On Residential Schools for Indigenous Children in Canada

There is so much that was horrible to inhuman that took place at Canada's residential schools for indigenous children that it is difficult to discuss the positive reason that warranted their establishment.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, essentially every group of indigenous peoples on the continent was at war with all their neighbours.¤ Among many tribes, polygamy was the norm because half or more of the warrior-age males were killed in border wars. The first wife of a surviving male among the Plains Cree was known as the 'hearth wife', who was privileged above later wives whose first husbands had been killed.

The Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee) were among the first to be exposed to firearms, by Champlain; they immediately obtained some for themselves from traders near New York and used them to exterminate their principal perceived enemy, the Huron-Wendat of the Ottawa Valley who refused to join the Confederacy and competed with them in the fur trade with the French.*

The positive aim of the schools was to mix indigenous children from all tribes together, to undo the enemy syndrome that permeated the indigenous cultures of most of Canada, in effect to take the violence out of the child. There were hundreds of mutually-incomprehensible indigenous languages at the time, so they had to learn a common language at the schools, an aspect that is too easily misconstrued as denying their culture by itself.

The corporal punishment and sexual abuse are all too clearly remembered by indigenous people as they were foreign to most of their cultures. Never to excuse it, but European children were treated just as badly at orphanages of the time.§ Although neither, I was abused too as a child. The atrocities committed at most of them should have been inexcusable in any age, but clearly they were then the norm in many countries, Canada included. Sadly, such treatment was the exact opposite of what the children should have experienced in order to to wean them off violence.

The Catholic Church seemed to be the obvious choice to operate most of the schools because of their experience with unwed mothers' children. (When a Protestant girl got pregnant, she was usually marched to the altar; a Catholic girl vanished for 9 months and her child was sent to an 'orphanage', many with thousands of children.) However, the nuns and brothers were incapable of accepting the positive aspects of indigenous cultures and religious feelings, believing that the children must convert to European Catholicism. Sadly, they were encouraged in this by several prominent politicians of the time as well as by the papal Doctrine of Discovery#. It too was counterproductive to the aim of reducing violence.

The northern Cree, whom I came to know best and most appreciate among indigenous peoples, were rarely included in the residential schools, not just because of their remoteness but because they had a saying for those who posed a problem: 'walk a few trees away'. Tribal killings were almost nonexistent among them compared to southern agriculturalists.

One last thing: the 'unmarked graves'. Indigenous children died from European diseases at a much higher rate than European children who had been genetically preselected to survive them, and the diet foreign to them at the schools made things worse. They were usually buried the same way as children of European origin in Catholic orphanages: marked with wooden crosses, often with the child's name on it. The crosses rotted after 3-4 decades so the graves are unmarked today, but were usually marked when they were buried. (I don't know if any residential school grave plots were reused after the crosses rotted, as they were at one of the orphanages I visited in the 1950's.)

¤  See "The World Until Yesterday", Jared Diamond, for a modern example of this.
#  It was finally repudiated on 30 March 2023.
*  This has a modern sequel: Prior to 1650, the Huron-Wendat traditional lands in Ontario spanned from Lake Nipissing in the north to Lake Ontario in the south, and from Owen Sound in the west to the Ottawa Valley in the east. Algonkian Odawa moved into the vacated area of the Valley at the same time as early Europeans, whence the modern name of the river. The Algonkian language group today claims the entire Ottawa valley as their traditional territory "since time immemorial" even though they were not resident in the lower half prior to 1650. It's not clear why both the federal government and the City of Ottawa officially accept this incorrect version of history.
Written Submissions of the Huron-Wendat Nation
Les Indiens Hurons 1880
Great Lakes Tribes circa 1600


Follow these links at your own risk. They are horrifying.
Abandoned And Abused, Quebec
Protestant Orphan's Home, Halifax
Belvedere Orphanage, Newfoundland
Mount Cashel, Newfoundland
Fort Albany, Ontatio
The Ghosts of St. Joseph's, Vermont
Mother and baby homes, Ireland
Threat and abuse, Scotland