Native residential schooling in Canada. The system’s repercussions in Tomson Highway’s "Kiss of the Fur Queen" and Basil Johnston’s "Indian School Days"

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2009

34 Seiten, Note: 2,0


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. Historical Survey

3. Daily Life and Living Conditions in a Residential School

4. Residential Schools in Primary Literature
4.1 Situation in Residential Schools
4.2 Music and Dancing as ‘Magical Weapons’
4.3 Aspects of Language
4.4 Consequences

5. Conclusion

6. Works cited

7. Assertion

1. Introduction

There is no denying the fact that native people have exceedingly suffered from manifold attempts to become absorbed into the non-native society of Canada throughout the 19th and 20th century.

Nowadays, it is possible to observe all of these consequences induced by the government’s efforts to assimilate the aboriginal people. Native people struggle - among other things - with alcoholism, sexual abuse, a high delinquency rate and a growing alienation from their own cultural background. Yet, besides examining these consequences, it is also of utter importance to study one of those issues haunting the Canadian Native community: the education of First Nation children in residential schools run both the Canadian government and different ecclesiastic orders.

In the course of the 18th and 19th century, the role of native people had slowly changed from that of a trade partner or fighting ally to the subject of the said assimilation, i.e. a troublesome element, which had to be made part of the ‘superior’ white society (cf. Miller 1997: 3; Hylton 2002: 11). One can distinguish between various non-native partners interracially ‘cooperating’ with the native people during these centuries: fur traders as the first European inhabitants and the Natives’ trade partners and later, settlers and soldiers as their fighting allies.

But as the political situation in Europe and Northern America altered after the Anglo- American War in 1812, these former partners and allies commenced to regard the Natives as an obstacle to the development of a Euro-Canadian society.

In this situation the young state took action and began to plan its attempt on assimilating the Indians into the lower stages of the Canadian society (cf. Barman et al. 1996: 36; Trevithick 1998: 50; Miller 1997: 62).

One can thus conjecture that the government’s policy was established to alienate the Native people from their lifestyle and culture (cf. Miller 1987: 3; Schäfer 2005: 85; Kelm 1996: 52, 60; Barman et al. 1986: 1f, 4; McKegney 2007: 66; Stout & Kipling 2002: 29; Hylton 2002: 14) and - as we will point out throughout this term paper - that this policy was a cardinal source of these issues the native community is facing today.

Just to give an example for the statement mentioned above: The author of the work Canada’s Indian Administration stated the following in 1945: “In other words the extinction of Indians as Indians is the ultimate end [of the said policy]” (Miller 1987: 3), while Duncan Campbell Scott, then Superintendent of Indian Affairs, said in the year 1920: “our objective ... is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politics” (Miller 1997: 114).

Casting a glance on the other side of the coin, we should record that native people mostly did not want their children to become transformed into proper, i.e. ‘white’ and ‘western-oriented’ Canadian citizens, as the government planned them to become.

Indians wanted the government to educate their children so that they would be capable of coping with Western society and entering a fair economical contest with the settlers without being forced to forget about their own identities (cf. Miller 1987: 8; Million 2000: 95; Miller 1997: 409).

Chief Keketoonce at the Saugeen Indians for instance announced that he wished to become Christian: “I shall desire to see my children read the good book ... and if I can only hear my children read I shall be satisfied” (Miller 1997: 77). Here, the emphasis is clearly put on becoming a Christian and on the ability to read and not on anything else.

The third party who played a role in the education of Indians - the church - aimed at transforming the Indians from pagans into ‘adequate’ Christians.

That is to say, some missionaries changed their style of converting native people by shifting their place of work to the existing schools (cf. Miller 1987: 9; Schäfer 2005: 85; Kelm 1996: 59; Wasserman 2005: 27; Million 2000: 94f; Trevithick 1998: 50f; Haig-Brown 2006: 29, 34; Milloy 2000: 53).

Hence, in order to reach those aims and fulfil those wishes, schools were erected in every territory in Canada save New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland (cf. Hylton 2002: 12) and gradually, more and more children had to attend the schools.

After the historical survey and the description of daily-life in residential schools based on information taken from secondary literature, it seems quite reasonable to have a look at different literary works telling stories about residential schools. Therefore I have chosen Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998), a novel by Tomson Highway. In addition to that, I will refer to some parts of the novel Indian School Days by Basil Johnston, which also features information about the school system in question.

With the help of these two pieces of literature, I will analyse how native authors reprocess their own experiences in residential school and how they present life in those schools they attended.

The question to be answered is whether there are any significant similarities or variations as to the description of life in residential schools between those given in primary or secondary literature.

2. Historical Survey

The history of the education of native people in Canada, and thus also the installation and development of residential school, was rather incoherent and intermittent at first.

In the first centuries after the colonisation of the country, facilities akin to the later residential schools emerged here and there, now and then from former missionary stations, but these facilities could not be kept up for a very long period of time.

This was - among other things - due to the frequent journeying on of the missionaries responsible for teaching the children or even owing to the lack of funds or native students to educate.

The first of these small institutions were erected by different religious groups such as the Récollets, Jesuits and Ursuline orders in the time from 1620 to 1680 (cf. Schäfer 2005: 86; Stout & Kipling 2003: 26; Miller 1997: 39; Trevithick 1998: 50).

After 1680, the attempts to instruct First Nations had to stand back behind other political aims, which were already mentioned in the introduction to this term paper.

For the time being, Native people of Canada served the purpose of being trade partners and fighting allies and hence, a proper education was not needed.

Nevertheless, after 1812, the political situation - and thus also the role of aboriginal people - suddenly changed and shortly after, i.e. in 1820, Protestant, Catholic, Anglican and Methodist orders began to reinstall places of education all over the country (cf. Schäfer 2005: 86). In the course of the subsequent years, several commissions launched by the Canadian government gave advice to expand and strengthen the yet immature system of educating the Natives to enable them to occupy their new roles in the respective society.

In 1847, the Bagot Commission emphasized that Natives should be introduced to the Western standards of agriculture in order to make them capable of becoming competitive farmers (cf. Kelm 1996: 53).

The Chief Superintendent of Education in Upper Canada, who was part of the said commission, indicated that “education must consist not merely of the training of the mind, but of a weaning from the habits of their ancestors and the acquirements of the language, arts and custom of civilized life” (Stout & Kipling 2003: 27).

This remark reveals two aspects: first that the focus of education was supposed to lie on the aforementioned agricultural techniques as opposed to a less emphasized training of the mind and second, that Natives were - right from the beginning - to be alienated from their cultural background and their identities to facilitate their introduction to Western-oriented Canadian society. With the enacting of different laws in the years 1857 (Gradual Civilization Act), 1867 (British North American Act) and 1869 (Act for the Gradual Enfranchisement of Indians) this policy was provided with the legal basis allowing the expansion of schools and the triggering of any act of absorption.

Most native people did not hesitate to accept the installation of schools close to their homes. They asked for the possibility of becoming acquainted with some elements of Western lifestyle as already mentioned in the introduction. Thus, Chief Augustine Shingwauk of Garden River for instance asked the Anglicans of Toronto to erect a “teaching wigwam” at his residential area (cf. Miller 1997: 85).

In addition to the introduction of the Indian Act in 1876 the work of the Davin Commission three years later augmented the creation of Indian residential schools (cf. Barman et al. 1986: 6; Miller 1997: 101; Kelm 1996: 54).

Davin highlighted that these schools ought to be created far from the Native settlements: “The child, again, who goes to a day school learns little, and what he learns is soon forgotten, while his tastes are fashioned at home, and his inherited aversion to toil is in no way combated” (Haig-Brown 2006: 29).

In addition to the advice to stretch the school day, Davin also recommended that clerics should continue to teach the Natives in order to add a moral education to the vocational and mental one (cf. Barman et al. 1986: 6; Miller 1997: 102).

In 1879, the first new industrial schools were installed in High River, Battleford and Qu’Appelle (cf. Milloy 2000: 51).

After these developments and after the induction of a new financial system based on per­student grants by the Canadian government in 1892, the school system consequently flourished (cf. Milloy 2000: 62; Miller 1997: 126).

Hence, in 1900, of about 20.000 native children between the age of six and 15, more than 3.200 were attending 22 industrial schools and 39 boarding schools (cf. Barman et al. 1986:


In addition to these children up to 6.300 were enrolled in 226 day schools (ibid.: 7).

The number of First Nations children attending a school further increased due to the introduction of a compulsory school attendance with an amendment to the Indian Act in 1920 (cf. Kelm 1996: 54; Barman et al. 1986: 20; Miller 1997: 170; Haig-Brown 2006: 32).

The said amendment also allowed members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or other so-called truant officers to take away children from their parents’ houses even by exerting violence and - in addition to that - punish any resistance against the removal of children (cf. Wasserman 2005: 23; Milloy 2000: 71).

Three years later, the long-lasting developments finally came to an end: the last industrial facilities as well as the last boarding schools situated close to the reservations were closed (cf. Miller 1987: 5; Trevithick 1998: 50; Milloy 2000: 52; Miller 1997: 141).

These institutions were replaced by church-run, government-paid residential schools (cf. Miller 1987: 5; Milloy 2000: 52).

For about 20 years things remained the same, but after the experiences gained during the Second World-War, any racial issues and examples of segregation were closely scrutinised all around the world (cf. Barman et al. 1986: 13).

Shortly after the Second World War, i.e. from 1946 to 1948, a Joint Committee of Senate and House of Commons decided that the immediate integration of native people into the Canadian society had to remain the most important aim and consequence of the residential school system (cf. Barman et al. 1986: 13; Persson 1986: 157).

However, the country was not yet ready to grant equal rights and opportunities to both native and non-native people.

This circumstance changed in the year 1961.

In this particular year all status-Indians were given the right to vote (cf. Miller 1997: 412).

The interests, wishes and conditions of native people gained a lot more weight in the political scene of Canada due to the fact that Indians were now capable of influencing the results of an election.

This new political power and the slightly changed perspective on segregation also affected the Hawthorn Survey of Indian Conditions published in 1966.

The author recommended that residential school teachers should learn how to cope with cultural differences with greater sensitivity. In addition, the school textbooks ought to contain material being more attractive and conducive to native children.

Finally, Indian parents were granted greater influence by allowing them to participate in Home and School Associations or Indian School Communities (cf. Ormiston 2002: 12).

To conclude residential schools were to be tailored to the native children and their interests finally gained more importance.

The final development completely changing the system of residential schools occurred in 1969.

In this year, the partnership between the church, providing teachers etc., and the government, funding the whole system, came to an end and from then on, residential schools were gradually closing their doors (cf. Schäfer 2005: 87; Stout & Kipling 2003: 302).

In the same year, a liberal government under Trudeau was elected and the perspective on Indian conditions changed again made obvious by the publication of the so-called White Paper in June 1969.

In this paper, equality was again emphasised and the discrimination of the past was condemned (cf. Barman et al. 1986: 15).

According to Persson, the government also conceded that “the separate legal status of Indians and the policies which have flowed from it have kept the Indian people apart from and behind other Canadians” (ibid. 1986: 165).

Hence, after this stepwise change of policy, the Natives (now finally considered “Canadians”) were more and more encouraged to run their own schools from the 1980s onwards.

In the middle of the decade, 187 groups “were operating their own schools, almost half of them located in British Columbia” (Barman et al. 1986: 16).

In this period of time, the first groups who had run these residential school issued apologies for the miserable conditions in those schools as well as their negative influences on Native people.

The first to do so was the United Church of Canada in 1986, followed by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1991, the Anglican Church two years later and Presbyterian Church in 1994 (cf. Chansonneuve 2005: 41; Chansonneuve 2007: 12; Million 2000: 92; Miller 1997: 340).

The public attention to the consequences of residential schooling was further triggered by the revelation of Manitoba Grand Chief Phil Fontaine about his experiences of sexual abuse at Fort Alexander School given in 1990 (cf. Wasserman 2005: 34; Miller 1997: 328). It started an avalanche by lifting off the taboo on talking about the conditions in these schools.

Three years later the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples received about 60.000 complaints on sexual and other forms of abuse in residential schools (cf. Wasserman 2005: 24).

However, it is rather intricate to find out the correct date for the closure of the last residential school from secondary literature. According to Stout and Kipling the last school ceased its operation in the year 1996 (cf. ibid. 2003: 30). Chansonneuve in turn mentions the year 1998 (cf. ibid. 2007: 10). In her other work on this topic, the same author conjectures that the last residential school to close was Akaitcho Hall in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in 1990 (cf. ibid. 2005: 34).

Other authors give further dates, but at least, we can say that today, all residential schools ceased to educate native children.

The last step in the development for the time being occurred in the year 1998, when the government announced a Healing Fund of 350 million Dollars (cf. Million 2000: 92; McKegney 2007: 68).

This fund is intended to support the 90.000 former native students who are still alive (cf. Schäfer 2005: 87).

3. Daily-life and Living Conditions in a Residential School

In this chapter it shall be examined how a typical day in a residential school looked like and what the living conditions were like in these facilities.

To be more specific, information on health aspects, nurturing, funds, but also abuse and punishment is to be gathered by dint of witness accounts and other sources.

So, what was it like to be educated in a residential school as a native child?

To answer this question, let us first examine a typical weekday schedule like that given by Milloy for the Qu’Appelle school (cf. ibid. 2000: 137).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

One can see that the focus of a weekday’s schedule was put on labour, trade work, praying and less on a mental education.

Another impression of a typical morning in a residential school is given in Haig-Brown’s work by a witness the author called Sophie:

In the morning one had to get up at six o’clock, perfect silence ... you only had half an hour to do all this - brush your teeth, get in a line and stand in line in perfect silence ... we spent over an hour in the chapel every morning. (ibid. 2006: 59)

Again, it can be deduced that living in a residential school was characterised by an almost military style of organization and daily routine to the point of standing at attention.

The atmosphere was farther affected by the instruction to act in perfect silence, which is rather unnatural and hard for every child - at least if the child is not attending a school lesson. Now that we have taken a look on a typical schedule, we can confirm that a curriculum comprised both academic subjects and vocational or trade instruction and labour, although the focus has clearly been put on the latter categories (cf. Miller 1987: 5, 7; Haig-Brown 2006: 66). This structure rather reminds me of daily life in a cloister: with a strong emphasis on ora et labora.

Thus, at least one third of every weekday was reserved for vocational training such as an instruction in agriculture, carpentry or mechanics for the boys and several domestic skills like knitting for the girls (cf. Milloy 2000: 167, 169; Miller 1997: 157; Haig-Brown 2006: 69; Barnes, Josefowitz & Cole 2006: 21).

This structure of a day obviously had its consequence on the academic skills of Native children.

In the case of a residential school by the name of Shubenacadie, it was reported that “male students were forced to spend so much time performing agricultural labour, few acquired beyond the most basic academic skills” (Stout & Kipling 2003: 21).

The government determining the style of education guaranteed that the formal or mental education of native children was maintained at a rather low level (cf. Barman et al. 1986: 9). Native children were simply not meant to become intellectual and highly-educated, but rather drudges for the Canadian society.

Two statistics throw further light on this circumstance: in an analysis demanded by the Department of Indian Affairs in 1945 the 9.149 residential school students were examined concerning their learning progress.

It was concluded that “slightly over 100 students enrolled in grades above grade 8 and ... there were no records of any students beyond the grade 9 level” (Milloy 2000: 171).

In 1967 and after native children had been allowed to attend public schools together with non­native children, it was reported that the drop-out rate for First Nations attending those schools was 94% (cf. Wasserman 2005: 28).

Taking all of these statistics into account, we can corroborate that the academic education provided by a typical school was simply not given in most of the residential schools.

This may be explained by the fact that two of three parties involved in the process of education, viz. church and government, did not consider effective academic learning as their primary aim (cf. Miller 1997: 419).


Ende der Leseprobe aus 34 Seiten


Native residential schooling in Canada. The system’s repercussions in Tomson Highway’s "Kiss of the Fur Queen" and Basil Johnston’s "Indian School Days"
Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen
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report, native, residential, schooling, canada, system’s, repercussions, presented, tomson, highway’s, kiss, queen, basil, johnston’s, indian, school, days
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Patrick Schmitz (Autor:in)Julia Fleck (Autor:in), 2009, Native residential schooling in Canada. The system’s repercussions in Tomson Highway’s "Kiss of the Fur Queen" and Basil Johnston’s "Indian School Days", München, GRIN Verlag,


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