An earlier version of this post was originally published on 49thShelf.com as part of a special series of essays and book recommendations called Talking History. Follow the link to see the rest of the series and to explore the more than 80,000 Canadian books listed on the site. The author would like to thank Crystal Fraser for her comments and feedback.
By Kaleigh Bradley
Cover photo of Bev Sellars’ Memoir.
In the nineteenth century, near present-day Sault Ste. Marie, Chief Shingwaukonse dreamt of a teaching wigwam where Anishinaabe children could learn vocational and academic skills. Chief Shingwaukonse wanted children to have these tools so that they could preserve Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe language), and adapt to a modernizing economy and society. Indigenous peoples, with the help of church missionaries and government officials, sought the creation of schools for their children, but the schools later became an instrument for cultural genocide.
The Indian Residential School (IRS) system began in the early nineteenth century with the missionary work of different Christian groups across Canada. Government and churches designed the IRS system to assimilate and transform Indigenous children into self-reliant citizens by removing parental involvement in their intellectual, spiritual, and cultural development. Schools were perceived as an ideal solution to the late-nineteenth-century “problem” of incorporating Indigenous peoples into Euro-Canadian settler-society. In 1876, the federal government consolidated the IRS system with the passing of the Indian Act, and by the late 1880s, government-funded schools were operating across Canada, run by Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic missionaries and volunteers. Did you know that Gordon IRS, the last residential school, closed less than twenty years ago in 1996?
Schools were often sites of emotional, physical, and psychological abuse, and the legacy of the schools—language loss, broken families, children alienated from their communities and culture, addictions and mental health issues, intergenerational trauma, health issues due to disease and neglect—continues to ripple throughout Indigenous communities. Institutional life was often traumatic for students, and the education received typically left them ill-equipped for capitalist ways of living. The schools did not lead to the assimilation of Indigenous peoples, although they caused irreparable suffering and damage to Indigenous communities and cultures. Indigenous cultures are no longer as vibrant today as they were prior to the creation of the IRS system.
It’s important to note that the history of residential schools is also a story of survival, resiliency, mobilization, and cultural revitalization. Students and communities often resisted assimilation and survivors acquired the tools for political resistance and mobilization.
In the fall of 2011, I was hired as a research consultant to research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I had recently graduated from my Master’s program and in this economy, I was grateful to have a job. My project manager told me to show up at a church archive the following Monday, and I was sent detailed instructions along with a file that was over four hundred pages, which outlined the history of residential schools. I was never taught this history during elementary school, high school, and even as an undergraduate student in university. I was to uncover links between the schools and Indigenous communities and in particular, I was supposed to flag anything in the archives that suggested evidence of abuse, neglect, missing children, or unmarked cemeteries. Continue reading