Incubators for disease

Published May 2, 2000

Papers in the National Archives in Ottawa detail the extent of malnutrition and other food-related problems at the schools. Letters from health officials to the Mowhawk Institute over a 7-year period from 1951 to 1958 insist the school stop using unpasteurized milk which authorities feared could carry tuberculosis – a disease that struck students and teachers at many schools.

At residential school, everything was different for Native children: hair was cut short, uniforms were mandatory, and punishment could be cruel and unusual. “In the vision of residential-school education, discipline was curriculum and punishment was pedagogy,” writes Milloy. “Right from the outset, as the persistent punishment of children for speaking their language signals, … government and church correspondence and reports reveal that there was, as an inherent element of the vision, a ‘savagery’ in the mechanics of civilizing the children.”

Nothing illustrates this better than the diets at some schools. Documents uncovered in the National Archives reveal that malnutrition was a concern at Pelican Falls Indian Residential School, unpasteurized milk was served at the Mohawk Institute, and children at the Brandon Industrial School were sometimes desperately hungry.

“It has been brought to my attention that the children at the Brandon Indian Industrial School are not being fed properly to the extent that they are garbaging around in the barns for food that should only be fed to the barn occupants,” writes J.W. Breakey of Brandon, Man., in a letter dated September 16, 1953, and addressed to Dr. P.E. Moore, director of Indian health services in Ottawa. “This information has been given to me by carpenters who have been working at the school and to say the least they are thoroughly disgusted.”

In some cases, the schools were even incubators for disease. “In the prairies in particular in the inter-war years, a ferocious battle was fought against tuberculosis, both in the schools and on the reserves at large,” writes J.R. Miller, a professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan, in his 1996 examination of Native residential schools, Shingwauk’s Vision.

Another significant problem at residential schools was the quality of the teachers these institutions attracted and were willing to hire. The Anglican-run St. John’s Indian Residential School was the rule rather than the exception when it reported in 1947 that the teachers at both the junior and senior levels had some teaching experience, but “no qualifications” for their jobs. A 1952 federal government survey found that “ten people employed as teachers claimed no formal education beyond Grade 8.” Unqualified teachers were hired because no one else was willing to brave the Canadian wilderness to work for pitifully low wages at cash-strapped schools. Residential school teachers did not, in general, approach normal standards. “In 1948, ‘a [departmental] study conducted of the qualification of the teachers in the residential schools… disclosed that over 40 per cent of the teaching staff had no professional training. Indeed, some had not even graduated from high school.’ This was a long way from the stated official policy of appointing ‘only those with provincial certificates,'” writes Milloy, citing Department of Indian Affairs files.


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