Part 2: Assimilation, Integration, Repeat

In the previous post of this three-part series, we discussed the lack of research which exists related to teacher expectations of Indigenous learners in Winnipeg. While much research has been conducted throughout the world and in other parts of Canada, I argued that it seems salient that we uncover, both historically and presently, how Indigenous learners are perceived.  This is especially significant given that Winnipeg has the largest urban Indigenous population in Canada and that Indigenous learners statistically underperform on key matrices such as graduation rates and Grade 12 provincial exam results (Manitoba Education).

Article from 1968 Winter issue of The Manitoba Teacher. Taken from the MTS Archives.

To use the Manitoba Teacher as a point of reference is to use artifacts of specific times, movements, reactions, and experience. Desmond Morton once taught with me that history is the shared human experience. In this sense, the point is to examine the shared experience of educators in Winnipeg — or at least the experience documented in various issues of the publication. (And to examine whether or not an experience is shared.) And in order to analyze the shared experience of educators in Winnipeg and Manitoba, it is critical to take into account what has remained the same, what has changed, and to what extent this change has occurred.

For this post, we will look specifically at The Manitoba Teacher from 1919 to the 1970s.

But prior to beginning, it’s important that I clarify a few errors from my last post.  Thankfully, I have an amazing colleague who generally sets me straight about how I develop arguments and think about myself in relation to “reconciliation,” Indigenous reclamation, and resurgence. As an Anishinaabe educator, I rely on her to change my world view, poke holes in my perspective, and challenge me to use my imagination so that I can see beyond my own context and history.

In my last posting, I surfaced the notion of “soft racism.” I used Michael Rose’s (2012)  idea of Cotton Wool to suggest that there exists a kinder and gentler level of racism which persists in the classroom in the form of low expectations. I have the privilege of tossing a term like soft racism out, given my positionality. To my friend, however, this has not been and is not a privilege she lives with. As she pointed out, “As an Indigenous person who has been racialized both overtly and covertly my whole life, it’s simple for me: racism is racism.” She further argued, “In my opinion, the term creates a spectrum of racism that is not only a western way of viewing (and explaining it) but also a dangerous one.” 

Given this, the conceptualization Cotton Wool, or low expectations, should be examined under the heading of racism. That if educators are to have different expectations for Indigenous learners then this should be considered simply a racist act. 

Secondly, upon reflection, there is also a danger for people like me to assume. To make assumptions about what learners need. I have done this throughout my career and I would qualify this as what Anishinabe scholar Leanne Simpson refers to as cognitive imperialism (2011, p. 13). As an educator and principal, I have often assumed what is right for a learner and/or family, and I have pushed ideas like rigour, scholarship, cognitive engagement, and university as means for flourishment. Simpson asks a critical question for all educators to contemplate as we investigate what reconciliation, reclamation, and resurgence look like from the perspective of education: “Are we participating in a process that allows the state to co-opt the individual and collective pain and suffering of our people, while also criminalizing the intergenerational impacts of residential schools and ignoring the larger neo-assimilation project to which our children are now subject?” (p. 22).  

As most educators in Winnipeg are non-Indigenous, how do we work towards curbing liberal tendencies to envision progress as a pathway to capital, land, and consumptive prowess? How do we begin to not measure human flourishing by way of degrees on the wall, Dodge Rams, Mexician vacations, and season tickets? Simpson sets me straight by exclaiming with vigour: “Canada must engage in a decolonization project and a re-education project that would enable its government and its citizens to engage with Indigenous Peoples in a just and honourable way in the future.” (p. 23) What roles have schools played in the colonization project, who have been the outliers, and how have teachers perceived learners? To answer these questions, it is critical to examine how we as educators have developed certain expectations of racialized learners so that we can better understand how to work alongside learners, families, and communities to move towards the good life for all.

The Manitoba Teachers Society was born in the early days of the labour movement in Canada. Created in 1919 by teachers marking provincial exams, the first issue on May 24th outlined the intent of the Society: “For some time it had been felt that a more definite, energetic and united effort among teachers was needed in order to improve the status of the profession.” (p.1) Born at the height of the Winnipeg General Strike, there was a need to develop an influential bloc to not only carve out the profession, but to create a substantive position related to the purpose of education in Manitoba. The fall out from the First World War was still fresh in 1919, and according to the president of the Society, H.W. Huntly, “The motives of those entering are of the very highest. They feel that in the past teachers have gone on with their work quietly, sacrificing without complaint with a high sense of duty. Now, the war is over and the time for reconstruction is here….” 

And set in the midst of two major European wars and the Great Depression, the Manitoba Tecaher’s Society was born in what historian Geoge Buri (2016) refers to as the “great catastrophe.” To Buri, and more specifically related to the second European conflict, “the issue of reconstruction concerned not only the immediate reintegration of veterans and the transition to a peacetime economy but a rearrangement of relationships between capital and labour, between men and women, between  government and citizens, and between Canada and the wider world.” (p. 4)  Thus MTS was launched into a tumultuous time that not only recognized a need for greater organization, but a need to reconstruct society through education.  

But very little is mentioned of Indigenous learners in these early days. As the Indian Residential School system had been firmly entrenched throughout Canada as a means to remove Indigneous Peoples from the land and assimilate children in Canadian Society, MTS would have little connection with these schools. Winnipeg’s urban Indigenous population would have been significantly smaller, despite small pockets of Métis settlements scattered throughout the outskirts of the newly minted society. It is important to remember that the Red River Resistance (1870), Treaty 1 (1871), the incorporation Winnipeg (1873), and the design and implementation of the Indian Act (1876) had all occurred only a few decades prior to the establishment of the Society.

In the February 1925 issue of The Manitoba Teacher, however, there is a small piece entitled A Visit to Birtle Indian School. The author, simply known as H.M., takes account of their visit to the south wetsern Manitoba residential school which was established in 1894 by the Presbyterian church and funded by the Government of Canada. Upon arrival, the educator is pleased by what they see: “the teachers were introduced to and welcomed individually by thirty-three little Indian boys and girls, who were all dressed like and behaved  very similarly to thirty-three little white boys and girls.” (MB Teacher, 1925). The members of MTS are pleasantly surprised that Indigenous children are not wild, rude, or dressed in uncivilized ways. Their expectations, it would appear, prior to arrival could be interpreted to suggest that they expected chaos and disorder. But  these fears and expectations were put to rest once they realized that the Indigenous children’s way of being conformed to British and Canadian norms. Success in school was measured against how white children perform. 

Birtle Indian Residential School, circa 1908. Image from Manitoba Historical Society

In the same article, the teachers, through the eyes of H.M., were also inspired by the fact that the children not only went to school and studied the same curriculum that other Manitoba children did, but also that they the children at the Indian Residential School performed back-breaking labour. According to the author, “There they follow the same course of studies as a white child and, in addition, the girls are trained in housework and the boys in farming.” The expectations of assimilation most certainly had taken root by 1925 in the vocabulary of Manitoba teachers, where this type of education was accepted as a means of assimilation and integration.  The teachers in 1925 were pleased that the children at Birtle Indian Residential School had exceeded their expectations. Expectations that were saddled in notions of western liberal conceptualizations of  progress, servitude, conformity, and submissiveness. When leaving Birtle Indian Residential School for the last time, H.M recounts: “After a cosy cup of tea, as the teachers descended the long hill to Birtle, they decided that the Indian child is as responsive to educatio n as any other and therefore entitled to equal advantages.”

For the next several decades, there is no mention of Indigenous learners in The Manitoba Teacher. The hint from 1925 suggests that Residential Schools and the Indian Act put Indigenous learners out of mind, out of sight. Following major adjustments to the Indian Act in 1951, however, more and more Indigenous learners began to participate more fully in the public education system as more and more families began to enter urban centres and as Indian Affairs began to see provincial systems as a more efficient way to educate learners at the secondary level.

By the 1960s, one might think that given the political climate in the United States and the Civil Rights movement that some conversation might have begun amongst urban teachers in Winnipeg. While there is a report of a Civil Rights lecture offered by Clarence Mitchell, Washington Bureau of the NAACP in the Spring 1965 issue, there is no mention of Indigenous learners.

The December 1968 edition of The Manitoba Teacher reveals this time of transition in not only participation in the public school system of Indigenous learners, but also the clear presentation of teacher expectations and a burgeoning voice of resistance and resurgence.  This voice of resistance, as well will see, is most often generated from rural and northern communities and school divisions. The preeminent article in the winter of 1968 edition features the voice of D. Bruce Sealey (Kramer, 2019) , a veteran principal in Winnipeg who also was a member of the Manitoba Métis Federation, the Indian-Eskimo Association, had extensive experience working for Indian Affairs before entering teaching college at the University of Manitoba. (Manitoba Historical Society). His master’s thesis, entitled the Effects of Oral English Language on School Achievement of Indian and Metis High School Students demonstrates a clear passion for working with and for Indiegnous learners and communities.

In his article in 1968 entitled Lo! The Poor Indian!, Sealey explains the evolution of the Frontier School Division, an act of provincial legislation in 1965 where one appointed trustee reported to the Department of Education. In the article, Sealey advocates for better educational opportunities for learners in the north, highlighting that since 1951, there has been some improvement: “In a narrow educational sense, the lot of the Indian and Metis has to a certain extent improved over the past two decades.” Sealey explains how the Frontier School Division’s partnership with Indian Affairs has allowed more children to attend school, retain more teachers in northern communities, and provide better facilities. But according to Sealey, there were still substantive issues related to this relationship:

The problem lies in the basic attitude of society towards non-whites. The individual of native ancestry is somehow imagined to be a quaint combination of museum piece and an adult with the intellect of a child. This persistent stereotype has brought about an attitude of paternalism which, coupled with administrative bureaucracy, has been the curse of the Indian Affairs Branch since its inception. Only recently has the Branch made a conscious effort to do things with rather than for the Indian. The return of control over his own destiny has already helped the Indian break down the lethargy and apathy which characterized so many Indian communities. (p. 5)

Sealey’s damning comments reveal a number of developments in perceptions and expectations since 1925. First, that there are voices who advocate for some degree of Indigenous self-determination. Keep in mind that this is one year prior to the release of Trudeau’s White Paper and an urgent need for the Liberals to rid themselves of the Indian problem. It is also just prior to the publication of the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood’s Wahbung: Our Tomorrows, in 1971. Second, Sealey reveals a general sense of where Manitobans stand in terms of Indigenous education. That most whites have a disparaging perspective on Indigenous Peoples and that, in his own worlds, “Perhaps, despite verbal proteststations to the contrary, people do not really believe that the Indians and Metis are capable of running their own affairs.” 

Sealey’s condemnation of Manitoba society does not allow teachers to escape. In the same article, he lashes out against his colleagues, as he argues: “It seems reasonable to assume that the teacher of Manitoba, through their professional society, would be eager to see these wrongs righted.” He adds, “I have waited in vain to hear a voice raised in protest or even a resolution discussed during the annual general meeting.” (p. 6) Sealey surfaces that general societal expectations for Inidiegnous learners were low in 1968 with the assumption that Indigenous Peoples did not have the capacity to learn to the degree of whites. He also brings to the forefront that teachers in Manitoba had no interest in these struggles. The voice of the MTS was non-existent at this point.

In the same issue, there are a series of other articles which seem to counter Sealey’s progressive perspective on Indigenous self-determination. In an article by Ted Revel, principal of Teulon Collegiate since 1959, a programme is described and lauded which saw 50 learners from Norway House, Island Lake, Fisher River, and Berens River attend school in the southern Manitoba town. According to Revel, “All are happy and have apparently adjusted well to a situation with a certain uniqueness.” (p. 7) The article proceeds to applaud the inroads the integration programme had created, including involvement of learners on student committees, in town life, and even dating life. With a glaring lack of student voice, Mr. Ravel proudly exclaims that”Integration has become part of life,” and that “The collegiate staff would heartily endorse the establishment of then to 12 such systems throughout Manitoba….”

In terms of expectations and how Indigenous learners are perceived, we can observe with the Teulon experience that Indigenous learners are valued when they conform to western standards of success. In the photos, learners are dressed in suits, have short hair, and participate in Sadie Hawkins dances. Funded by the United Church, the programme saw learners leave their homes and engage in activities that were sought be of greater significance. In the Teulon experience, the notion of Cotton Wool arises when the sense of disbelief of how well these children can conform to western Chrsitian life.

Cover of The Manitoba Teacher in winter of 1968 featuring the image of Bruce Tait, student at Teulon Collegiate.

To this day, learners from northern communities leave their homes each year to attend High School in Winnipeg away from their families, housed often with strangers, and left to their own to survive.

By the 1970s, there is still very commentary form teachers and urban teachers specifically about Indigenous learners at all. In the Spring 1970 issue of the The Manitoba Teacher, Gloria Purves, a teacher at Camperville Elementary School in Manitoba, writes a charged letter outlining her sheer disappointment in the system. In her article entitled …because we are Metis, Purves explains how her children were denied an opportunity to participate in an exchange program, simply because they were too poor. Angry for the way her learners are viewed Purves writes: “My purpose for the year is defeated. Our one opportunity to show these children there is something better in life — that they need not stay here drained of pride and dignity. Shattered.” (p. 7).

In 1971, Frontier School Division was still leading the way pushing progressive notions of Indigenous education within the province, In the Spring 1971, The Manitoba Teacher reports on a highly successful pilot program at Pelican lake that teachers learners in their Cree language in nursery school so that they are better prepared for integration into English Kindergarten. As the author explains, “Students are gradually moved into an English-speaking world.” (1971.) The end goal, despite the progressive sheen, is to assimilate Indigenous learners into Canadian society. By learning the English language, learners show their worth.

A few years go by and there is still very little comment about Indigenous learners are Indigenous education in Manitoba or Winnipeg. In 1975, however, a short article appeared in the February issue, written by Art Rempel entitled What native Students Need Most: Well-prepared Teachers. Working at that time for the native education branch of  Manitoba Education and a former teacher in Frontier School Division, Rempel demands that teachers in the north need to be open to working with the community, that they need to acknowledge and honour the experience of learners, and that teachers need to speak the language of the learners. According to Rempel, “We, educators, can do much to eliminate the notion that Native people should assimilate and promote an education system, reflecting our cultural mosaic.” He goes on further to argue that, “It is in our classrooms where our Native children and others with background different from the typical middle-class whote Canadian can be given the special help they need.” While Rempel advocates for a certain level of self-determination and experience acknowledgement, there still creeps to the surface a notion of helplessness.

Rempel’s progressive  albeit deficit-minded advocacy could be driven by the recent publication of Wahbung and also Dr. Verna KirknessThe Shocking Truth of Indians in Textbooks. Both publications were reflections of the Indigenous resurgence movements that were erupting in both rural and urban areas of the province. The Shocking Truth according to Sean Careloton (2017), “powerfully illustrates that ignorance, racism, and prejudice are not natural; they are learned, and in settler colonial countries such as Canada, they are often taught in school.”  This movement in the 1970s would further reveal itself in Manitoba society writ large in later decades, but urban educators seemed to be absent form any discussion related to Ingenous learners.

What is striking from this brief glimpse is that teachers in Manitoba certainly held expectations of learners. Despite a few voices from the north, the attitude from Birtle Residential School that Indian children can be saved from the wilds persisted throughout much of the 20th century. Despite Sealey’s revelation that most Canadians perceive Indineous people as less than capable, a general silence persists. As urban and mostly European educators, do we still hold onto these attitudes and this silence? That our role is to save the Poor Indian or simply not to speak of them at all? Or are we better equipped in 2020 to walk with our learners, colleagues, and communities to honour experiences and learn from and with each other?

In the third and last post, we will look at expectations and perceptions of educators in Manitoba and Winnipeg through the archives of The Manitoba Teacher from the 1980s until today. We will examine how learners are perceived and perceive themselves in the context of provincial and national events and what this tells us in 2020 about our role as educators.


Buri, G. (2016). Between education and catastrophe: The battle over public schooling in postwar Manitoba. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Carleton, S. (2017). Revisiting The Shocking Truth About Indians in Textbooks. Jeunesse, Young People, Texts, Cultures, 9(2), 162–165.

Kramer, N. (2019, June 14). Memorable Manitobans: Donald Bruce Sealey (1929-2005). Retrieved August 12, 2020, from

Manitoba Education. (2020). High School Graduation Rates and Student Achievement Statistics. Retrieved August 06, 2020, from

Manitoba Indian Brotherhood. (1974). The Shocking Truth About Indians in Textbooks

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Sealey, D.B. (1968). Lo! The poor Indian! The Manitoba Teacher, November-December.

Simpson, L. (2011). Dancing on our turtle’s back : stories of Nishnaabeg re-creation, resurgence and a new emergence . Arbeiter Ring Pub.

The shocking truth about Indians in textbooks . (1977). Manitoba Indian Cultural Education Centre.