Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 5, 2005
Native schools aimed to 'civilize'
Religious orders went along with government plans for residential schools
By JULIETTE CHAMPAGNE
Special to the WCR
"Civilizing" the First Nations peoples was very much the intention of the Canadian government when it ratified the treaties west of the Great Lakes after 1871. The mandate of the missionaries was also imperialistic and paternalistic; conversion to Christianity at that time also meant adopting the ways of Western civilization.
Despite these views, the members of the First Nations knew that education was the key to the protection of their rights, and they insisted that schools be included in the treaty concessions. In consequence, a steady source of funding from the federal government became available for schools. Before this, most of the benefactors were from abroad, and funding usually dried up in the aftermath of wars and revolutions.
Bishop Vital Grandin had noted that it was more effective to educate Indian children along with Métis children, whose affinity to Western culture and familiarity with the indigenous ways eased the Indian children's cultural shock, and facilitated their learning process and acculturation.
Metis rights extinguished
The Oblates' first Catholic residential schools within present-day Alberta, established at St. Albert and at the mission at Lac La Biche, were based on this principle. However, the Scrip Settlements of 1870 extinguished the aboriginal rights of the Métis and the government-subsidized schools were intended only for Indian children.
As a result, the Oblates abandoned their well-intended plan in order to continue the schooling of Indian children, who were, to a great extent, Catholic.
Because of the great distances and the few existing institutions, children resided at the schools, as was done in many schools in Europe and in Eastern Canada at the time. Convenience was another factor which decided the location of federally funded schools.
When Bishop Grandin planned a larger school for Lac La Biche mission, the Department of Indian Affairs decided that it was too far from the reserves it would serve. All of the lumber which had been prepared for the construction was freighted over to Saddle Lake during the winter of 1898.
In 1931, this school was again relocated, closer to St. Paul, and renamed Blue Quills School. It became, in 1971, Canada's first indigenously controlled institution, which is now known as Blue Quills First Nations College. This change was long in coming, as the schools had been controlled by the Department of Indian Affairs, and the parents of the children who attended them had no say in the education of their children.
St. Albert, because of its proximity to Edmonton, was often visited by dignitaries, and was considered a model school. The first Indian school in what is today southern Alberta was St. Joseph's Indian Industrial School at Dunbow (near High River), established for the Blackfoot in 1884 and run by the Grey Nuns along with the Oblates.
Standoff residential school was opened in 1893, serving the Blood Reserve. It was moved to Cardston in 1926.
The Grey Nuns eventually managed six residential schools in Alberta. Two other women's communities also staffed residential schools. The Sisters of the Assumption, a community from Québec, came to Onion Lake in 1891, expanded to Hobbema in 1894, and St-Paul-des-Métis in 1896 (this last school was not federally funded, nor was it for Indian children, but was for Métis children.)
The Sisters of Providence, who eventually managed 11 schools in Alberta, opened St. Joseph's Residential School at Blackfoot Crossing in 1899. It was moved to Cluny in 1914 and eventually renamed Crowfoot Residential School.
In the Treaty Eight region of the province - most of the northwestern sector - federally funded residential schools only came into being after 1900. The missionaries had set up a few schools previous to this time, but they were impoverished.
St. Bernard Mission was established at Grouard in 1872, and the Sisters of Providence came to run it in 1894. Their tasks included cooking, cleaning, laundering and gardening for several hundred people, as well as teaching and supervising children. One sister did the daily baking for this group, all of it by hand.
For the 15 Indian children at St. Augustine Mission along the Peace River, in 1900, the federal government provided $72 a year for each child. This was very little money, and freight costs were high.
Some schools, such as the one at Fort Vermilion, Sturgeon Lake, Wabasca, and Assumption (now Chateh) were so isolated, that they could only receive supplies once or twice a year.
In 1935, a canonical visitor to the Oblates recommended that the order be given full control of all the Indian missions in Canada, including the schools, as following the creation of the dioceses of Calgary and Edmonton, their bishops were considering staffing the Indian schools with secular clergy and limiting the Oblates' role strictly to missions and reserves.
In his report, the superior general, Father Théodore Labouré, pointed out that taking away the residential schools would seriously compromise the Oblates' apostolic work on the reserves. Although it was never made official, they maintained their position as missionaries to the indigenous peoples.
But the inspection visit in many ways foreshadowed Vatican II, in the missionary field and as concerns the educational system. Labouré pointed out that the Oblates had become too complacent, satisfied to become administrators and principals, when it was essential that they observe their mandate, live amongst their charges and learn the native languages.
He reiterated an old Oblate's statement that "A missionary who did not know the language of his flock was like a soldier without a gun." As well, Labouré said their mission should not be to assimilate the students of the residential schools into the Western ways, but to promote Christianity, and that it should not be essential for Indians to abandon their culture and their language to do this.
Although most of the Oblates and the women's orders were French-speaking, English was the language taught in the schools, and the Department of Indian Affairs strictly forbade the use of the native languages. All staff had to learn English, and had to enforce the English-only rule with the children, undoubtedly a traumatic experience.
In some schools, the children also picked up French, which was for some of the children, particularly in the northern reaches of the province, already a second language. The canonical visitor also recommended the use of native languages in schools and the teaching of syllabics. The visit also renewed the Oblates' missionary work within the communities.
By the late 1950s, improvements in transportation began to make day schools on reserves possible, and during the sixties, religious communities gradually left the schools they had established to the care of lay personnel and their management to the Department of Indian Affairs.