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Canadian Residential School System Education Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 2975 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The Canadian Teacher Magazine is an educational scholarly resource meant for use by high school students and teachers, young Canadians, communities and anyone who might be interested in the history of First Nations education. It seeks to enable readers understand the major developments impacting First Nations before the Europeans arrival up to this day. The text has three portions. The first-“First Nations History”-gives a short summary of the distinctive cultures of Early First Nations in Canada. It explores the system of education that was implemented before the arrival of Europeans. The second portion explores the system of education that was implemented by the government and the missionaries after their arrival. Llewellyn’s (2002) article on ‘Dealing with the Legacy of Native Residential School Abuse in Canada’ by University of Toronto Law Journal, a scholarly source particularly describes how the residential schools system introduced to the First Nations affected school going children. This point is supplemented by other non scholarly sources such as Chrisjohn’s The Circle Game. Another non scholarly source is Dubash’s film titled Indian Residential Schools in Canada, which depicts the experiences of aboriginal kids in residential schools. The third part explains how Indian Control of Indian Education impacted education among First Nations communities as depicted by Wells (2012) in his book Wawahte: Canadian Indian Residential Schools. This part is the most relevant to the topic at hand as it explores how the First Nations worked with the government in order to improve the education system and general learning environment. It is rather obvious that this collaboration was long overdue. As such, its outcome would be of benefit to both partied involved in its implementation. The credibility of these articles on Canadian Residential Schools can be ascertained as it is a reflection of the education system that existed among First Nations from the context of teachers and students.

Today the Canadian Government has partnered with First Nations in this era of reconciliation to help establish stronger First Nations communities. Essential collaborative efforts are can be seen all across the country in areas as diverse as First Nations education, social services, governance, economies, culture, human right and resolution of outstanding claims.

The term First Nations is used to encompass the wide range of aboriginal peoples in Canada, which include Indians (status or non- Status), Metis, Inuit, aboriginals and native peoples. This paper is intended to provide readers interested in First Nations education with information about current developments in federal, provincial (public and separate) and band schools across the country. As well, this study is intended to give schools, school officials, teachers and parents or guardians examples of various approaches, so that they may improve their own situations. It is based on the results of a survey of schools and on submissions from Departments or Ministries of Education (Wells, 2012).

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At present, the majority of First Nations students attend one of four types of school: federal day schools, which are located on reserved; provincial (public) day schools, usually off reserve; band schools on reserves; and separate schools, usually affiliated with church denominations. Since the policy of Indian Control of Indian (First Nation) Education was adopted in 1973, the number of federal schools has declined dramatically as bands have assumed responsibility for these schools (Wells, 2012). Most mainstream account accounts of the education of the education of First nations in Canada begin with the arrival of the Europeans. Although this may be accurate in terms of formal schooling, it is worthwhile to consider the education that was practiced before this contact.

Traditional Education

Long before the arrival of Europeans in North America, Indians had evolved their own form of education. It was an education in which the community and the natural environment were the classroom, and the land was seen as the mother of the people. Members of the community were the teachers, and each adult was responsible for ensuring that each child learned how to live a good life. The development of the whole person was emphasized through teachings which were often shared in storytelling. Each group of first Nations has its own legendary hero through which much learning was transmitted, including Raven, Nana bush and Weakachak. They were regarded as transformers or “tricksters of learning”, through which children learned such traditional varies as humility, courage, respect and honesty (Chrisjohn, Young, & Maraun, 1997). Although there was little segregation of family for events, whether social or work-related, children were taught that there were times when they should be silent and allow adults to speak without interruption. Silence was regarded as the cornerstone of character.

Traditional education was largely an informal process that provided the young with the specific skills, attitudes and knowledge they needed to function in everyday life within the context of a spiritual world view. It taught many skills as part of everyday life, as can be seen in “Rabbit Snaring,” (Chrisjohn, Young, & Maraun, 1997). Jeanette Armstrong describes the traditional indigenous peoples’ view of education as “a natural process occurring during everyday activities…ensuring cultural continuity and survival of the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being of the unit of its environment.” (Llewellyn, 2002).

Education Provided By the Federal Government and the Missionaries

In the early 17th century, missionaries were brought over from Europe to establish schools for Indians. This was believed to be the best method of bringing Christian civilization to the heathen “Natives.” The Roman Catholic Church was the first to get involved in educating Indians in the 1600s. The Protestant churches did not get involved until after the turn of the 19th century. Day schools were the first to be established. The day schools were largely abandoned in favor of residential (boarding) schools from the latter 1800s through to the 1950s, though a few day schools did continue to be built, and the building of day schools on reserves accelerated after 1950 (Llewellyn, 2002).

Residential (Boarding) Schools

Residential schools were designed to isolate children from their parents and the influences of the reserve. Schools were often located many miles away from the child’s community. Children stayed at the residential schools for at least ten months of the year, from the ages of six (sometimes younger) through to 18 years. Residential schools provided a very basic education designed to prepare students for futures as working farmers, housemaids, mechanics or the like. It was to make provision for the domestic and Christian life of the Indian children.

The residential schools were oppressive. After being separated from their families, the children were then subjected to a severe regimen of work. The boys were expected to clean the stables, butcher cattle, mend broken machinery and work in the fields. In fact, by the “half-day plan,” they were expected to spend as much time in this kind of manual labor as in school. The same was true of the girls who had spend half of their time doing laundry, sewing, working in the kitchen and doing other forms of housework (Llewellyn, 2002).

The residential school was most notable for the incredibly high mortality rates among the students. Many died from the effects of tuberculosis. At about the turn of the century, it was estimated that 50% of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education they had received therein (Dubash, 2008). The federal government became involved in the education of the Indians in the mid-1800s. The residential schools became jointly operated by the government and the church. The church’s duty was to manage the school, contribute part of the operating cost, and most importantly, provide Christian guidance to the children. The government was responsible for inspection, special rules and regulations as well as making financial grants. The highest recorded number of such schools in Canada was 80, in 1933. The enrolment in the schools varied anywhere from 50 or so to over 400 students of all ages (Wells, 2012). Most of these schools were closed by themed-1980s. However, in Saskatchewan, several remain but under the control of the First nations bands and offer culturally sensitive environment to the students.

The residential schools have had a lasting negative effect on First Nations people as a whole. These schools removed children from their parents and their communities. Generations of Indian children were denied a normal family childhood. They were denied the association with family, with their extended family’s perceptions of spiritualism, of acceptable behavior and of the means of survival. For many, residential schools meant the loss of their native language, the principal means by which culture is accumulated, shared and transmitted from generation to generation. The result was a tragic interruption of culture. The legacy of the residential schools was one of cultural conflict, alienation, poor self-concept and lack of preparation for independence, for jobs and for life in general. Much of what was learned and experienced in residential schools was a direct and purposeful contradiction to the philosophy of traditional First Nations societies as a whole.

Integration- Education provided by provincial Governments

“To civilize and Christianize” gave way in the 1950s and 1960s to a policy of integration. Integration, administratively defined, was the process of having First Nations children attend provincial schools (Loyie, 2009). Since the policy of integration was introduced in 1948, the government of Canada has at its highest point been successful in making provision for about 65% (about 43% today) of First Nations students in “integrated” schools. The integration program was introduced and continued with little or no discussion with First Nations parents and children or the Non- Native community. No specific training of teachers or of the national curriculum was designed to put up with the children of another culture.

In 1967, Dr. Harry Hawthorn, a professor at the University of British Columbia, released a two-volume study on contemporary Indians (Wells, 2012). In 1972, the Winnipeg Free Press revealed a number of Hawthorn’s findings on Indian education. The article stated that “integration” has not provided the answer to the demand for significant education for First Nations children. Integration has, in many schools, resulted in “only a physical presence” (Chrisjohn, Young, & Maraun, 1997). This program has not been one of true integration where the different cultures are recognized; rather it has been a program of assimilation where First nation students are absorbed into the dominant society.

Indian Control of Indian (First Nation) Education

In the 1960s, First Nations leaders began to react openly to the deplorable conditions of their people. In response to the educational concerns being raised by First Nations people, the federal governments Standing Committee on Indian Affairs was charged with the responsibility of preparing a report on Indian education. This report, presented in the House of Commons on June 22, 1971, unfolded before the Canadian public the educational problems facing Indian people (Loyie, 2009). Some of the findings included: A drop-out rate four times the national average (96% of Indian children never finished high school); A related unemployment rate averaging 50% for adult males, going as high as 90% in some communities; “inaccuracies and omissions” relating to the Indian contribution to Canadian history in texts used in federal and provincial schools; An age-grade retardation rooted in language conflict and early disadvantage, which accelerated as the child progressed through the primary and elementary grades (Dubash, 2008).

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The First Nations peoples’ response was generated by the 1969 government White Paper, based on the goal of eliminating the special status of Indians in the wake of a First Nations school strike in North East Alberta in 1971 (protesting school facilities on reserves). The National Indian brotherhood (now the assembly of First Nations) established a working committee that would reflect a national position on education (Llewellyn, 2002). The committee’s work culminated in the document, Indian Control of Indian Education (ICIE). In February 1973, the minister for Indian Affairs gave official departmental recognition to the ICIE document stating that: ” I have given the National Indian Brotherhood my assurance that I and my department are fully committed to realizing the educational goals for the Indian people which are set forth in the Brotherhood’s proposal” (Wells, 2012).

First nations Philosophy of education is in many ways more valid and universal than the one which prevails in educational circles today. Instead of a one-sided view of history, First Nations want their children to learn a Canadian History that honors their customs, accomplishments, values and contributions. As George Manuel stated: “We want our children to learn science and technology so that they can promote the harmony of man with nature…not destroy it. We want our children to learn about other peoples in literature and social studies, and in the process to learn to respect the values and cultures of others” (Llewellyn, 2002).

ICIE is a four point policy dealing with parental responsibility, school curriculum and programs, teachers and school facilities.

Parental Responsibility

Under the terms of the 11 major treaties between the Indians and the federal government and the Indian act, the federal government of Canada is obligated to provide funds for the education of Indians. This is an incontestable fact. In no way does the principle of “Indian control” or “local control” contradict or nullify this fundamental federal obligation. The government’s financial responsibility does not justify its dominance over lives of Indian people. This policy statement demands that Indian parents participate as partners with the government in the education of their children.

Teachers and Counselors

The federal government must help train Indians as teachers and counselors, in co-operation with First Nations peoples. Non- Indian teachers and counselors should receive additional training to prepare them for cross-cultural situations and teach them how to make the curriculum for Indian children more meaningful, i.e., more relevant, and also how to instill pride and cultural awareness in their students.


Educational facilities must meet the needs of the local population. Substandard buildings and equipment must be replaced.


From this overview, it is obvious that the missionaries and both federal and provincial governments have failed in 300 years to administer an effective educational program for First Nations. This failure has been attributed to several factors; namely the absence of a consistent philosophy of education with clearly articulated goals and objectives, failure to provide a meaningful program based on First Nations reality, a lack of qualified teaching staff, inadequate facilities, and most important , the absence of parental and community involvement in the education of their children.

Studies on the effects on integration have shown that First Nations children reveal patterns that can be identified as alienation and identity conflict. The First Nations student is caught between two cultures and is, therefore, literally outside of, and between, both.

Through the policy of ICIE, the effect of parental responsibility and local control has clearly brought about positive changes within the past two decades. These include an increase in the numbers of First Nations students completing high school and entering universities and colleges, an increasing number of First nations teachers, and increasingly more research being done by First Nations providing valuable insights on the effect the various forms of education are having. More importantly, the problems and challenges associated with ICIE are becoming clearer and attempts are being made towards resolving them.

Critical to improving the situation is the need for legal recognition of First Nations jurisdiction over education. This was identified very early on as a serious problem. It was noted that the Indian Act presents no direct legal foundation for the shifting of control of education from the minister to Indian bands. It empowers the minister to enter into contracts with territorial and provincial governments, public school boards, or charitable or religious organizations, but not with Indian bands. Clearly, the fundamental obstacle to Indian Control of Indian Education is the lack of legislation. Without it, we can expect only minor adjustment to the existing situation. With it, an Indian band or group of bands would be able to write its own Education Act, and determine its own administrative unite, policies, aims and objectives.


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