The Complex Truth: Intersections between Day Schools and the Shubenacadie Residential School

On October 24, 2019, Active History commenced a series on education “after” residential schools with an article written by Clinton Debogorski, Magdalena Milosz, Martha Walls and Karen Bridget Murray. The series is open-ended. Active History welcomes additional contributions on related themes.

By Martha Walls

I am an historian who has studied the impact of Government of Canada policies and actions on Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqiyik communities in the Maritimes, including with respect to the region’s only formally-designated residential school, the Shubenacadie Residential School, which opened in 1930 on Mi’kmaw land at Sipekne’katik. Seeking to understand the nature and effects of state authority on the Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik, especially in relation to education, is a fraught undertaking for a settler-colonial scholar. That I teach at Mount Saint Vincent University, home to the Sisters of Charity who helped found and operate the Shubenacadie Residential School, is an important part of my personal reckoning with how I have derived – and continue to derive – benefit from an educational system insidiously marked by white supremacy, settler-colonialism, and genocide.

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has found that Canada committed genocide, which it defines as a series of ongoing interconnected legal and social truths about

state actions and inactions rooted in colonialism and colonial ideologies, built on the presumption of superiority [over Indigenous Peoples], and utilized to maintain power and control over the land and the people by oppression and, in many cases, by eliminating them.[1]

Today, my work is set in this context of the truth of genocide. It is also set against the backdrop of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) mandate to “reveal to Canadians the complex truth about the history and ongoing legacy of the church-run residential schools.”[2]

I have come to learn that my privilege has been built on genocide and the complex truth and legacy of residential schools, which hinged on the systemic exclusion of Indigenous and other marginalized peoples from educational systems, including academia. I understand my self-interrogation as obliging me to work with, and alongside, Indigenous Peoples to understand this “complex truth” of residential schools. This, it seems to me, must include critiquing and problematizing aspects of the TRC’s work.

The TRC’s gathering of survivor stories provided a crucial corrective to scholarship that overemphasized official policies and neglected perspectives of Indigenous Peoples. Still, silences remain. As Ronald Niezen (2013) points out in Truth and Indignation: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools, the TRC’s focus on front-line elements of the institutions, namely churches and ecclesiastical staff, presents the Government of Canada as a neutral player, which could not be further from the truth. Moreover, by treating day and residential schools as separate entities, setting aside an assessment of the former, and largely ignoring the relationship between the two, the TRC disassociated residential school policy from a critique of the role of state power. I think it is important – and morally imperative – to document and understand more fulsomely how the Government of Canada guided and perpetuated residential schools.

On a macro level, the Shubenacadie Residential School was, as Karen Murray shows in her 2017 article “The Violence Within: Canadian Modern Statehood and the Pan-territorial Residential School System Ideal,” created to undermine Indigenous sovereignty in the Maritime Provinces. Throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, Ottawa sought to tighten control over Maritime Indigenous Peoples and their territories by selling “surplus” reserved land, relocating Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik, and undermining their access to fish and game resources through resource regulations.

Indigenous Peoples pushed back, however. In the 1920s, Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik mounted legal challenges to the federal government’s efforts to erode their treaty rights. In that same decade, they fought against forced relocations, one of the best-known examples of which is the Mi’kmaq’s refusal to leave the King’s Road reserve in Sydney, Nova Scotia.

While these court challenges failed, and the Mi’kmaq were compelled to leave King’s Road, these refusals nevertheless worried authorities in Ottawa. In this, the timing of the opening of the Shubenacadie Residential School in 1930 is telling. It can only be seen as an effort to deflate Indigenous Peoples’ resistance in the region.

Deeper understanding of Canada’s objectives in setting up residential schools and the techniques used to that end, are decipherable in connections between residential and Day Schools, including with respect to the Shubenacadie Residential School. And yet, the TRC gave little attention to these linkages.

The 1930 opening of the Maritime provinces’ residential school at Shubenacadie occurred as part of the “second wave” of the system’s development. Until then, there was a long-established policy orientation within the Department of Indian Affairs to focus on the Canadian west. Nicholas Flood Davin had his sights on that region when he advised John A. Macdonald to develop a system of residential schools to ensure the “domestication” of thousands of Indigenous People via the incarceration of their children. For forty years, the federal “Indian” policy in the Maritimes was geared to relegating the two Indigenous groups Ottawa recognized, the Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik, to small (and ever-shrinking) reserves. The Peskotomuhkati, whose territory spanned the presumed legal border separating the New Brunswick-United States, were entirely unacknowledged by Ottawa. This territorial sequestering and invisibility underscores that the national government was, until the twentieth century, largely unconcerned with Indigenous Peoples in the Maritimes.

Federal Day Schools were established after Confederation, with 22 in operation in the Maritimes by World War I. These Day Schools were a second track of federal schooling that operated alongside residential schools. Both of these types of school were part of the genocidal project that continues in settler-colonial Canada.

The similarities and linkages between these schools are revealing. Both operated according to a calendar that undermined seasonal mobility around resources that was culturally important and requisite to families’ survival. Both were infused by strong Christian overtones, reinforcing the tradition of Roman Catholicism in Maritime Indigenous communities. A very few Maritime Day Schools in the early twentieth century were staffed by Indigenous teachers who taught in their own languages. This was the exception. Much more typically, Day Schools, like the residential school, operated in the English language in a purposeful attempt to sever Indigenous children from their mother tongues and cultures. Apart from the Indigenous teachers who held positions at a handful of Day Schools, instructors were poorly qualified. The Sisters of Charity, who taught at the Shubenacadie Residential School, were untrained and unsalaried. Most Day School teachers were hired precisely because they had achieved lesser qualification and thus commanded smaller salaries. For the few Indigenous teachers at Day Schools, their indigeneity factored into their low wages.

Corporal discipline prevailed at the Day Schools and the residential school, although children attending Day Schools could escape the violence inflicted on them when they returned home to their families at the end of the day. Spending nights at home also allowed children to maintain language and kinship ties which were anathema to the genocidal project.

Given this violence it sounds trite to say that academics were substandard. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that federal Day Schools ended at sixth grade, compared to provincial government schools for non-Indigenous students which continued to grade eight. The Shubenacadie Residential School operated on a half-day system which saw children spend more time in manual labour than in the classroom. So-called success at the residential school was measured not by academic attainment, but by children’s capacity to engage in physical labour. In both the residential and day schools, the poor physical condition of school buildings compromised children’s health and well-being.

These observable similarities went hand-in-hand with linkages between the Day Schools and the residential school. In the Maritimes (and possibly in other parts of the country) Ottawa used its control over both systems to ensure the expansion of residential schooling. Residential schools were a much more aggressively assimilative model and also more amenable to Canada’s ultimate quest to undermine Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik sovereignty by eradicating Indigenous Peoples. In this light, it is significant that federal officials justified the “need” for the Shubenacadie Residential School by stressing the poor conditions and shortcomings of its own Day Schools, which of course Ottawa created and maintained. For example, the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, the notorious Duncan Campbell Scott, explained that the boarding out option would fill gaps in the region’s educational opportunities. “[M]any Indian children,” he said, “live too distant from Indian or public schools to attend regularly.”[3] That one of the goals was to close Day Schools was clear when a teacher at the day school at Sipekne’katik (one of the largest reserves in the Maritimes located near where the new residential school would be established) was told by Indian Affairs that “the future of the day school [would] be uncertain after the Indian Residential School is in operation.”[4]

Not surprisingly given this context, after the residential school launched, funding for Day Schools stagnated and then dried up while federal funding came to exclusively be channeled into the Shubenacadie Residential School. In the 1920s, for example, Day Schools spending amounted to an average of $1,860 each year. After 1930, the year that the residential school opened, funding fell precipitously to an average of $418 each year. Throughout the 1930s, the residential school received nearly $80,000 more than the then 22 Maritime Day Schools combined.[5] Day Schools would continue to operate, but with fewer resources.

Many Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools against their families’ wishes. However, some parents were favourable to the residential “option” because they were misled to see it as a better alternative to Day Schools. This view was promoted in federal propaganda that celebrated the boarding-out option while denigrating the Day Schools, where languishing conditions reinforced the message. The federal government encouraged these logics as it engineered and then publicized substandard conditions at the Day Schools while simultaneously promoting the residential school as an “Indian College.” The chimerical option presented to Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik was, as Chrisjohn, Young and Maraun have put it, “between bad education and no education at all.” [6] This helps to explain why, in 1938, parents at Lennox Island (on Prince Edward Island) asked Ottawa to “take steps to have all [their] children placed under the care of the school at Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia.” The request was no endorsement of the boarding-out option. Rather, it reflected the recognition that there were problems with the “manner in which [the local day] school [was] being conducted.”[7] Seven years later, children were still leaving Lennox Island to attend the residential school, but by then perceptions appear to have changed, doubtless reflecting amassed knowledge about the violence of the residential institution. In 1945, for instance, the PEI Indian Superintendent J.E. Daly noted that approximately twenty students who “might well be going to [the] school on the Reserve [if there] were accommodation for them” were, instead, being shipped to Shubenacadie.[8]

This cursory examination of the origin of the Shubenacadie Residential School in relation to the region’s Day Schools reveals the importance of delving further into how the authority of the Canadian state was deployed to generate and sustain residential schools as a tool of undermining Indigenous sovereignty. As I have learned more about the connection between the residential school at Shubenacadie and the Day Schools, I have come to understand that the “complex truth about the history and the ongoing legacy” of residential schools requires more attention be paid to the broader political context in which the residential school system was fashioned and sustained by the federal government. This, of course, points towards the genocidal context within which the system was established and endured.

Martha Walls is an Associate Professor of History at Mount Saint Vincent University.

[1] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (2019). Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report on the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Volume 1A, p. 54. Retrieved from

[2]Canada, 2015. Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, p. 17.

[3] Duncan Campbell Scott to J.L. Ilsley, 1 March 1929. Library and Archives Canada (LAC), RG 10, vol. 6054, file 265-1, part 1.

[4] A.F. Mackenzie to Mrs. A King, 15 May 1928. LAC, RG 10, vol. 6052, file 260-8, part 1.

[5] Martha Walls, “‘part of that whole system’: Maritime Day and Residential Schooling and Federal Culpability.” Canadian Journal of Native Studies 30 No. 2 (2012): 361-385.

[6] Roland Chrisjohn, Sherri Young and Michael Maraun. The Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residential School Experience in Canada (Madison: Theytus Books, 2006): 131.

[7] Petition of Lennox Island to Department of Indian Affairs, 11 July 1938, LAC, RG 10, vol.6059, file 270-1, part 2.

[8] J.E. Daly, Quarterly Report, 30 September 1945, LAC, RG 10, vol. 6059, file 270-1, part 2.


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