Written by Dave Page
History is plagued with examples of atrocities committed against native people throughout the world. Often, these atrocities were committed with no better justifications than: “We brought a flag with us, and we have guns so we should be able to do whatever we want.”, or: “These people do not share our belief system so we must do everything possible to convert them to Christianity.”
Today we will be looking into the long-lasting effect caused by belief in the second assertion, as we discover just what happened at the Canadian Boarding Schools that native children were forced to attend.
Before the arrival of European settlers, Canada was broken up into hundreds of indigenous territories. Between 1871 and 1921, the British Crown would enter into 11 treaties with some of these territories. These treaties would grant European settlers access to natural resources and give them rights of settlement in exchange for farming tools and financial compensation. However, very little of this compensation was ever forthcoming.
In conjunction with these breaches of contract, the United Kingdom parliament would add further insult to injury when, in 1876, they passed the Indian Act which was described in a recent article from The Guardian as:
“A piece of wide-ranging legislation that imposed strict control over the lives of Indigenous peoples. They were made to live on reserves and couldn’t leave without permission. Also under the Indian Act, children were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to live in institutions that had the explicit aim of stripping away their culture, language and identity.”
So, just how was this accomplished?
To begin with, we feel that it is worth reiterating that attending these institutions was not optional. Indigenous children were rounded up and sent, almost always against the will of their parents, to boarding schools all across the country. Schools that proudly boasted the motto “Kill the Indian. Save the child”. Children would be deliberately placed in schools that were so far away from their homes that it would be almost impossible for their parents to visit them.
A six-year-old boy, Jack Kruger, remembers being collected from his house one day by a police officer and a priest. He was taken to the train station and loaded onto a cattle cart with a group of other children before making the 300-mile journey to his new school. In his words: “When you’re a little boy, you couldn’t do nothing. You couldn’t say nothing. The priests had so damn much power. It’s incredible,”
In an interview for a documentary, another survivor of the boarding school system talks about what it was like to be taken from her home:
“That dreadful much talked about day in September finally came, when my two brothers and I were taken from our home to attend a residential school. I was seven years old. My parents had tried to prepare us for this by telling us that we would be going off to school so we could get good jobs as adults. Knowing what I know now, I wish that I had hidden so that they could not have found me. A white man went from home to home telling parents that he had come to take the children. That afternoon, 25 five- to twelve-year-old children were taken from their parents. We were taken to the train station, each of us with a little burlap bag for a suitcase. There we waited for the train to take us to Pelican Lake Indian Residential School in Ontario, 800 km away. When we were getting on the train, papa and mama pretended to be happy and laughed to make us feel happy. I was not happy. I have never forgotten looking out of the train window and seeing my parents crying. There they stood, left behind and powerless to do anything as they watched the train leave the station with their children.”
In some cases, parents were not even informed when their children were taken. An account from one man tells how he and his brother were walking to visit their grandmother when a car pulled up next to them and the priest inside offered them a ride. Initially, they refused but eventually agreed when he offered to take them for ice cream on the way. After eating the promised ice cream, both boys fell asleep in the back of the car for several hours and, when they woke up, they had been driven to one of the schools.
Once the children had arrived at these institutions, the priests and nuns immediately set about divesting them of vestiges of their indigenous identities. Their heads were shaved, they were given uniforms and were no longer allowed to use their given names’, instead being referred to only by number. In addition to this, they were completely forbidden to speak their native language and any child who did was severely punished.According to ‘Alsena White’, a former student of the Blue Quills Indian Residential School: “Speaking Cree was forbidden at the school. The punishment was being beaten with a strap, scolded and made to miss a meal.”
In an interview with Al Jazeera, she speaks about just how strictly this was enforced. Although her parents were permitted to visit her two or three times a year, these meetings were always incredibly awkward as her parents spoke very little English and, with a nun or priest standing nearby, it was impossible for her to communicate with them in Cree.
Another story tells of a six-year-old boy who, when caught speaking Cree to his brother, was forced to kneel on a broom handle for several hours whilst a priest periodically beat him with a bamboo cane and forced him to pray for forgiveness.
There are even reports of one school using a home-made electric chair to punish children.
In police files obtained by CBC News, which describe many of the appalling atrocities committed at the Saint Anne’s School: “One former student said she was put in the chair and shocked until she passed out. Another said he was told he had to sit in the chair if he wanted to speak to his mother.”
One survivor, in an interview with police on Feb. 27, 1993, said “two lay brothers made the students stand in a circle holding on to the armrests as one student sat in the chair. One of the brothers flicked the switch. “It felt like a whole bunch of needles going up your arms,” the former student said. “The two brothers started to laugh … and shocked us again. I then started to cry because it really hurts.”
According to these same files: “Nuns, priests and lay brothers would hit students with large straps, small whips, beaver snare wire, boards, books, rulers, yardsticks, fists and open hands.”
There are even stories of children being force fed spoiled meat and fish until they vomited. After which, they were then forced to eat their own vomit.
Tragically, this is not the only form of abuse that these children suffered. As is far too common in such institutions, thousands of children were subjected to horrific sexual abuse.
In some of the schools, this was an almost daily occurrence.One survivor wrote: “Even on Saturdays when we were allowed out to play in the yard, none of us would truly relax and play until about 10 am. At this time, one of the brothers would come out onto the third-floor balcony, blow a whistle and call out a number. The corresponding boy would then be expected to make his way upstairs and everybody knew that he would be the brother’s entertainment for the rest of the day.At that point, everybody else could relax. We knew that we were safe, at least for a short while. There was no question as to what was happening up there, we had all been through it before. They told us that it was punishment for our sins.”
Another survivor tells a story of how she was restrained with a straight jacket and molested by a nun during her first period.According to her account, the nun started to rub her breasts and stomach before moving down between her legs. When this girl tried to resist, “A confused angry look came over [the nun’s] face” and the nun said, “You know the devil’s inside you”, and that they had to get the devil out. It was at this point that she was placed in the straitjacket and the nun continued her assault.
In many cases, students were at as much risk from their peers as they were from members of staff. As regular followers of the Casual Criminalist will know, it is extremely common for children who have been abused to go on to abuse others. In many cases, members of staff would actively encourage this student-on-student abuse and, if they did not encourage it then they almost always turned a blind eye.
One survivor who attended Saint Annes during the 1960’s would later tell investigators how an older student lured him into the basement on one occasion with the promise of a surprise: “I thought it was gonna be a good surprise like a cake or something.” When he arrived, he was greeted by a group of 40 or 50 students. After he was severely beaten by about 15 of them, they bound his hands and feet before putting a rope around his neck. They then split in to two groups, one of them pulling his feet and the other pulling the rope around his neck. He was only able to prevent his neck from being broken by grabbing onto the rope with his bound hands, but the worst was yet to come. One of the students threw the rope around his neck over a pipe that ran along the ceiling, and he was lifted off the ground until he fell unconscious. “When I came to, all the boys were gone. The rope was taken off by … the supervisor”. He was taken to the hospital, ointment was applied to the marks on his neck, and he was sent back to class wearing a neck collar. At no point did either the supervisor or the nun who treated his injuries ask him what had happened.
Unsurprisingly, many children would attempt to escape this hell and, again unsurprisingly, those who were caught were treated brutally. There are stories of these children being locked away in dark basements for days, there are stories of the children being caged outside in freezing temperatures until they became hypothermic and there are stories of children being literally beaten to death.
With such levels of abuse and neglect, deaths among the students were incredibly common. One report claims that child deaths in these institutions was up to 20 times higher than the national average. It is these deaths that lead to perhaps the most disturbing and psychologically damaging thing that these poor children were forced to do.
According to testimony given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), which was formed in 2008 in part to unearth the true scale of what went on at the schools, children were regularly forced to dig graves for their classmates. In fact, it was the discovery of unmarked mass graves within the grounds of former boarding schools that helped to bring this hitherto mostly suppressed tragedy out into the open. As of the 1st August 2021, more than 1,300 graves have been detected with ground penetrating radar at just four of the 139 former schools. As more investigations are carried out, it is predicted that this number will be proven to be only a drop in the ocean and will far exceed the official number of 4,120 registered deaths throughout this time.
Although the last of the schools was finally closed in 1998, the repercussions of the abuse that was carried out are still felt to this day. According to one survivor: “Alcoholism amongst us is very common. Many of us suffer from serious anger issues as a result of what was done to us and many of us [struggle] to maintain normal relationships later in life.”
He would go on to say that suicide rates among survivors is considerably higher than average.
Although initially the Canadian Government was reluctant to apologise for its role in this cultural genocide, on 8th January, 1998, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Jane Stewart delivered a written apology to Phil Fontaine who was, at that time, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Stewart said:
“One aspect of our relationship with Aboriginal people over this period that requires particular attention is the Residential School system. This system separated many children from their families and communities and prevented them from speaking their own languages and from learning about their heritage and cultures. In the worst cases, it left legacies of personal pain and distress that continue to reverberate in Aboriginal communities to this day. Tragically, some children were the victims of physical and sexual abuse… To those of you who suffered this tragedy at residential schools, we are deeply sorry.”
As previously mentioned, the Canadian government would go onto set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in order to both discover the entire truth and to attempt to support and compensate remaining survivors.Interestingly, when, in 2018 the Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau made a direct appeal to The Pope for an apology for the part that the Catholic Church played in these atrocities, the Pope declined.
Bishop Lionel Gendron, who is president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote in an open letter to Canada’s Indigenous people an explanation for The Pope’s refusal to apologize: “After carefully considering the request and extensive dialogue with the Bishops of Canada, he felt that he could not personally respond”. It would not be until July 2022 that Pope Francis would issue an official apology while on a visit to Canada:
“I am sorry. I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples”
However, the majority of indigenous people believe that no form of apology can even begin to make up for what was done to these innocent children. As a side note, although The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report lists over 38,000 instances of abuse, fewer than 50 people have ever been convicted for these crimes.
With the history of abuse going back more than 100 years, it is unfortunately highly unlikely that we will ever know the full story. However, by telling as much of it as we do know, we can do our best to ensure that nothing like this is ever permitted to happen again.