Long before Europeans came to North America, aboriginal people had a
highly developed system of education. If you think of how difficult it must
have been for aboriginal people to survive by earning a living from the land,
you may realize that there was a great deal for aboriginal children to learn
before they could survive on their own. Aboriginal elders and parents passed on
not only survival skills to their children, but their history, artistic
ability, music, language, moral and religious values.
When European missionaries began to live amongst aboriginal people, they
concluded that the sooner they could separate children from their parents, the
sooner they could prepare aboriginal people to live a civilized (i.e. European)
lifestyle. Residential schools were established for two reasons: separation of
the children from the family and the belief that aboriginal culture was not
worth preserving. Most people concluded that aboriginal culture was useless and
dying and all human beings would eventually develop and change to be like the
'advanced' European civilization.
Early residential schools were similar to religious missions. Later, the
mission-run schools were administered jointly by Canadian churches and the
federal government, and for a number of years, residential schools became
official Canadian policy for the education of Indian children. Speaking no
English, having never ridden in a car or truck, having never eaten anything
other than meat, fish, bannock and perhaps the occasional sweet treat, aboriginal
children as young as six left the world of their families and were sent into
the unfamiliar world of the white man.
Children were usually rounded up in August and transported by train,
plane or bus to the residential schools. They were separated from their
brothers, sisters and friends and herded together according to age level. They
were issued clothes and assigned a bed number. Even though many of the children
could not speak any English, the supervisors spoke only English to them. The
children were, in fact, punished for speaking their native languages. For as
long as a year, and occasionally for several years, children were unable to
express to anyone in authority what their basic needs were. Loneliness,
sickness, confusion and abuse all had to be borne in lonely silence.
Many things combined to make the experience difficult for young
aboriginal children. They included the suffocating heat of the buildings; the
painful need for someone to talk to; the pain of separation from their
families; the bad tasting, indigestible food; the size and unfamiliarity of the
buildings; the frightening crowds of people; the painfully abusive and harsh
discipline; mental and physical abuse; and the continual loss of personal
freedoms and individual control. All of this must have been a staggering shock
to the new "student" .
The white man's school contradicted everything these aboriginal children
had learned at home. Aboriginal society placed a large measure of
responsibility on children's shoulders. They were expected to help with jobs
such as tending the nets, feeding the dogs, cutting and hauling wood, cutting
up meat and fish for drying. The school demanded very little in comparison. A
child had no responsibility for the well-being of others. At residential school,
the aboriginal child became no one's keeper, not even his own.
Some children were able to return home for two short summer months.
Parents found that they had changed. Children were no longer interested in
helping the family with tasks such as carrying water and other chores. They had
to be told everything, and they often refused to "listen." Instead
they "talked back" and in general tended to spend time with children
their own age who also attended residential school. Parents noted that
frequent, violent arguments (very foreign to most aboriginal cultures) arose
and that children seemed as unconcerned about hurting others as they were
unwilling to obey elders.
Even more difficult for parents was the children's loss of ability to
speak their own language. After several years away at school, children often
found it difficult to speak their mother tongue. Parents felt left out when the
children spoke English and wondered if their sons and daughters were talking
about things they didn't want their parents to understand. Children used
English when they were angry and so English became associated with bad feelings
and strong language.
The most damaging part of residential schools, from an aboriginal
perspective, was that children were taught that their culture was not worth
preserving. Students learned that aboriginal traditional values were wrong and
primitive, and that white Canadians came from a more "advanced" form
of social organization. Students came to see their homes as "dirty" and
"cold," their parents as dressing "funny" and as smelling
"bad." Students began to believe that the ceremonies and rituals
which harmonized the spiritual and social life of the community and gave its
members a sense of personal significance and group identity, were "heathen"
and "the work of the Devil." The organization of the schools and the
content of the curriculum conveyed to aboriginal children that the human
values, the political institutions, the spiritual practices and the economic
strategies of other Canadians were infinitely superior to the
"primitive" ways of their traditional lifestyles.
It was disorienting for aboriginal children to spend the first
(formative) years of life living in a traditional aboriginal way, and then to
be thrusted into a foreign, painfully abusive and harsh discipline. Residential
school disrupted the smooth transmission of beliefs, skills, and knowledge from
one generation to the next, and deliberately divorced the aboriginal child from
her background by discrediting her culture, punishing her for speaking her
language and preaching the superiority of European attitudes. The experience
often caused severe, and in many cases, unalterable damage to the child, to the
family and to the community to which she would eventually return.
There were some positive aspects to residential schools. Without them,
most of the students would never have learned to read and write, or learn about
other ways of life than their own. It was not education in itself that was bad.
It was that the manner in which the residential schools were organized were
simply not sensitive to the needs or lifestyle of the aboriginal students.
By the 1950s, the Canadian government began to realize the residential
school policy was a failure. The last residential school in Canada was closed
some 30 years later.
Today, aboriginal people want recognition of what was done to their
communities as a result of the residential schools. Aboriginal people have
demanded, and received, official apologies from the Anglican, United and Roman
Catholic churches which operated residential schools. As more and more former
students of residential schools come forth with stories about the sexual and
physical abuse they experienced, several religious authorities who administered
the schools are being charged criminally.
The residential school experience continues to plague First Nations
education. Many people who attended residential schools, now parents and
grandparents, have biases against education for their children because of what
they experienced. Furthermore, while the closure of residential schools meant
that more and more aboriginal children began to attend regular provincial
schools, provincial education curriculums did not change to reflect the
educational needs of aboriginal children. Today, the cross-Canada average of
the percentage of aboriginal children that complete Grade 12 is about 20%, and
even lower in northern regions. Aboriginal children continue to have
difficulties fitting in to the existing schools, which are still designed around
a culture alien to their own.
Many First Nations are taking over the running of their schools from the
government. By designing their own curriculums and running their own schools,
aboriginal people intend to reclaim the education of their children and put the
residential school experience in the past.