The Residential Schools
“What I got from this experience was violence, suffering and suicidal thoughts, which led me to abuse drugs and alcohol. It totally changed my life.”
A Painful History Around the beginning of the 1830s, representatives from the federal government and religious congregations visited reserves and First Nations communities in order to inform parents that the State wished to take charge of their children. They told the parents that their children would be taken care of, that they would be educated and that they would learn a trade, all at no cost. Thus, at the age of five or six, young children were separated from their parents for several months, if not several years. An unknown number of these children died in the residential schools. The goal of the schools was to assimilate the First Nations as quickly as possible to the dominant culture of the country – to “kill the Indian in the child.” Throughout Canada, approximately 130 residential schools were in operation between 1874 and 1996.
What did they learn in these residential schools? The priests and nuns did not teach them their language or their own beliefs. As was the case in western schools, the children learned the history of Canada, geography, mathematics, catechism, science, French and English. The priests and nuns taught them catechism, and the children were also required to participate in all religious activities, including Mass, Christmas and Easter celebrations, etc. In addition, the children had to receive their first communion and confirmation. Discipline was omnipresent in the residential schools. There were very strict rules for dressing, meals, sports, hygiene, daily routines, etc.
“The education system imposed by the British changed the culture and lifestyle of the First Nations peoples.”
What were living conditions like? Not only did the children have to learn a whole new culture, but they also had to adapt to a lifestyle that was completely different from their own. They had to follow a very strict routine from the moment they got up right until bedtime. As far as food was concerned, the meals were the same day after day, from one week to the next. They were not particularly nutritional compared with the meals for the priests and nuns. With regard to hygiene, the children were required to wash themselves with bleach to whiten their skin. They also suffered psychological, physical and sexual abuse. They were told to keep quiet and were threatened with much worse treatment if they ever spoke of what had happened.