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February 19, 2024

A First Nations Perspective 15

By Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith

The Impact of Policy on Aboriginal Education:

The education of Canadian First Nations people was not always fraught with the difficulties and tragedies it is known for. Instead it was the problematic policies introduced during and leading up to the residential school era that cemented the decline and infamy of the state of Aboriginal education. Fortunately, although the current phase of education is entangled with an intergenerational legacy of pain, we are moving forward, away from a system devoid of Indigenous knowledge and worldview. My paper will first examine how First Nations education used to be, secondly how it changed when certain policies were implemented into the system and produced schools of thought and knowledge that did not reflect or represent Indigenous worldviews, and lastly what current strategies and initiatives are being implemented to regain the control over our education today.

Schools and schooling have been at the heart of relations between First Nations people and the settler society for centuries. When our leaders first looked at education in pre-Confederation times, it was initially supported. According to the article "Ojibwa Participation in Methodist Residential Schools in Upper Canada, 1828-1860," written by Hope MacLean

"Ojibwa leaders of Upper Canada participated enthusiastically in the formation of two pre-Confederation Methodist residential schools, Alnwick (at Alderville) and Mount Elgin (at Munceytown)." (MacLean 93)

Originally, before the arrival of the settler societies, methods of education varied from nation to nation and were tailored to self-identified needs and customs. Canadian historian J.R. Miller defines what education means stating,

"Education aims, first, to explain to the individual members of a community who they are, who their people are, and how they relate to other peoples and to the physical world about them. Secondly, an educational system seeks to train young people in the skills they will need to be successful and productive members of their bands, city-states, countries, or empires in later life." (Miller 15)

However, various educational practices of First Nations communities did share a common or homogeneous method for instruction.

"The common elements in Aboriginal education were the shaping of behavior by positive example in the home, the provision of subtle guidance towards desired forms of behavior through use of games, a heavy reliance on the use of stories for didactic purposes, and, as the child neared early adulthood, the utilization of more formal and ritualized ceremonies to impart rite of passage lessons with due solemnity." (Miller 17)

They also emphasized "an approach to instruction that relied on the three Ls -- looking, listening, and learning." (Miller 16) This approach often began in childhood, where "Proper behavior was instilled largely by indirect and non-coercive means, in striking contrast to European child rearing techniques." (Miller 18)

Also, in the case of people identified within an Aboriginal society as being destined to be political or spiritual leaders, more specialized and structured methods were used. Again, this approach was reflective on the individual needs of the community and the different economies of the nations.

"Not surprisingly, the educational system of the Aboriginal peoples of the northern portion of North America was admirably suited to the structures and values of those indigenous communities. It operated in a largely non-coercive way, relying on the use of models, illustrations, stories, and warnings to convey the information that was considered essential." (Miller 35)

This reflected the high value that most Native societies placed on individual autonomy and avoidance of the use of force with members of the community. It is a great example of how the content of Aboriginal education reflected and reinforced the community's interests as much as its techniques.

Two First Nations leaders stand out when examining the transference of educational responsibilities from within the community to an outside entity, Peter Jones and John Sunday. Peter Jones was an influential young Methodist missionary from the Credit River Band. He converted to Christianity at the age of twenty-one, and two years later began his missionary career as a Methodist preacher. Jones was successful in converting his own Ojibwa band and other Ojibwa-speaking bands around Lakes Huron and Superior. In 1833 Jones was ordained and became the first Native Methodist missionary in Canada. He was trained by the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society and become a teacher, interpreter, and missionary. (Peter Jones biography) John Sunday was a Mississauga Ojibwa chief and a Methodist minister. He was ordained in 1836 and became a missionary among the Indians of central Canada. (Alderville First Nation website)

Kahkewaquonaby (Peter Jones) and Shahwundais (John Sunday) played integral roles in lobbying and funding the first Methodist-run schools and paid for these schools through their own annuities. The period from 1825 to 1835 was a time of unique influence for Aboriginal people in the Methodist Church. It was during this period that many Aboriginal peoples became members of the Methodist congregation, and the Methodists maintained nine mission stations and eleven day schools for those who converted.

"The day schools were remarkable for such practices as use of Ojibwa teachers, bilingual education, use of Ojibwa language texts, and adoption of the Infant School or Pestalozzi system, a teaching method chosen to suit Native learning styles. The schools were regarded as training grounds for Ojibwa teachers and missionaries, with the most academically talented students sent on to advanced education in Methodist colleges." (MacLean 97)

In addition to day schools, the Methodists also experimented with a second type of schooling for adults, which the author names as "Reserve communities." (MacLean 97) As the Ojibwa began to settle onto Reserves, the Methodists began to teach them farming and trades such as carpentry, blacksmithing and crafts. Notably, the Methodists were not the only group doing this. They competed vigorously with the Indian Department and the Church of England, who offered similar programs on some Reserves.

The third type of schooling was the residential school, and these began shortly after the first day schools. The goal of these schools was to send the students as teachers to other Reserves. Peter Jones and William Case, another Methodist missionary, felt that schooling was central to the Ojibwa's future. Jones saw Manual Labour Schools as fitting into what he was doing with the Methodist's schools because he thought "They would supplement the work of the day schools which did not give enough practical instruction in trades and agriculture."(MacLean 98)

The situation for these pre-Confederation residential schools was quite different from the later residential schools run after the 1850s when things turned negative. Soon though, their enthusiasm dissipated, calling into question what could have gone wrong? The beginning of the end can be traced back to 1860 when jurisdiction over Indian affairs was transferred from the British Imperial government in London to Canada (Canada, Public Archives 1975:1-2). "This introduced a new set of actors into Indian administration, and led to a made in Canada Indian policy after Confederation." (MacLean 94)

The era of residential schooling was the product of a peculiar new relationship that developed between Natives and newcomers in the nineteenth century. The arrival of an age of peace, immigration, and agriculture in British North America brought about the shift in relations that explains the effort of state and church to assimilate Aboriginal communities through residential schools. The rationale behind this change in relationship was that "The fundamental factor was that the Indians were no longer essential to the realization of the goals that non-Natives were pursuing in North America." (Miller 62)

Therefore Residential schools were established under the guise that First Nations society were unable to adapt to a rapidly modernizing world, and European colonizers believed that Native children could only be successful if they assimilated into mainstream Canadian society by adopting Christianity. This included relinquishing their culture, traditions and languages.

The policies that were introduced were in response to the changing role and image of the Indian by the state and church. This change reflected the decline in the military importance of the role in which Natives had previously played.

"Crucial to the process was a shift in responsibility that occurred in the interior colonies of Lower and Upper Canada in 1830: jurisdiction over the management of Indian affairs shifted from military to civil authorities." (Miller 63)

In the 19th century, the Canadian government believed that they were responsible for educating and caring for the country's aboriginal people. They believed that their best chance for success was to learn English and adopt Christianity and Canadian customs. It was the government's objective that First Nations people would pass their adopted lifestyle on to their children, and native traditions would diminish, or be completely abolished in a few generations. The vision and implementation for more residential schools continued.

"Residential schools were federally run, under the Department of Indian Affairs. Attendance was mandatory. Agents were employed by the government to ensure all native children attended."(CBC website) The government felt children were easier to mould than adults, and the concept of a boarding school was the best way to prepare them for life in mainstream society. The goals of assimilation were to be through evangelization, education and agriculture, and there were more coercive methods of achieving this goal.

This 'aggressive assimilation' was taught through other policies such as the abolishment of self-government and the implementation of traditional government with municipal government, and gave the Department of Indian Affairs the "power to make and enforce regulations under the acts affecting all aspects of public and private life in communities. Aboriginal traditions, ritual life, social and political organization, or economic practices could be described as obstacles to Christianity and civilization or could be declared by Parliament, as in the case of potlatch and sun dance, criminal behavior." (Milloy 21)

This "aggressive assimilation" that was developed was taught at church-run, government-funded industrial schools, later called residential schools. The Residential School policy was also in support of the Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of Indian Tribes in this Province, and to Amend the Laws Relating to Indians (commonly known as the Gradual Civilization Act). It was a bill that was passed in 1857. Duncan Campbell Scott, who as the head of the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, infamously stated, "I want to get rid of the Indian problem," spurred this policy on further. "I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand-alone. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill." (Residential School website) the 'Euthanasia of savage communities.'

Initially, about 1,000 students attended 69 schools across the country. "In 1931, at the peak of the residential school system, there were about 80 schools operating in Canada. There were a total of about 130 schools in every territory and province except Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick from the earliest in the 19th century to the last which closed in 1996." (CBC website)

The government and church's role in the apprehension of Native children began with their desire to segregate the children from their families, discouraging them from speaking their first language or practicing native traditions, not being allowed to speak the language they knew. As an example of this, I turn to a personal account from the book In the Words Of Elders: Aboriginal Cultures in Transition, where Elder Liz Mosher relays,

"I was there for four years and that was enough for me. I never really learned anything but I think what happened was that's where all the abuse started. That's where I got my first licking. And one of the things is, I couldn't speak a word of English when I went there and I think the second week we were there I got a licking because one of the girls lost her candy, someone stole her candy, she blamed someone. I was the one who was blamed." (P. Kulchyski, D. McCaskill, D. Newhouse 143)

Parental visits were also discouraged and recruitment of children from more remote areas was favored because their families could not visit them. In fact, Reverend John West who ran the Red River school noted that he had trouble with children whose parents were in or near the settlement, but all children "whose parents were more remote, soon became reconciled to restraint, and were happy on the establishment," (Miller 70)

Native children were also often caught unaware of where they were going when they were sent off to residential schools. Mosher further relays an account of when she first went to residential school and was leaving her reserve:

"That was new, different to me, and because I never had contact with White people until that bus came to get the children to go to residential school. And here I thought I was going for a ride because I'd never been in a car before. I never travelled off the reserve. So it was really exciting for me, but I was wondering why my mother was crying when we were getting on the bus. I didn't know where I was going." (P. Kulchyski, D. McCaskill, D. Newhouse 144)

Of all the initiatives that were undertaken in the first century of Confederation, none was more ambitious or central to the civilizing strategy of the Department, to its goal of assimilation, than the implementation of the residential school system.

This brings me now to what went wrong.

"Even though Ottawa was contributing to the upkeep of more than fifty industrial institutions, boarding schools and homes that also provided some education, clearly there was considerable doubt in government circles that these schools were making the progress predicted when they were established in the early 1800s." (Miller 121)

It was noted that there was difficulty experienced when it came to recruiting children and it was this difficulty and the way the government executed this assimilationist policy, which made residential schools and how they were run come under fire.

"Although the federal government was legally responsible for the education of status Indian children, in fact many other parties were involved. Charged constitutionally with jurisdiction over 'Indians and lands reserved for the Indians' by the Canada Act (1867), Ottawa in the 1880s and 1890s developed an administrative team to discharge this duty." (Miller 122) With the many people involved in carrying out this education policy through the implementation of the residential schools it was reported that "When it came to developing, carrying out, and reporting on policy for both day and residential schools, a bewildering number of additional figures entered the picture. These included local schoolteachers and other staff, church officials and lay people, and simple citizens and their elected representatives in parliament or the territorial legislature. All these people could and did stimulate, alter and sometimes thwart Ottawa's policy for Native education." (Miller 122)

The residential school system was fraught with substandard conditions and atrocities. Students endured physical and emotional abuse. There were also many allegations of sexual abuse. "The students at the residential schools rarely had opportunities to see examples of normal family life. They were in school 10 months a year, away from their parents. All correspondence from the children was written in English, which many parents couldn't read. Brothers and sisters at the same school rarely saw each other, as all activities were segregated by gender." (CBC website).

Reactions and impacts to residential schools came in many forms. Native parents were reluctant to send or make their children available.

"For many survivors, the first trauma they endured was the sudden separation from their parents and family. Leaving behind the familiar world in which they had been raised, children suddenly found themselves far from home, confronting a new culture, language and role expectations without any support whatsoever." (Dion Stout, Kipling 30)

Furthermore, when students returned to the reserve after residential schooling was done, they often found they did not belong. They did not have the skills to help their parents and became ashamed of their native heritage. It is here that "The aims of assimilation meant devastation for those who were subjected to years of mistreatment." (CBC website)

"With the period since 1969 being marked by a growing trend towards Aboriginal self determination in matters of education, most remaining residential schools ceased operations by the mid-1970s. Only seven such schools were still open at the end of the 1980s and the last federally run residential school closed its doors in Saskatchewan in 1996. "(Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, n.d.)

In May 1946, a special joint committee of the House of Commons and the Senate began an extensive review of Indian Affairs for the purpose of preparing amendments to the Indian Act. It was during the meeting of this committee that it was announced, "residential schools were to be closed." (Milloy190) With this announcement the residential school road came to an end.

It was in 1990 that Phil Fontaine, then leader of the Association of the Manitoba Chiefs called for the churches involved to acknowledge the physical, emotional and sexual abuse endured by students at the schools. Fontaine was a survivor of the residential school system. A year later, the government convened a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, where many people told the commission about their experiences within the residential school system and in 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) recommended a separate inquiry into residential schools. This was never followed through on, but over the years "the government worked with the Anglican, Catholic, United and Presbyterian churches, which ran residential schools, to design a plan to compensate the former students." (CBC website)

It was in 2007 when the federal government formalized a $1.9 billion compensation package for those who were forced to attend residential schools. Under the federal compensation package, "compensation called the Common Experience Payments was made available to all residential schools students who were alive as of May 30, 2005. Former residential school students were eligible for $10,000 for the first year or part of a year they attended school, plus $3,000 for each subsequent year. Any money remaining from the $1.9 billion package will be given to foundations that support learning needs of aboriginal students. As of April 15, 2010, $1.55 billion had been paid, representing 75,800 cases." (CBC website) Lastly acceptance of the Common Experience Payment releases the government and churches from all further liability relating to the residential school experience, except in cases of sexual abuse and serious incidents of physical abuse.

On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Harper delivered an official apology to residential school students in Parliament. His apology in part states:

"I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian residential schools. In the 1870s, the federal government partly in order to meet its obligation to educate aboriginal children, began to play a role in the development and administration of these schools.

The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history.

Two primary objectives of the residential schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture.

These objectives were based on the assumption aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal.

Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, "to kill the Indian in the child."

Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.

Most schools were operated as "joint ventures" with Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian or United churches.

The government of Canada built an educational system in which very young children were often forcibly removed from their homes, often taken far from their communities.

Many were inadequately fed, clothed and housed.

All were deprived of the care and nurturing of their parents, grandparents and communities.

First Nations, Inuit and Métis languages and cultural practices were prohibited in these schools. Tragically, some of these children died while attending residential schools and others never returned home.

The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian residential schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language." (CBC website)

Initiatives that came out of this $1.9 billion package was the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to examine the legacy of the residential schools. The commission was established on June 1, 2008 and is chaired by Justice Murray Sinclair.

Sinclair has stated that the scope of the task confronting Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is enormous and unprecedented. He also believes that "Canada's TRC is unique from other commissions around the world in that its scope is primarily focused on the experience of children, and that not only does its research span more than 100 years, it is also the first court-ordered truth commission to be established." (Anishinabek News) As part of their mandate, Sinclair said "commissioners will create an accurate and public historical record of the past regarding the policies and operations of the former residential schools, detailing what happened to the children who attended them and what former employees recall from their experiences." (Anishinabek News)

Public policy in the field of education expresses quite directly the changes in the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. "The process of repatriation of education back to First Nations control began with the National Indian Brotherhood publication of Indian Control of Indian Education (Matthews 2001; Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples 1996). In 1973, the federal government made an explicit 180-degree reversal of previous policy and accepted the principle of Indian Control of Indian Education. That year marked the beginning of an increasingly hands off attitude to the contents of education for students on reserves. In 1974, the federal government started to fund band-operated schools and the number of federally directly operated schools began to decline. This process has, in fits and starts, continued to this day."(Mendelson 3)

Today, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada funds band councils or other First Nations, and education authorities pay for education from kindergarten through to adult learners for people resident on reserves. "Federal funding pays for students normally resident on reserve to attend schools (whether the schools are on-or off-reserve); student support services such as transportation, counselling, accommodation and financial assistance; and school administration and evaluation. Funding is through several types of agreements, with varying degrees of autonomy for First Nations." (Mendelson, 7)

Issues regarding education changed dramatically from a process of a 'means to assimilation' to one of 'revitalization'. Within the document "Indian Control of Indian Education," for instance, the National Indian Brotherhood succinctly states "We want education to provide the setting in which our children can develop the fundamental attitudes and values which have an honoured place in Indian tradition and culture. We want the behavior of our children to be shaped by those values which are most esteemed in our culture. It is important that Indian children have a chance to develop a value system which is compatible with Indian culture." (National Indian Brotherhood 1972)

Education is an important tool for everyone to use, and for our First Nations communities and leaders, to be able to decide and have control over their own education is integral to the healing from the residential school legacy. In an important document "Tradition and Education: Towards a Vision of the Future" by the Assembly of First Nations (the successor organization to the National Indian Brotherhood) argues that "education is one of the most important issues in the struggle for self government and must contribute towards the objective of self government. First Nations' governments have the right to exercise their authority in all areas of First Nations education. Until First Nations education institutions are recognized and controlled by First Nations governments, no real First Nations education exists." (Brant Castellano, Davis, Lahache 15)

Aboriginal people have been struggling for three decades to regain control of education. In the 1990s there was many efforts to rethink Aboriginal education and to articulate, "what is Aboriginal" about Aboriginal education. There have been case studies that share experiences of innovative practice -- challenging existing systems, creating new designs and strategies, and translating hopes and dreams into realities. They affirm that Aboriginal education is more than an abstraction. It is made real in the daily acts and decisions of thousands of Aboriginal Elders, parents and educators who bring particular values, knowledge and ideas to the development of children. (Brant Castellano, Davis, Lahache)

This has come through in the establishment of First Nations specific schools, language classes and Aboriginal Studies programs within Western institutions such as the University of Toronto, University of Western Ontario, Nipissing University, McMaster University, Lakehead University, Brock University and First Nations University. Other initiatives include "The Reforming First Nation Education Initiative" which supports improved educational outcomes for First Nations students. The initiative will shape future directions in education program reform through two proposal-based programs: "the First Nations Student Success Program and the Education Partnerships Program. For the first year of submissions under the Reforming First Nation Education Initiative, the department approved a total of 37 proposals from across Canada: 18 for the First Nation Student Success Program and 19 for the Education Partnerships Program." (Indian and Northern Affairs website)

The selected projects according to Indian and Northern Affairs as well as new ones funded in subsequent rounds of the program, will help to promote collaboration between First Nations, provinces, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), and other stakeholders. The First Nation Student Success Program is described as being " designed to support First Nation educators on reserve (Kindergarten to Grade 12) in their ongoing efforts to meet their students' needs and improve student and school results. In particular, the program will help First Nation educators to plan and make improvements in the three priority areas of literacy, numeracy and student retention." The Education Partnerships Program is designed to promote collaboration among First Nations, provinces, the Government of Canada and other stakeholders in order to improve the success of First Nation students in First Nation and provincial schools. It will do this through support for partnership arrangements, where First Nation and provincial officials share expertise and services, and partners coordinate learning initiatives.

In conclusion, the initial policies surrounding Aboriginal education was what initially had First Nations people struggling, within the Western construct of how education was determined and meted out, but with Aboriginal Studies programs now implemented, and the return of the teaching of Aboriginal knowledge, First Nations people are coming out from under a cloak of oppression and rising above a power that once threatened to engulf them.

Works Cited:

Alderville First Nation: John Sunday, Retrieved March 25, 2011.

Brant Castellano. Marlene, Davis. Lynne, Lahache. Louise. Aboriginal Education: Fulfilling the Promise. UBC Press. 2000

www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2008/06/11/pm-statement.html Public Apology

www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2008/05/16/f-faqs-residential-schools.html Retrieved March 23, 2011.

We Were Not the Savages (Duncan Campbell Scott info)

Kulchyski. Peter, McCaskill Don, Newhouse David. In The Words Of Elders: Aboriginal Cultures in Transition. University of Toronto Press. 1999. Reprinted 2003

McFarlane. Christine. "Truth Commission Facing Huge Task" Anishinabek News. January-February 2010. Pg. 30. Retrieved March 23, 2011.

Mendelson. Michael. Improving Educations on Reserves: A First Nations Education Authority Act. Retrieved March 24, 2011.

Miller. J.R. Shingwauk's Vision: A History of Residential Schools. University of Toronto Press Incorporated 1996. Reprinted 1997, 2000, 2003, 2006

Milloy. John S. A National Crime: The Canadian Government And The Residential School System. 1879 to 1986 The University of Manitoba Press. 1999

National Indian Brotherhood. 1972. Indian Control of Indian Education. Ottawa: National Indian Brotherhood.


Article © Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-05-18
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