Cultural Safety Module 1: Peoples Experiences of Colonization

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Residential Schools

Residential schools were established to expedite the assimilation of Aboriginal people, but they were ultimately unsuccessful. As summarized by Kelm, residential schools were "[p]redicated on the basic notion that the First Nations were, by nature, unclean and diseased, [and] residential schooling was advocated as a means to 'save' Aboriginal children from the insalubrious influences of home life on reserve."30 Ironically, the very reserve system that Aboriginal children needed "saving" from had been implemented by the Canadian government.

Many of today's Aboriginal leaders attended residential schools. Roger describes some challenges associated with this.

Residential schools were first established in British Columbia in the 1850s by the Methodist Church.31 The Indian Act of 1876 strengthened the mandate for creating a wider system of schools across Canada; the schools were run by Christian churches with funds from the federal government. According to Kelm, 18 residential schools operated in British Columbia between 1900 and 1950.32


Roger John, Residential Schools
Roger John,
Residential Schools

[Text Transcript]


Residential Schools in British Columbia, 1900-50
Sources: Department of Indian Affairs, Reports on Education, 1920-50, Sessional Papers, 1901-51.
Location Name Denomination
Lytton St. George's Indian Residential School (boys only) Anglican
Alert Bay Alert Bay Industrial School Anglican
Ahousat Ahousat Boarding School Presbyterian
Port Alberni Alberni Boarding School Presbyterian
Sechelt Sechelt Residential School Roman Catholic
Mission St. Mary's Residential School Roman Catholic
Yale All Hallow's Boarding School (girls only) Anglican
Williams Lake Cariboo Indian Residential School Roman Catholic
Kamloops Kamloops Indian Industrial School Roman Catholic
Clayoquot Bishop Christie Residential School Roman Catholic
Stuart Lake Lejac Residential School Roman Catholic
St. Eugene Kootenay Industrial School Roman Catholic
Kuper Island Kuper Island Indian Industrial School Roman Catholic
North Vancouver Squamish Boarding School Roman Catholic
Kitamat E. Long Memorial Home Methodist
Port Simpson Port Simpson/Crosby Girls/Boys Homes Methodist
Chilliwack Coqualeetza Industrial Institute Methodist
Metlakatla Metlakatla Industrial School Anglican

Prior to 1920, residential school was not compulsory and many Aboriginal children remained at home. Some Aboriginal parents reluctantly supported organized schooling because they wanted their children to be able to cope with their rapidly changing society. However, Aboriginal parents' vision of educational opportunities for their children was ignored by those in power.

The conditions at residential schools created an environment where infectious diseases thrived, made worse by "overwork, underfeeding, and various forms of abuse."33 As is now widely known, the emotional, physical, spiritual, and sexual abuse of Aboriginal children and families by those entrusted to educating and caring for them for over 100 years resulted in profound personal and cultural loss and fuels the continued strong resistance to colonialism.

After 1920, Aboriginal families actively resisted sending their children to residential school, but they were rarely successful. The interruption in the passing of language and knowledge between generations, caused by the forced separation of children from their parents and extended family members, meant that many Aboriginal people grew up with little traditional knowledge of their culture. This forced separation also destroyed the relationships of respect between generations and contributed to family conflict. Parenting skills developed unevenly due to substance abuse, family violence, and sexual abuse. In the next two video clips, Sheila Dick reflects on her residential school experience, particularly on being referred to as a "number."

Click to watch video clips/read text transcripts.

Sheila Dick, Children a burden, a number
Sheila Dick,
On Being a Number

[Text Transcript]
  vertical line   Sheila Dick, War zone
Sheila Dick,
War Zone

[Text Transcript]

Identifying children by number illustrates one of the fundamental goals of colonialism: to break down a sense of identity, limit choice, and subordinate people to a dominant way of thinking. In fact, current health care practices still support colonial ways of thinking and organization. People must provide their health care number before they are permitted to surrender to medical knowledge and procedures, after which they are referred to by their room and bed number. And, the unspoken value of "silence is golden" - like well-behaved children in a residential school classroom - remains in the face of all-knowing medical knowledge.

Aboriginal parents and families did not sanction the mistreatment and abuse of their children in residential schools. However, if they did not bring their children to school, the RCMP would take the children from their homes and threaten to charge their parents with a criminal offence. In the 1960s, as residential schools began to close and home life on reserves grew particularly troubled, a new threat emerged-the threat of child welfare officials seizing Aboriginal children from their homes and putting them in (usually white) foster homes. Today, this is known as the 1960s "scoop."

For many years the federal government and various Christian churches co-managed the residential schools, which were chronically underfunded and overcrowded. The last residential school in British Columbia closed in 1986. The impact of the schools across generations in communities is evident in the following video clips.

In the early days, many residential school graduates who returned home were still able to learn traditional knowledge and skills from family members. However, a decline in traditional economies, such as food gathering, trapping, fishing and trading (through potlatch, for example), meant that just a few generations later, only a small number of individuals had this opportunity. As well, by this time, few First Nations people could find employment off reserve and, if they could, it tended to be seasonal work, which "involved physically demanding labour and/or poor pay." 34 This reality has led to the current high rates of unemployment, poverty, and despair for young people in many Aboriginal communities.

The situation was described in the 1993 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples as follows:

Old methods of coping, the old philosophies and religions, which taught resilience, survival and a sense of being at one with nature, have been denigrated and destroyed by dominant culture and discarded by many aboriginal people.35

More recently, many gains have been made as a result of reconnection to Aboriginal traditions, "such as sweat lodges, sweet grass ceremonies and the establishment of departments of Aboriginal studies at various universities where young people rediscover the old ways."36 Still, the ripple effect of residential schooling continues to be experienced in Aboriginal communities, compounded for many by life on reserve.

It is important to note that the experiences of Aboriginal people are extremely varied; not all Aboriginal people attended, or have family members who attended, residential school, or have experienced intergenerational trauma.37 Assuming that individuals or groups have all had the same experience can continue stereotyping and marginalizing processes. These concepts are explored in Module 2: Peoples' Experiences of Oppression.

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