This archival photo shows a birthday party being held at Holy Angels Indian Residential School in Fort Chipewyan, Alta.


This archival photo shows a birthday party being held at Holy Angels Indian Residential School in Fort Chipewyan, Alta.

March 3, 2014

Catholic residential schools in northern Canada strove to preserve the traditional wilderness way of life, a leading Catholic educator wrote in a 1992 paper.

"The schooling provided in the North was based on the assumption that most Métis and Indian children would take up a life of hunting, trapping and fishing, and that the three Rs, while not essential to such a mode of living, would nonetheless give them certain advantages," wrote Dr. Robert Carney, an education professor at the University of Alberta.

Carney had served as a principal and superintendent of school programs in the Northwest Territories before becoming executive director of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees' Association and then moving on to the U of A. One of his four children is Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England. Dr. Carney died in 2009.

His paper, "Residential Schooling at Fort Chipewyan and Fort Resolution: 1874-1974," maintained that the schools saw the wilderness as being a continuing source of native subsistence and general well-being.

"Accounts by former students and others indicate that the schools' goals were in keeping with the circumstances of the time and the students' own preferences," Carney wrote.

The schools encouraged the relatively small number of students who attended them to adhere to their parents' Christian beliefs and follow their livelihoods as hunters and trappers, he said. In 1939, a maximum of 30 per cent of the eligible children attended the schools.

Those objectives, he continued, were "severely compromised" by government programs in the 1950s and 1960s which encouraged native students to abandon life on the land and to seek wage employment elsewhere.


Aboriginal languages were used to teach catechism in the schools at least through the 1930s, and students were encouraged to speak their native tongues in the schoolyard and other non-classroom contexts, he said.

"Until this time, the religious, child care and basic skill programs at Chipewyan and Resolution were largely compatible with the tenets of the native-wilderness equation."

Carney said classroom teaching by the religious sisters was seen as fair and effective. School inspectors and other visitors "invariably praised the sisters' teaching skills and the testimony of most former students is similarly appreciative."

Nevertheless, the French-speaking sisters faced great obstacles. Many did not speak English – the language of instruction – before coming north, and there was no encouragement for them to learn the native languages. Classroom discipline, he said, was strict.

Bishop Gabriel Breynat of the Vicariate of Mackenzie from 1902 to 1943 promoted the use of aboriginal languages in the schools and advocated practical programs involving bush skills. His pleas "fell on deaf ears" among government officials.


Carney said the situation changed when white settlers successfully pushed for integrated, non-sectarian schools to be established in Chipewyan and Resolution by the late 1930s. "Schooling arrangements based on the native-wilderness equation were rejected out-of-hand by these groups."

John Milloy, in his best-selling history of the residential schools, A National Crime, details federal government resistance to the native-wilderness approach to education.

Milloy quotes another historian who maintained that until after the Second World War the government had no interest in eliminating the hunting and trapping lifestyles of northern natives.

However, in the mid-1950s, the government began to speak in terms of modernizing, rather than eliminating, northern aboriginal culture. The goal was "to help them become better Indians and Eskimos," according to one document.

Despite the rhetoric, Milloy said, "assimilation was the norm. The rhetoric of cultural sensitivity and preservation was not in the end matched by the reality of the system itself."


Nor could the education system live up to that ideal, he continued, given the government's policy of promoting northern economic development and establishing permanent communities of people who had previously lived on the land.

He also quoted a memo by E.A. Coté, deputy minister of northern affairs, who pointed to the non-aboriginal future for residents of the North: "As attractive and as quaint as any aspect of culture may be, this does not justify an effort of freezing it into a state of perpetuity.

"It would indeed constitute an anachronism in this age and in this setting if we sought to maintain a stone-age culture, for example, among people who find themselves impinged on every side by wave upon wave of modern technology."

By this point, the native-wilderness equation was doomed even if, as Carney notes, Mr. Justice Thomas Berger temporarily reignited the dream in the mid-1970s with his famous report which led to the scuttling of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline.