Canadian residential school programs designed by settlers for Aboriginal and Indigenous peoples began appearing in the mid-late 19th century. For a large part of their history, attendance at residential schools was federally mandated in a large-scale effort to assimilate Aboriginal children. Separating children from parents was a fundamental part of the residential school system’s theory and practice. While adult Indigenous peoples were considered largely unalterable, preventing children from inheriting characteristics from their parents, community, and race would allow them to be ‘civilized’ through colonial curriculum. This thinking targeted inherited qualities without making a clear distinction between race and ethnicity. We now know that race is socially constructed, and that racial categories are largely genetically arbitrary. As such, eugenic policies that target race end up eliminating ethnic rather than genetic diversity. Canada’s residential schools worked to eliminate languages, religions, and worldviews through assimilative education.
Residential schools proved fatal to many of their attendees. Disease and malnutrition were endemic. Between 1883 and 1907, 24% of residential school students died while in school or soon after leaving, most commonly of tuberculosis. Despite the Canadian government’s awareness of these statistics, it made no intervention. Recently, we have learned that in certain cases malnutrition was actively maintained for the purpose of nutritional experiments.
Colonial Schools to Current Institutionalization: A Brief History
Non-residential schools created by settlers for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children have been present since the 17th century, when missionary-run programs began operating in what is now Eastern Canada. The 1842 Bagot Commission, which examined the efficiency of Aboriginal education, recommended that a change be made from day schools to residential schools. A boarding school that linked labour and the English language would remove children from community influences early in life. In 1883, the federal government and Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches began entering into formal partnerships in the running of these schools. In 1939, 9027 students were attending Indian Residential Schools. By the mid-20th century, the Canadian government was slowly beginning to integrate Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal schools and curriculum. In 1969 the partnership between state and church was formally ended, and by 1986 all residential schools had either been closed or transferred to Aboriginal control.
The founding vision of the Indian Residential School system was to speed the racial and cultural ‘evolution’ of Indigenous peoples from barbarism to civilization through an assimilative program focused on the more malleable minds of children. Details from school curriculum and operating procedures have been brought to light by historical investigations such as The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. While institutions changed over their long histories, mandatory English (or French) and religious tutelage were cornerstones of the school programs, along with half days of industry or trade based labour, especially in the earlier half-century of the program. Speaking one’s native tongue was strictly prohibited, since its elimination was one further way to isolate children from community influences. ‘To kill the Indian in the child’ was the infamous goal of residential school operations, a phrase that points towards the inherently violent thinking in mandated assimilative education. One example of curriculum geared towards forced integration is an 1896 school unit entitled “Evils of Indian Isolation.”
As students had been removed from their communities at an early age and were not permitted to speak their first languages or practice traditions that diverged from their school’s denomination, when they returned to their homes as adults the effects of the residential schools became intergenerational. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has uncovered stories of abuse within the schools and suggested that many of the social problems facing First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities today can be traced back to the intergenerational trauma that stemmed from the severity of these programs. Even in the many cases where physical or sexual abuse was not present in a school, some students experienced trauma as a result of the forcibly severed ties between themselves and their heritage, language, tradition, and families. Many communities were fractured. Continued institutionalization of children and adults, through social work programs and the prison system, has thus perpetuated the marginalization of Indigenous peoples in Canada. However, current cultural and linguistic revitalization movements are challenging the effectiveness of what many Indigenous community members called “cultural genocide.”
Disease and Malnutrition in the Canadian Indian Residential Schools Program
Corporal discipline was a commonly used tool in the Indian Residential Schools Program, but its pupils faced other physical concerns as well. In the early 20th century, medical officer Dr. P.H. Bryce surveyed the health conditions of the Indian Residential School system in Canada and submitted his report to the Department of Indian Affairs (Milloy, 1999). In it he outlined concerns about tuberculosis rates and lack of preventive measures. He also commented on overall sanitation and nutrition, and gave a system wide death rate of 24% for pupils in attendance between 1883 and 1907.
Alarming health concerns were also present in the later years of the residential school program. Between 1942 and 1952, a team of Canadian physicians again identified food shortages and malnourishment as a problem in the residential school system and responded by selecting six schools in which to conduct five-year nutritional experiments (Mosby, 2013). Within the schools, some students received no change in their diets so that they could serve as a control group. Some students received vitamins or enriched foods, one of which was flour that ended up inducing anaemia. No students or parents were given the opportunity to provide informed consent, though this was not uncommon for the time period.
Conclusion: Canadian Colonial History and Eugenics
Canada’s colonial policies favoured cultural assimilation for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, as demonstrated explicitly by its system of residential schools. The attempt to eliminate First Nations, Métis, and Inuit culturally expressed characteristics through coercion and physical neglect and/or abuse has the same intended effect as eugenic practices controlling human reproduction. More directly, the Canadian government’s policy of neglect had fatal repercussions for the populations of children in its care. Through cultural assimilation, continued institutionalization, and population reduction, the colonial history of Canada’s Indian Residential School program demonstrates eugenic aims and values.
Aboriginal Healing Foundation. (n.d.). A Condensed Timeline of Residential-School Related Events. Residential School Resources. Retrieved July 25, 2011 from: http://www.ahf.ca/publications/residential-school-resources.
Assembly of First Nations. Residential Schools Unit. Retrieved July 26, 2011 from: http://www.afn.ca/index.php/en/policy-areas/indian-residential-schools-unit.
Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. Residential Schools. Report of the Royal Commission On Aboriginal Peoples. Retrieved July 25, 2011 from: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/webarchives/20071211055641/http://www.ai nc-inac.gc.ca/ch/rcap/sg/sg28_e.html.
Miller, J.R. (2000). Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens. Toronto: University of Toronto Press Incorporated.
Milloy, J. S. (1999). A National Crime : the Canadian government and the residential school system, 1879 to 1986. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.
Mosby, I. (2013). Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952. Histoire Sociale/Social History, 1, 145.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. About Us. Retrieved July 26, 2011 from: http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=4.
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