Part Five: the residential schools
A key weapon in the assault on Aboriginal culture was the school. Education was not inflicted on the First Nations; most parents wished their children to become literate in the ways of the newcomers’ culture. But the school system which evolved under the direction of the churches and with the collaboration of the federal government was both coercive and abusive.
The first schools were local day schools of the sort William Duncan and Thomas Crosby opened at Fort Simpson to give rudimentary instruction in English and religion. In 1861, the Oblates established the first residential school, St. Mary’s, at Mission in the Fraser Valley. The objective of the residential school was aggressively assimilationist. It gathered students from many communities in a central institution away from their families and applied harsh discipline to strip them of their Native identities. The schools at Metlakatla and Fort Simpson became residential in the 1870s. Then, in the 1880s, the federal Indian Department began providing grants to church-run residential schools and the number of institutions increased rapidly. The system peaked in 1931 when there were eighty in operation across the country. Of the nineteen residential schools in British Columbia, ten were located in coastal communities. Catholics operated schools at Kuper Island off Chemainus, on Meares Island near Tofino (pictured above) and in Sechelt and North Vancouver. The United Church also had four schools -- at Ahousat in Clayoquot Sound, Kitamaat, Port Alberni and Port Simpson – while Anglican-run schools were located at Alert Bay and Metlakatla. As well, children from coastal First Nations attended St. Mary’s (Catholic) and the Coqualeetza Institute (United) near Chilliwack.
The testimony of former students who attended the residential schools reveals a wide range of experience. Some, grateful for the education they received, recall dedicated teachers and a benign environment. Others relate horrific stories of abuse. Since the last of the schools closed in the 1980s there have been highly-publicized court cases documenting the sexual abuse of students by staff. The churches have formally apologized for their role in the residential school system, as has the federal government. Some have labelled the system genocidal. One of the system’s leading historians has called it “a system of persistent neglect and debilitating abuse.” Yet there have been Aboriginal people who, while not denying the suffering of many of their fellow-students, valued their own residential school experience, chiefly because it gave them the skills to take leadership roles in their communities.
What can be said without any doubt is that the residential school system was a failure. One measure of this failure was that so long as parents had a choice about whether to enrol their children or not, the vast majority chose not to. There were several reasons for their reluctance. Sometimes they did not want to see their families separated; sometimes they needed their children at home to help with food gathering and to take part in cultural ceremonies. A high proportion of students were orphans or from single-parent families. Prior to 1920, when enrolment in residential schools became compulsory for children aged seven to fifteen, less than a quarter of the Aboriginal school-age population in the province attended a school. After 1920, attendance increased, with little impact on the quality of education. By 1930, the vast majority of students were not progressing beyond grade three.
The schools were chronically underfunded and, with exceptions, staffed by inferior teachers. Discipline was strict. Students received physical punishment for an array of misdemeanors, including speaking their own languages. The system was designed to replace all signs of “Indianness” with stable work habits, neat appearance and polite table manners. Students would learn practical trades and domestic skills so that they could take their place in the modernizing economy. There was no place for traditional culture in the life of the residential school. But here again, even at its most draconian, the system failed. First Nations cultures were not eradicated. Indian students did not stop being Indians. What the system did succeed in doing, by disrupting families and brutalizing so many students, was to create a legacy of dysfunction and despair that is still being dealt with long after the last school closed.
Perhaps worst of all, the schools were death traps. Because of overcrowding, inadequate diet and poor construction, the buildings were incubators of disease, chiefly tuberculosis. In 1907, the Indian department’s medical inspector reported that an astonishing sixty-nine percent of residential students had died as a result of their school experience. The “white plague” was snuffing out an entire generation. In BC, the worst offender was the school on Kuper Island. In 1915, the principal reported that of the 264 students who had attended the school since its inception, 107 were dead. These were not schools, they were TB sanatoria. It was, admitted Saturday Night magazine, “a situation disgraceful to the country”, and sadly ironic given that one of the rationales for the residential schools was to “rescue” Aboriginal children from the allegedly unhealthy surroundings of their own homes. But not much was done about it, and children continued to die at an alarming rate.
The failure of the residential school program was admitted following World War Two. In 1948, the government decided to end the system. However, it took almost forty years to close all the schools. On the coast, the last institution did not close until 1983. Until then, another generation of students endured their baneful care.