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Early History of Residential Schools in Canada

There was a new attitude of European superiority over all other peoples and policies in Canada. These policies, combined with missionary efforts to civilize and convert Aboriginal people, tore wide holes in Aboriginal culures, autonomy and identity. One policy was making education compulsary for all Aboriginal children.

Long before Europeans came to North America, Aboriginal people had a highly develped system of education. Aboriginal Elders and parents passed on not only survival skills of their children, but their history, artistic ability, music, language, moral and religious values.

It is important to be aware of the beginnings of residential schools. Although residential schools were not officially set up until 1893, the roots of the residential school system actually reach back to the colonial governments before confederation. The idea that Indian boarding schools be set up and run jointly by the government of Canada and the churches was being discussed as early as the 1840's. At this time government and church were already conferring on the issue of Indian education and what form it would take.

By 1830, a successful policy was in place spearheaded by Sir John Colbourne. The idea was to replace the nomadic lifestyle of the Aboriginal people and to have them be settled in one place. This way they could be properly acculturated. Then along came Sir Francis Bond Head whose idea was to segregate Aboriginal people by congregating them apart from the "whites". Even back then, the educational issue was the language of instruction. This idea was quickly done away with by no other than a Superintendent of Indian Affairs, who deemed this method as "time and labour lost". Records kept by the Wesleyen Methodist Church continued to refrain: "remove the (native) children from their "imperfectly civilized parents", and place them into schools where they would be "enabled to forget their Indian habits", be "well taken care of", "fed and clothes". In effect "weaned" altogether from being Indian. However, the children at Shingwauk were allowed to speak Ojibwa at tea-time between 6-7:00pm any other time they were supposed to speak English and English ONLY! (Source: No Blanket to Be Worn in School).

By 1845, a government report to the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada recommended that Indian boarding schools be set up. Then, in 1847, the Assistant Superintendent of Indian Affairs wrote to Dr. Egerton Ryerson, Methodist head of education in Upper Canada asking for suggestions on the topic of Indian industrial schools. Ryerson suggested that the schools be a partnership between government and church and that the schooling be of religious nature.

In 1879, under pressure from the Catholic and Methodist churches, the government of Sir John A. Macdonald gave Nicholas Flood Davin the task of studying Indian industrial schools in the United States. He was to determine whether similar schools should be set up for Aboriginal children in Canada.

Using the U.S. schools as a model, Davin's report called for the creation of funding of off-reserve schools to teach children the skills they would need in the modern Canadian economy. He advised the government to set up boarding schools rather than day schools. Residential schools, it was reasoned, would be more successful because they could completely remove children from "the influence of the wigwan".

Both the church and the government strongly supported the report. Not only was it commonly believed at the time that the "savage" Indian needed to be "civilized" but in the opinion of the churches and government officials, the best way to do this was to bring the children completely under the control and influence of church-run residential schools. At these schools, children could be fully indoctrinated in the ways of Canadian society. As church officials at the time said "caught young", Aboriginal children could be "saved" from the so-called "deleterious" and "degenerating" influence of their parents and communities.

To this way of thinking, through the residential school system, Aboriginal children could be taken from their Aboriginal way of life. They could be remade into citizens who, by becoming labourers and maids or small farmers in their communities, would cease to be a "drain" on the Canadian economy. Besides, similar institutions were being used effectivley by colonizing governments on other Indigenous peoples in Australia, Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti and the United States for example.

Soon after the submission of Flood's report the "Davin Report" a formal church/government partnership was put into place to jointly manage an education system for Aboriginal children in Canada. The partnership between government/church lasted from 1892-1969. The schools were run by the Roman Catholic Church, Church of England (Anglican), United Church (Methodist), Presbyterian Church and Mennonites. They operated in every province but New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island.