The appearance of the residential schools during the late 19th century in Canada was for many the start of a living hell. Many Aboriginal families were forced to spend their youth in these establishments, ruled by strict religious priests and nuns. It was obligatory for many Aboriginal generations to attend residential schools. The Canadian Native writer Bev Sellars was forced to attend St. Joseph's (Caribou) Mission Residential School. She describes in her book, They Called Me Number One, the quality of life that she and other young Native American children had to endure during that time period. Her life experiences could have been described as being worse than that of a prisoner. This non-fictional writer is denouncing the cultural rupture that the Aboriginal communities had to endure as well as the inhumane way they were being treated.
Sellars was one of many young children who had to attend a residential school in Canada. She recollects being held against her will in a place that felt unfriendly and hostile, like a prison for children.
The government-sponsored religious schools (MILLER, 2015) were created to educate and convert the Native children to integrate them to their settlers' world. The establishments were often in isolated parts of the country. The authorities did so because it was a good way to excuse the long separations between the family members and their children. The reason for the schools' remote location are also the same as the reason for the remoteness of certain prison locations. Colonial authorities put the buildings far from anyone's eyes, where the Native children would not have any contact with the outside world. The fact that the children had little or no contact with their relatives prevented them from staying in touch with their culture. It resulted in a major cultural rupture between the Indigenous culture and the colonial one. The new religious beliefs, the cold unknown environment, the strict structure, and the unhealthy life habits were some of the means used to get their Indigenous culture out of children. The schools were not only a prison where they kept the bodies, but it was also a prison for the mind. The children had no control over the way they looked, the way they had to act or even the way they thought. All the children were dressed in the same uniforms and talked the same language, which was God's language (Latin) and the settler's language (English or French). The nuns and priests that were in charge of the schools were like prison guards. They were non-affectionate, strict, mean, and took pleasure in punishments. Like inmates, the children could not interact with their brothers or sisters.
The largest building was a rectangular four-storey structure. Half of it housed the boys and the other half housed the girls. (Sellars, 2013) To ensure control of all the children, they were forbidden to speak their language from fear that they would plan an escape or try to trick the nuns. Ensuring the children would feel like they did not belong, was the practice of replacing their names by giving them a number that would stay with them during their years spent at the school. This phenomenon is usually seen in a custodial setting.
The description of everyday life in the St. Joseph's Mission Residential school by Sellars presents striking elements of what sounds like a prison. For many aboriginal children, the life-threatening environment was only the beginning of their struggle in life. The important impact that the residential school had on their life was almost irreversible. Most of the children had no self-confidence and they thought they were meant to live all their lives in sad conditions. Some members of the communities got out of the vicious circle and went on with their lives. Bev Sellars used the writing process and testimonies to face her past. She is now free from the prison that was not letting her express her thoughts and her feelings.
A history of residential schools in Canada. (2008, May 16). Récupéré sur CBC News Canada
MILLER, J. (2015, 03 04). Residential Schools. Récupéré sur The Canadian Encyclopedia
Sellars, B. (2013). They Called Me Number One; Secrets and Survival at the Indian Residential School. Vancouver: Talonbooks.