Sept 2003

Indian Act Residential Schools:

The ‘Indian education policy’ is an outcome of the Indian Act. History shows a pattern in the policy based upon assimilation, segregation, and later, integration. The segregation was realized through the establishment of Indian residential school institutions in Canada during the 1870s. The residential schools continued to operate in Canada until the mid 1980s. There were 84 residential school institutions built across Canada that held Indian, Inuit and Métis children. There were 16 residential schools in BC.

The development of the residential school strategy in Canada was a state-led policy that was implemented through a church and government partnership. The residential schools were fashioned after the industrial school example provided by the USA. The underlying purpose of residential schooling as shown by the American example was “aggressive civilization.”

Thus, the Canadian government’s ‘Indian education policy’ designed the residential schools to remove aboriginal children from their families, communities and culture. The government’s stated policy was to “civilize” the children to the Christian European culture through prolonged exposure to these influences.

In order to successfully achieve this, the state felt that complete detachment from the home and family was necessary. The strong influences of family and culture within communities were seen as detrimental to the goal of assimilation.

For over a century, thousands of aboriginal children were removed from their homes and communities, and placed into the care of strangers. The residential schools have been described as “total institutions” where the children were separated from their families and communities for extended periods of time, in some instances for years. As a result, the generations of aboriginal children who were the residents of these institutions were radically re-socialized. Their behaviour, perspectives, languages, traditions and beliefs were deliberately and significantly altered.

Aboriginal parents were in favour of education for their children but they were strongly opposed to the residential school policy. The preference was for day schools within the communities where the children could attend during the day and return home afterwards. The 1894 introduction of compulsory schooling regulations through the Indian Act required that parents concede to having their children attend residential schools.

Opposition to the residential school system increased as awareness arose amongst the parents about frequent abuse and harsh discipline occurring within the institutions. Researchers have found that church and government officials were aware of the neglect and abusive situations throughout the history of the system but failed to act on that knowledge. By the early twentieth century the escalating death rates in the schools were becoming a public scandal.

Study of this subject matter has provided a great deal of insight into aboriginal history in Canada. History shows that the Canadian approach to ‘Indian education’ was based upon racist views and false assumptions of aboriginal inferiority. It has come to be generally understood and accepted that the residential school system contributed significantly to the social breakdown and cultural disintegration experienced by many aboriginal peoples across the country.

Cathy Narcisse First Published in Bridge River Lillooet News, Sept 2003
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