The “Indian” problem

By on May 2, 2000

Boys brushing their teeth at Old Sun, Gleichen, Alta.

One of the first significant dates in the history of residential schools is 1842, the year the Bagot Commission Report advised the government of Upper Canada that Aboriginals ought to acquire "industry and knowledge," if they were to become valuable members of society. These skills, wrote Charles Bagot, after a two-year review of conditions on reserves, could only be taught through a European-based education system. The cornerstone for an Indian residential-school system was laid. At that time, the Missionary Society of the Church of England was active in certain parts of Canada, as were other churches with a missionary mandate, including the Methodists and Roman Catholics. At the root of religious outreach was a desire to save souls from hell’s fire while filling up the pews – goals complementary to the policy of assimilation adopted by the federal government at that time.

Assimilation (in the name of amelioration) was taken a large step further in 1847 when Egerton Ryerson, the Methodist head of education in Upper Canada, authored a report on Indian Affairs in which he recommended that "the education of Indians consist not merely of training of the mind but of a weaning from the habits and feelings of their ancestors and the acquirements of the language, arts and customs of civilized life." Ryerson also suggested that there be a partnership between government and church, and that the schooling be of a religious nature. Government policy toward Natives in Canada was solidified in 1879, when Nicholas Flood Davin, a journalist and defeated Conservative candidate, was rewarded by then-prime minister John A. Macdonald with a commission to pen a report on industrial training schools in the U.S. The Davin Report, a pivotal piece of prose that recommended the establishment of Indian residential schools similar to the American model, praised the "aggressive civilization policy of the Americans," deemed successful because it effectively cut children off from the presumed negative influences of their families. "If anything is to be done with the Indian we must catch them very young," wrote Davin. The difficulty here was that "the influence of the wigwam was stronger than the influence of the school," he concluded. Effective socialization of Indian children depended upon what the Anglican bishop of Rupert’s Land (which constituted the better part of what is now central and northwestern Canada) referred to as "continual residence."

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By 1892, the Government of Canada passed an order-in-council regulating the operation of Indian residential schools (the first had already been established in 1863 by the Roman Catholics at St. Mary’s Mission in Mission, B.C.). This was soon followed by a partnership between the federal government and the churches to run the school system. As John Milloy, professor of history and Native studies at Trent University, writes in his book, A National Crime: "The vision of Aboriginal education developed by leaders in the churches and the Department [of Indian Affairs] was erected on the pillars of selfless duty and the self-interested needs of the state."

Some 30 years later, Indians were still not recognized under the law as people (Natives were not granted the vote in federal elections until 1960) and government thinking had not changed. "I want to get rid of the Indian problem," said Duncan Campbell Scott, superintendent of Indian affairs, addressing a parliamentary committee in 1920. In that year it became mandatory for every Indian child between the ages of seven and 15 to attend school after it was discovered that of the approximately 18,000 Indian children in Canada of school age only about 12,000 were enrolled in day, residential and boarding schools. "Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department," said Scott.

Education was deemed the most effective way to eliminate ‘the problem’.

Some students were brought to school by their parents, who obeyed the law of the land and perhaps thought that a formal education was better than none at all. These kids came by canoe or over land. Others tell of being snatched away from their homes by agents who were sent into the wilderness to round up Indian children. Bill Morris recalls a day in 1955 when he was playing in the woods near his home along Bearskin Lake in northern Ontario and heard what sounded like a huge bumble bee. Shortly after the buzzing stopped he saw a crowd gathered at the dock. "I was a nosy kid so I headed through the crowd," says Morris. "The next thing I knew someone grabbed me and threw me into this plane. There were about twelve of us in there when the plane took off." A few hours later Morris got his first look at a car, a train … and an Indian residential school.

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