide open. Caldwell and a matron he was arguing with didn’t even look at her. I never saw her again. Now the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] are claiming Maisie died of ‘pneumonia.’ But I saw her killed by Caldwell.”
Not only did these kinds of crimes happen in schools across Canada, but some actually were enshrined in law. Both British Columbia and Alberta had laws that allowed a principal to sterilize any student in his school. In some schools it was standard practice to sterilize every boy who lived long enough to reach puberty.
Some of the abuses described by former students are so extreme that, if told singly, they would stretch credibility; but even the most extreme stories are repeated by student after student. For example, schools in Ontario used electric chairs as punishment and control devices for more than 30 years, according to witnesses who spoke to the Globe and Mail. In a story in the London Free Press in 1996, two former students described being subjected to one of these chairs at one of the schools near Spanish, Ontario. “The nuns used it as a weapon,” said Mary Anne Nakogee-Davis. “It was done on me on more than one occasion. They would strap your arms to the metal armrests, and it would jolt you and go through your system. I don’t know what I did that was bad enough to have that done to me.” Edward Metatawabin, a former chief of the Fort Albany First Nation, said that he was put in the chair to entertain visiting dignitaries. “I was six years old,” he said. “There was no sense of volunteering or anything. We were just told by the brother to do it and there was never any question of not doing it. Once the thing was cranked up, I could feel the current going through me, mainly through my arms. My legs were jumping up, and everyone was laughing.”
When abuse like this happens to children, the consequences ripple through generations. Among the many long-term effects are alcoholism and drug abuse, sexual and physical abuse, psychological issues, dysfunctional families and personal relationships, depression and chronic rage, eating disorders, and deep distrust among family members (some schools chose to punish students by forcing other students to line up and beat them, severely undermining children’s natural sense of trust). And when these abused children grow up, their problems are likely to cause new damage in their own children.
Because of the extreme nature of the abuse, most former students were reluctant to remember or talk about their experiences. The schools trained them to fear authority. School administrators and government officials took pains to hide the mistreatment, too, so the entire problem stayed below the radar of public attention. But in the past 10 years survivors have been coming forward, talking about their experiences, and, increasingly, filing lawsuits against the churches and the government. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples’ 1996 report also brought the public’s attention to the problem. And that started a process of government accountability.
In 1998 the government issued a statement of responsibility and established a foundation to support community healing projects. In 2001 it created a new department to resolve abuse claims and deal with the schools’ legacies, and in 2003 it launched the National Resolution Framework, which established the rudiments of a reparations package, including health support and a commemorative program. This, in turn, led to a full-fledged settlement process that began in 2005. The process involved a federal judge, the Assembly of First Nations, the relevant churches, and the government of Canada. Over the following two years they crafted a comprehensive settlement package, which was signed and put into effect in March 2007.
The settlement has four elements: $1.9 billion in cash payments to school survivors, the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission ($60 million), a program of commemoration ($20 million), and an endowment to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation ($125 million). Much of the public’s attention has been on the impressive-sounding figure in the first item of the settlement. But the amount offered to each individual survivor is much less impressive: each former student will receive $10,000 for the first year spent at a residential school and $3,000 for each additional year. The average payout is expected to be around $30,000.
This payment is to any student who attended one of the schools, regardless of how he or she was treated, as an acknowledgment of the government having tried to destroy their language and culture. For many Native people, the acknowledgement of responsibility is startling and in some ways more significant than the money that represents it.
Former students who suffered physical, sexual, or psychological abuse can apply for additional payments of up to $250,000. That sounds more generous, but consider what is involved in that process: The settlement, which was drawn up by lawyers and government officials, quantifies everything, including pain and suffering. It operates on a point system, set up in a chart, like some kind of diabolical board game, with different kinds of abuse awarded different numbers of points. And the points have dollar values attached to them. The more points you gather, the more money you get. For example, if as a seven-year-old girl you suffered repeated vaginal penetration with an object or were repeatedly raped by a school staff member, you get 45 to 60 points (if you were only penetrated with an object once, you get half that many points—apparently you were only half as traumatized). For repeated oral intercourse you get 36-44 points, but physical assaults that led to permanent disfigurement are worth a mere 11 to 25 points. And if you were photographed in the nude, fondled by a nun, or had the headmaster masturbate in front of you, you are eligible for only five points.
There are categories for the results of the abuse, too. If you have chronic post-traumatic stress disorder or suicidal tendencies you can get 20 to 25 points, but if you have become addicted to drugs, have panic attacks, or sexual dysfunction, you get only 11 to 15 points. Once you’ve parsed out all your most personal violations and traumatic experiences on the grid and added up your points, you go to another chart that shows the dollar value of those points and file your claim.
In order to receive compensation, however, your claim has to be heard by an adjudicator. At that hearing, you have to provide sufficient evidence to prove your claim. This can be exceptionally difficult when the only legal proof may be a former student’s word against the official record. To make matters worse, the person who abused you has the right to testify (assuming that person is still alive). In other words, even though this is a reparations program aimed at healing survivors of past atrocities, the legal settlement places the burden of proof on the student to prove that the abuse happened, not on the state or the churches to prove that it did not. And, in some instances, the former student might have to present that proof in the presence of the person who raped or abused her as a child. Furthermore, although the settlement’s provisions are designed to choose appropriately qualified adjudicators—for example, requiring them to have significant exposure to Canadian Aboriginal people and culture—there is no provision that specifies that those adjudicators actually be Native, and most of those already chosen by judicial panels are not. So in most cases the indigenous person’s fate will be decided once again by a white authority figure. If the goal were to retraumatize the victims, it would be hard to imagine a more effective way to do it.
Former students who accept the settlement give up their right to sue the churches or government individually, and any student who wants to retain that right must have officially opted out of the settlement by August 22, 2007. Some former students may choose not to participate at all, feeling that it is not possible to put a price on their childhood. Consider Bud Whiteye’s reflections that were published in Osprey Media newspapers about his time at the Mohawk Institute:
When my memory takes me back to the cement delivery-way leading to the kitchen and boiler rooms, scared little children superimpose my thoughts as they move in slow motion, one at a time, to a fate worse than death. In my lens I see them, dead inside, walking hand-in-hand beside a hunched old man. They’re going to the boiler room. I know instantly what terror has seized their tiny thoughts . . . First, the child thinks “No, no, no!” in the saddest and most helpless way. A few more steps and his childish thoughts could only muster more “No, no, no!” and a slight pull away from the man, sort of leaning back as he is pulled along.
. . . My head screamed, “Why doesn’t another adult come from the direction we’re going?” to no avail. No matter what, no matter how long, we wanted to show we could be trusted. Underneath that, we hoped on hopeless hope that it would pay off and he would not put his filthy, unclean hands on our very childish bodies.
When I saw the other boys being taken to the endless assaults, I cried. Each march was the same, including my own. We never looked up. We didn’t want anyone to see us like that—to see us as whores, whores to a madman in a boiler room . . . Aside from actually being stripped and used, eye contact with another student was the worst possible thing that could happen . . . We wouldn’t look at one another during their march, nor would we tease each other when the poor child finally emerged. We would think to ourselves, what could he have done to him to keep him in there that long?
The ad says the settlement is worth $10,000 for the first year of residence, and another $3,000 for each year thereafter. I figured, for no apparent reason, that 53 rapes and assaults would equal $528 per attack, if, as in my case, $28,000 is the going rate. I wonder what the terrible beatings are perceived to be worth in terms of money. There must have been a hundred of those. And what about the long, long years of isolation and confinement? Can I cost that out somehow? Maybe turn in an invoice?
Many others are likely to feel the same way. And even those who take the money will certainly not feel completely healed by it. For that reason, the other elements of the settlement may end up being more important as vehicles for reparation, and here the settlement serves Native people better.
The settlement calls for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with a five-year lifespan. The commission will include research, national and community events, individual testimony, and a permanent research center, as well as a mandate to educate the public about what happened at these schools. There also will be a commemorative element to the settlement: a fund to support proposals from Native communities. The communities can decide what sort of memorial is most appropriate for them and submit a proposal to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which will recommend which proposals should be funded. And, to address the individual and multigenerational psychological and social impacts of residential schools, there is a provision for an ongoing healing process through an endowment with the already-existing Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
The scale of the reparations settlement is impressive and its elements are certainly steps in the right direction. The Assembly of First Nations, which negotiated the settlement, is enthusiastic about its terms, and many Native people say that they are happy to have any settlement and acknowledgment at all. At the same time, in the broader context of reparations, there are questions about its overall effectiveness. The settlement’s opening statement is telling in this regard. It states in several places that the settlement in no way admits liability by any of the defendants (that is, the government and churches), and that this agreement eliminates any possible future liability or claims. Moreover, the very first phrase in the settlement is, “Whereas Canada and certain religious organizations operated Indian Residential Schools for the education of aboriginal children and certain harms and abuses were committed against those children . . .” In other words, in the eyes of the government and the churches, the schools had a beneficial purpose, and the settlement only addresses the abuses that some individual children suffered.
The physical and emotional abuses that happened at the residential schools were horrible. It is beyond comprehension that any human being, let alone people who were purportedly spiritual leaders and public servants, could have done what was done to these children. And any child who experienced that kind of violation deserves all the help and support that the government can provide. But even if all the school operators had lived up to their moral duty and none of that abuse happened, there would still be the residential schools’ express purpose: to obliterate First Peoples’ cultures with methods that included forcibly removing children from their parents and communities. That purpose was not merely the misguided policy of one administration; it lasted 100 years, so it clearly reflected the Canadian public’s ongoing, underlying attitude towards First Peoples.
If a reparations program is to be effective over the long term, it needs to address the root cause. Otherwise, the problem will show up again in some other form, rendering the reparations pointless. The Canadian settlement’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is geared in part toward public education, but it is not the commission’s central purpose. Even if it were, the attitude that long supported the residential school system is still deeply entrenched in Canada. For example, Stephen Harper, Canada’s current prime minister (the settlement was achieved during the previous administration) has steadfastly refused to offer an apology for the government’s residential school program. One of Harper’s most significant advisors, Tom Flanagan, is an academic whose most recent book is First Nations? Second Thoughts, in which he dismisses indigenous peoples as “first immigrants” and argues for their assimilation. Minister for Indian Affairs Jim Prentice, who had been well thought of by the Assembly of First Nations, recently followed that party line, explaining why there would be no apology and even going so far as to justify the schools: “I’ve said quite clearly that the residential school chapter of our history is one that was a difficult chapter. Many things happened that we need to close the door on as part of Canadian history, but fundamentally, the underlying objective had been to try and provide an education to Aboriginal children.”
As long as this frame of mind still exists among Canadians, there can be no real reparations for the survivors of Canada’s residential schools.
Mark Cherrington is the editor of Cultural Survival Quarterly.
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