“To deny the past and to refuse to recognize its implications, is to distort the present; to distort the present is to take risks with the future that are blatantly irresponsible.” — Manitoba Indian Brotherhood (1971)
Birtle Indian Residential School, 1908 via mhm.mb.ca
The previous post related to public education focused primarily on the historical development of schooling in Canada from the perspective of inclusion. The argument made was that over the past 400 years, schools in Canada (or the various settler colonies that have existed since Champlain) have slowly become more inclusive and have focused their purpose to something beyond creating Jesuit priests.
But this inclusive evolution, which saw the development of public schools following the Act of Union and further organization with the anointing of responsibility of schools to the provinces through Confederation, meant something very different for indigenous children. School for Indigenous children was used as a weapon — a weapon of apartheid and genocide that historian and educator Brian Titley described in 1986 as “The destruction of the children’s link to their ancestral culture and their asimilation into the dominat society…” (p. 75).
Through Mission Schools, Day Schools, Industrial Schools, Residential Schools, the Sixties Scoop, Indigenous children have been targeted by Canada and Canadians through education — a tool that political scientist Karen Murray describes as “a vector of violence to control Indigenous peoples and their lands.” (2017, p. 747). Simply put, education, from the establishment of Mission schools in Red River (Think St. John’s of SJR in Winnipeg) to the closure of Gordon Indian Residential School 1996 (Edmond, 2016), schools and education were an intentional mechanism to remove Indnigemous people from the land and Canadian society based on what historian Sean Carelton refers to as “settler anxiety” (2017, p. 57).
Carelton’s assertions is that settler anxiety is at its foundation the root cause for residential schools and state-wide control (p. 58). Early Mission schools on Vancouver Island at the mid 19th century saw schools as a means for moral education and to pacify hostile indgenous groups. With the collapse of the relationship created by the Royal Proclamation through Confederation and the Indian Act, schooling of indiegnous children became the purview of the federal government and it used this weapon as a means to remove children from land to make way for settlers, to crush the spirit of any resistance, and relegate entire peoples to the margins of history.
University of Saskatchewan scholar Marie Battiste expertly expresses what this anxiety has meant to Indiegnous people in Canada. Her book Decolonizing Education serves as an antidote to those in society who ask Indigenous people in Canada to simply “get over it.” She invites Canadians to imagine:
Consider that for more than a century, Indinegous students have been part of a forced assimilation plan — their heritage and knowledge rejected and suppressed, and ignored by the education system. Imagine the consequence of a powerful ideology that positions one group as superior and gives away First Nations peoples’ lands and resources and invites churches and other administrative agents to inhabit their homeland , while negating their very existence and finally removing them from the Canadian landscape to the lands no one wants. Imagine how uncertain a person is whose success is only achieved by a complete makeover of themselves, by their need to learn English and the polished rules and habits that go with that identify. They are thrust into a society that does not want them to show too much success or too much Indian identity, losing their connections to their land, family, and community when they have to move away as there is no work in their homeland. Assimilation. (p. 23).
And further to this, historian John Milloy, in his groundbreaking history, A National Crime, reveals through state and church records the sinister methods by which these acts of assimilation were carried out: “…the system’s history is marked by the persistent neglect and abuse of children and through them of Aboriginal communities in general.” (p. xxxvii). Canada and the Department of Indian Affairs, according to Milloy, created a “fiction of care” that would destroy the way of life of generations of Indigenous people
This thought exercise is paramount to making sense of the relationship Canada has with Indigenous people and how this is manifested in Canadian schools today. Since, Nicholas Davin’s report in 1879, which saw him chronicle the achievement of American industrial schools, we have been on a quest to develop a system of schooling that would civilize Indiegnous youth and move them aside in the name of progress. The initial Industrial schools of the late 19th century, located in Battleford, Qu’Appelle, and High River, were disasters in all sense of the word. (Titley, 1986). Not only were the economics ill conceived, but attendance was not mandatory and the Department of Indian Affairs became frustrated.
By the early 20th century, however, and the appointment of Duncan Campbell Scott as Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Residential Schools were clearly a vehicle for apartheid. In 1920, Scott had the Indian Act amended so as to force all Indian Children from ages five to 17 to attend residential school — a marked change in the intentionality of the Canadian government and partner churches.
Famously, Scott would utter the following vitriolic words that now haunt the legacy and the present colonial experience:
…Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department, that is the whole object of this bill. (Haig-Brown, 2013, p. 31).
And the implications of our collective experience, that is our history Indiegnous and Settler, manifests itself in schools, education, and the rearing of children in 2019. Canada is still experimenting with providing Indigenus children with different parents, many school divisions relegate “difficult children to off-campus programs, and we still manage to alienate many of our learners by secondary school.
And when we speak of achievement, higher expectations, and improved results, we need to imagine the possibilities of a public school system that is inclusive and committed to reconciliation. That is an environment where learners feel that they belong, where their language is heard and sene. Where their teachers look like them. And where their experience, culture and heritage is honoured and see as a strength. It is through this sense of belonging, as Martin Brokenhead (2002) argues, belonging is the first step towards a learner developing independence, mastery, and generosity — all quadrants of the Circle of Courage. The cultural and generational genocide that was committed through schooling for Indigenous children stares us in the face as educators. If we truly want all learners to have the means to a decent life, schools need to focus on allowing all learners the space to develop that sense of belonging that many settlers take for granted. When learners feel that they are part of a community and able to contribute to it, the learning natural follows.
Publics schools in Canada have a long way to go to not only ease the anxiety of settlers who fear that somehow the school experience is worse than when they were in school, but also to ensure that Indigenous children and families feel that they belong. In 2019, educators are doing outstanding work in this manner: indigenizing their classrooms, welcoming elders in their learning communities, and making the language visible. Schools are teaching Ojibwae, national anthems can be heard in Cree, and more and more teachers identify as Indigenous. But this type of learning, the learning required to make amends for the damage of 150 years of genocide, will not magically reveal itself in tests scores. Rather, our success will manifest itself in the wellbeing and well-becoming of our learners and communities.
We will know that we have made gains when all learners feel that they belong in our schools.
Ansloos, J. (2017). The medicine of peace: Indigenous youth decolonizing healing and resisting violence. Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.
Battiste, M. (2013). Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit. Saskatoon: Purich
Brendtro, L., Brokenleg, M., & Van Bockern, S. (2002). Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future. Bloomington, In.: Solution Tree.
Carleton, S. (2017). Settler Anxiety and State Support for Missionary Schooling in Colonial British Columbia, 1849–1871.Historical Studies in Education / Revue d’histoire de l’éducation 29, 57–76.
Edmond, J. (2016). Indian residential schools — A chronology. Law Now, Vol 40 (4).
Haig-Brown, C. (2013). Resistance and renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.
Manitoba Indian Brotherhood. (1971). Wahbung: Our tomorrows. Retrieved on October 24th, from: https://manitobachiefs.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Wahbung-Our-Tomorrows-Searchable.pdf
Milloy, J.S. (2017) with a forward by Mary Jane Logan McCallum, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School, 2nd edition. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.
Murray, K. (2017). The violence within: Canadian modern statehood and the pan-territorial residential school system ideal. Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol 50, No. 3, pp 747-772.
Regan, P. (2010). Unsettling the settler within: Indian residential schools, truth telling, and reconciliation in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Titley, E. B. (1986). A narrow vision: Duncan Campbell Scott and the administration of Indian affairs in Canada. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.