ANG 160 Fall 2005
According to The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, a residential school
is defined as “a boarding school operated or subsidized by religious orders or
the federal government to accommodate Aboriginal and Inuit students” (1227).
This does not, however, take into account the connotative meaning of
“residential school.” Behind this term lies physical, psychological, and/or
sexual abuse at the hands of religious instructors. Even though many years have
passed since the implementation, and “phasing out” of Indian residential
schools, critiques about their existence remain for the most part negative. Why
was this system put into place? What was in fact the main purpose of
The existence of residential schools in Canada spans about eighty years.
They date back to the 1880s, at a time when Aboriginal peoples were perceived as
second-class citizens by the majority of Eurocentric Canadians (particularly
those who did not believe in the stereotypical “Noble Red Savage”). Since
Aboriginals, i.e. “Indians,” were perceived by whites as “uncivilized”
and “savage,” a need was felt to “civilize” Natives in order to
disempower them from what they legitimately possessed, namely their lands. The
residential school system, as a “civilizing” tool, had as one of its goals
to “educate” the Other, specifically Aboriginal children, with false
promises of a better future. Yet residential schools contributed greatly to the
breaking-up of the social fabric of Aboriginal society, at the heart of which
were their children, forcibly enrolled in these Church-run schools.
These institutions were created across Canada in order to promote the
assimilation of the Natives into the white man’s vision of a so-called
civilized society. In this way, they would all become one – Canadians, albeit
inferior – with one idealistic way of perceiving the social fabric of Canada.
Life at the residential schools, however, was a far cry from the false promises
of government civil servants and Christian missionaries. This system led to the
separation of Native families, and mistreatment and abuse of the children at the
hands of their Christian teachers. Furthermore, by making schooling compulsory
for First Nations children, the government and Church ensured the silencing of
some mother tongues because these children were often beaten up for talking “Indian.”
Many writers, including autobiographers, discuss the impact of losing
their mother tongue in literary works testifying to their (traumatic)
experiences in residential schools; a number of these works have been published
since the 1970s, after the infamous “White Paper.” These books, all exposing
the untold and unthought-of aspects of the residential schools all lead to the
same conclusion: residential schools were institutionalized to erase Native
people’s identity. For example, Basil Johnston, in his memoir Indian School
Days (1988), recounts in three different, interwoven stories, his
experiences as a student, and the experiences of other students, at the Indian
Residential School commonly referred to as “Spanish” during the 1940s. Jane
Willis, in her autobiographical work, Geniesh: An Indian Girlhood (1973),
also describes her life in a residential school and her struggles to further her
education, even though she was an excellent student. The courage of these two
authors to talk back to society by explaining their personal experiences of the
residential school system testifies to their recovery.
In conclusion, the Indian residential school system has had harsh
repercussions on Aboriginal people and their way of life. Because of the abuse
experienced in these schools, re-adaptation into a “normal” lifestyle has
proven difficult to many due to the devastating memories of residential school
life. In recent years, some former students have even filed claims/lawsuits
against the government in order to demand justice and foster the healing process.
Jane. Geniesh: An Indian Girlhood. Toronto: New Press, 1973.
Basil H. Indian School Days. Toronto : Key Porter, 1988.
J.R. Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools. 1996.
Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1997.
from ANG 456: Native Literature, Winter 2005