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The Wildly Depressing History of Canadian Residential Schools

After hearings earlier this year revealed the use of an electric chair as a punishment device for Native children at residential schools, we looked into the horrifying and torturous history of Canada's sick attempt to solve the "Indian Problem."

Photo from a residential school off of Onion Lake in Ontario.

During the mid 1800’s Canada’s colonization was chugging along with the industrial age, and the thinkers of the day were turning their brainpower towards the pesky task of how to deal with the “Indian Problem.” In 1841, Herman Charles Merivale, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies (who doesn’t look like he would be a bad guy to smoke cigars and sip sherry with), established and executed a concoction of his four policies on the subject: Extermination, slavery, insulation and assimilation. All of these were wrapped tidily up in the Residential School system.


These government funded, church-run institutions, literally stole children from their families, brought them to places thousands of kilometres away from their homes, physically, mentally and sexually abused them, deliberately contaminated them with tuberculosis, and decimated their sense of self, their sense of heritage and culture, all in some backwards attempt to assimilate them into good, Christian Canadians.

Testifying in Fort Albany, a former female student at St. Anne’s put it like this:

“I remember the day when we were taken away. These officials came from the government, and they would just come and pick up the children, not explaining what they were going to do to us… and to not know where we were going to go. There was children crying… yelling, screaming. It was a very difficult time. Especially when you’re taken to a place… and to the people that you do not understand when they’re speaking to you. Little did I know that what was going to happen in there, was going to effect my whole life.”

This good Christian influence and forced civility upon the ‘Indians’ resulted in nothing but a legacy of sickness. 3000 children were confirmed dead. Unmarked graves uncovered in locations from Cape Breton, to Brantford, Ontario, to Alert Bay, British Columbia. And in Alberta, the “sexual sterilization act”, subjected Metis and native women to a policy of having their fallopian tubes removed.


Earlier this year, in Fort Albany, Ontario, a small community on the west coast of James Bay, 1000 kilometres north of Toronto, survivors gathered at a Truth and Reconciliation hearing to tell stories of having lived through an ‘education’ at St. Anne’s Residential School.

Living in North Bay, I was hearing a lot on the radio about these hearings taking place in Fort Albany, and one particular image stuck with me. At St. Anne’s, an electric chair was used on children.

Former Chief of the Fort Albany First Nation and victim himself, Ed Metatawabin, who in a 1996 interview with the Globe and Mail spoke of being put into the electric chair at 6 years old (to entertain visiting ‘dignitaries’), chose to speak at the hearing.

Here is some of what he relayed happening at St. Anne’s:

Girls were sexually abused and raped. Boys were forced to masturbate while wearing plastic skirts and showering together. Children were stropped, beaten with all manner of objects and were put in the electric chair; for punishment, for no reason at all and for simple entertainment. Children were forced to eat their own days old vomit.

There were one hundred and thirty residential schools in Canada. That is an account from one individual, at one school. One hundred and fifty thousand children went through these schools over a period of over one hundred and thirty years. The first school was opened in the 1830’s, and the last closed its doors in the distant year of 1996.


In 2008, Stephen Harper read an apology from a piece of paper on behalf of hundreds of years of Federal Governments regarding their treatment of Aboriginal people. After a bunch of twattish preamble, patting himself and the Minster of Indian Affairs, as well as Jack Layton and a few others on the back, he then cites this as a “sad chapter” in Canadian history. Although decent and seemingly honestly written, Harper gives a dry, almost self-righteous delivery of the apology, switching between English and broken French, his dead shark eyes glancing from page to nothing, and back to nothing again.

Along with setting aside a billion and a bit dollars for a “common experience payment”, meant for the 80,000 still living victims of Residential schools - with this apology came the introduction of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Justice Murray Sinclair standing in front of some nice looking art.

Led by Justice Murray Sinclair, the commission seeks to record the experiences and consequences of Residential Schools in over 300 communities, with the objective of healing, but also to attempt to bring a more prominent awareness to Canadians of the horror inflicted by our leaders.

As Justice Sinclair said in his opening statement in Fort Albany, “Because Canada needs to have a mirror held up to it. To know what it is that it has done, and what it has tried to do.”

With all the shit they have been forced to endure over the centuries, it’s no wonder that the youngest and fastest growing population in Canada carries with it some of the most problematic social issues.


But this population, once subdued and systemically disenfranchised, is also becoming one of the most prominent, outspoken and active groups in the country. And, all things considered, the government and general establishment should probably consider themselves lucky that things have never gotten uglier, sooner. Put in perspective, Idle No More is an extremely civil show of unrest considering how inhumanely First Nations people have been treated for centuries.

Former Northern director of the CBC, and fellow Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner alongside Murray Sinclair, Marie Wilson, was quoted in Montreal last week as saying that Canadians are “comfortably blind”, when it comes to facing our history of Residential Schools.

All you need to do is read the comments on certain mainstream newspapers stories on aboriginal affairs to realize the extent of the ignorance. Racism still exists in Canada. The overriding sentiment seems to be one of simply, “Get over it.” But a problem that took hundreds of years to create cannot be reconciled with money and apologies.

The legacy of residential schools doesn’t just belong to governments of the past and the First Nations who endured them. It belongs to all of us. And everyone needs to start acknowledging that.

Follow Dave on Twitter: @ddner

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