‘Terrible abuses’ — or perhaps not?

Children who attended Residential School had better health than those who did not. 

By Dr. Ian Gentles and Pim Wiebel

 

MORE AND MORE, serious writers on the Indian Residential Schools issue are rejecting the label “genocidal” to describe the record of the Schools in their treatment of indigenous people. It is now less widely believed that the Schools routinely raped and murdered the children in their care and threw them into furnaces, or buried them secretly in unmarked mass graves. 

On the other hand, writers often qualify their rejection of these extreme, unsupported claims by conceding that the Schools were, all the same, places of terrible abuse and unrelieved misery. 

But were they in fact? Fortunately a great deal of evidence is becoming available from the study of archival records that enables us to make an objective assessment of this indictment. 

To deal with the health issue first, we now know that Indian Residential School students born after 1930 attained on average a height up to one inch greater as adults than those who did not attend a residential school. Demographers consider increasing height among a given population an unmistakable indication of rising living standards. Not only did the students’ height increase, their attendance at residential school was also linked to lower obesity as an adult. They were also less likely to be underweight or to contract diabetes. In short, attending a residential school, at least from the 1930s onward, “had a positive impact on the physical health of those that attended.”

This improved health was undoubtedly a reflection of better nutrition. This calls into question the widespread claims that the food in the schools was either horrible or that there was never enough of it.

When it comes to disease, the Schools also emerge with high marks. Between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries the biggest killer by far across the population in Canada was tuberculosis. Many residential-school students died of it. This is not surprising, since for many years almost every student admitted to a residential school was carrying the TB bacillus. Overwhelmingly it was children from the reserves who brought tuberculosis into the schools, not the schools that transmitted the disease to healthy students.

Thanks to the introduction of new drugs TB mortality fell dramatically from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s. Among First Nations people as a whole it dropped from 627 to 100 per 100,000 population. During the same period mortality in the schools plunged from 230 to barely 20 deaths per 100,000 — just one-fifth of overall First Nations mortality from TB. In other words, you had a much better chance of avoiding death from TB if you attended a Residential School than if you didn’t. 

The Schools can boast an impressive record with other diseases as well. During the terrible Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918-19, the death rate in the Schools was well under 27% of the rate for all First Nations people.

Residential Schools also pioneered in the treatment of Trachoma, a disease that often resulted in blindness. During the 1930s the incidence of Trachoma among students declined sharply. Sulfanilamide treatment, which began at the end of the 1930s then practically eliminated the disease.

It has also been shown that those who attended a Residential School were less likely to suffer from either drug abuse or binge drinking. Chief Dan George of the ​​Tsleil-Waututh Nation (Burrard Indian Band) declared that the closing of reserve schools and sending Indians to white schools was “just another promise that the white man has broken.” The sad consequence, he said, was that “Indians now learn to use drugs and liquor at an earlier age, habits they never developed at Indian residential schools.”

 

THAT WAS ONLY one of the reasons why many chiefs and parents opposed the government when it embarked on a policy of phasing out the residential schools. When canvassed for their opinion almost all the band chiefs from across Canada expressed their appreciation for the residential schools, declaring that they had “given good satisfaction.” From Fort Good Hope in the Northwest Territories Headman Andre Lecou and three councillors wrote: “The present system of education, approved by the Dominion Government and set up by the Indian Affairs Branch, is satisfactory to us and no change whatever is either desired or will be accepted by us.” Thirty-two Chiefs from Northern Ontario met in Little Current and sent this message: 

The views of the delegates were very decided about the continued necessity of denominational schools and residential schools … They definitely don’t want public schools.

Integration into provincial schools began in earnest in the 1950s, often over the objections of indigenous parents, who feared that their children would suffer discrimination at the hands of white students. At Indian Schools, both day and residential, high standards were maintained. In addition to the normal academic subjects the following special subjects were also taught: home economics, arts and crafts, industrial arts, music, auxiliary education, and physical education. Books for school libraries, as well as equipment for both the classroom, and for extra-curricular activities were kept constantly up to date. Besides bands, choirs, dance troupes and a wide array of sports, many students were enrolled in Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, Junior Red Cross, and 4H Clubs.

Despite much talk about the Residential Schools being agents of “cultural genocide,” the Department of Indian Affairs and the staff who operated many of the schools actively supported traditional indigenous culture. In the words of the 1937 Department of Indian Affairs Annual Report: 

An encouraging feature of the educational effort during the year was discovered in the … tendency and willingness of the Indians to recognize the value and distinctiveness of their arts and crafts. Consideration has been given to ways and means whereby the Indian population can be encouraged to conserve still further their ancient values and skills and thus contribute to the cultural life of the nation.

 

These objectives … will be the training of pupils to make the most of their available resources, with talents consecrated to the service of the bands to which they belong, and an adult Indian population proud of their racial origin and cultural heritage, adjusted to modern life, progressive, resourceful, and self-supporting.

 

Of the 438 teachers in the residential schools in 1961, 25 were indigenous. A growing percentage of the non-teaching staff was also indigenous. By 1962 over 88% of the indigenous teachers were professionally qualified.     

Many parents at the time seem to have been equally vehement in their opposition to the closure of residential schools. At the Cluny School in Alberta it was recorded that “the Department wants to limit the number of boarders and oblige the pupils to come as day students. The Indian families object. They want their children at boarding school, so, today, as a protest, they refuse to send their children.”

At a convention held at the Ermineskin Residential School, attended by 100 indigenous people from across Alberta, “the rights and duties of parents in the education of their children were stated…”   

When the Department of Indian Affairs announced its intention to close the Marieval Residential School in 1971, there was a backlash from parents. They cited three reasons why they wanted the school to remain open:

 

  1. Their children would face certain discrimination in the provincial schools as had occurred elsewhere;
  2. The residential schools met an essential need by providing a home and education for orphans and children from broken homes or from impoverished families who could not properly care for them; and 
  3. The children sent to foster homes were not receiving proper discipline or religious instruction as they (the parents) had received in the residential schools.

 

They then passed a resolution asking that the school remain open and insisting that it should not be up to the department to say whether the school should be closed.   

Many former students have testified to their positive experience at an Indian Residential School. They include not only famous people like the celebrated author, Tomson Highway, and the first indigenous cabinet minister, Len Marchand, but many students with no claim to fame. Most recent is the testimony by a woman who attended the Shingwauk School: “I can tell you emphatically that the best times of my life were at Shingwauk School. Nellie Sands McDowell and I used to discuss that. Our best fun, our best laughs, our fondest memories came out of our stories of our Shingwauk School days.” Such testimonies can be multiplied many times.

What about the indictment of widespread physical and sexual abuse? It is undeniable that some Schools inflicted harsh corporal punishment upon misbehaving students, which was especially upsetting in light of the traditional avoidance of physical punishment of children in indigenous culture. The record on sexual abuse is the opposite however. The findings of the Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat are that “the vast majority of schools in most decades have five or fewer cases of [physical or sexual] abuse.” By contrast, the rate of sexual abuse suffered by children among the general indigenous population was 25 to 50%. In other words, the Residential Schools were a relatively abuse-free sanctuary for indigenous children.

 

IN LIGHT OF ALL this evidence of the impact of the Residential School experience on the indigenous children who attended them, the myth that the Schools were cesspools of abuse and misery should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Recently, terrible accusations have been made against the Brandon School in Manitoba. Students were allegedly subjected to horrific violence and sexual abuse. As well, the food was allegedly inadequate and awful. Students often died at the school and were buried there, it was said, rather than being sent back to their grieving parents. This systematic indictment comes from oral testimony given by former students.

As it happens there is extensive information about the Brandon School in Library and Archives Canada (the national archives in Ottawa). Does any of that information bear out the recent oral testimony? First of all, we need to bear in mind that before 2024 there were few negative words anywhere, spoken or written, against the Brandon School.

The School was in existence between 1895 and 1972. During its entire history there was a total of 77 deaths at the school. At least 49 of the deaths occurred before 1910, when tuberculosis and other diseases were raging in the reserves. Deaths from 1921 to 1950 were 10, while from 1950 to 1972, following the introduction of streptomycin, there was but one death. The dates of the remaining deaths are unknown.   

Within a year of the school’s founding, the Department of Indian Affairs, in its annual Report (DIARR) stated that “applications for admission are being made far in advance of our power to accommodate.” According to the principal this was largely due to “the letters which the children themselves have written home, letters which in the main have been devoted to expressions of satisfaction with their surroundings and of desire that others might be sent in to share their advantages.”

 

MANY OF THE CHILDREN admitted to Brandon throughout its history were orphans or from dysfunctional homes. Often their parents were living in the bush far from any school. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the children attended because their parents wanted them to attend. As the distinguished historian J.R. Miller bluntly puts it, “At no time in the history of residential schooling in Canada were parents ‘compelled to send their children to residential schools.’”    

What about discipline and punishment at Brandon? Right from the beginning corporal punishment was used as a last resort and apparently restrained in its administration: 

 

Likewise their [the students’] conduct has been remarkably good, and but few punishments had to be administered last year, the discipline being enforced almost exclusively by means of emulation, prizes and distinctions of honour … Severe punishment has seldom been administered; we have kept within the lines of our written instructions in all matters pertaining to corporal punishment. Conversations have been held with erring ones in which the right and the wrong have been clearly defined. Those who have done wrong have been put upon their honour, and have been taught to make apologies to those whom they have injured. In this way effort has been made to build up an intelligent and conscientious moral nature.  

 

To be sure, there must have been departures from this high standard of discipline from time to time, but such departures are familiar in schools both private and public, right up to the present day.

The main school building was solidly built of stone and brick and benefitted from excellent ventilation and heating. The state-of-the-art furnace had no trouble keeping the building warm throughout the long, very cold winter.

There was a DIA inspection in 1900, which issued a glowing report. “The whole place was in excellent order … Food is varied, and all get what is good for them; The bread supplied is of the best quality. Beef [is] … delivered at the school as required. And strangers when visiting are struck … with the healthy, clean and well-dressed boys and girls.” The 1909 Report recorded that “The boys have won several silver trophies in intercollegiate contests.”

The 1896 Report informs us that the school curriculum was both academic and vocational. For the boys, following morning lessons, “the trades taught them are those of farmer, tinsmith, blacksmith, house-painter, carpenter and shoemaker. There is in connection with the carpenter-shop, a saw-mill and a complete set of machinery for planing, turning, door and sash-making, &c…” The girls were taught “sewing, cooking, laundry-work, dining-room work and general housekeeping.”

In 1930 the original building was replaced with a new, expanded structure, and several outbuildings, which made it “one of the finest of its kind in Canada … on a par with some of the finest schools and colleges of the older provinces…” The Report went on to observe that “residential schools are required because many of the Indians are engaged in occupations such as lumbering, fishing, freighting, and trapping, which take them away from their homes…” The Report concluded that “During the years spent in the residential schools medical treatment is provided, which with a balanced diet, and supervised recreation, assists in the building up of a robust constitution.”

In 1932 Principal J. A. Doyle wrote to the Secretary of Indian Affairs detailing the impressive results achieved by Brandon students on the recent provincial examinations: “The above results are considered by our Inspector above the range secured in the High Schools of Manitoba.”

In the same year Principal Doyle reported that incoming students were given lung X-rays. 

The X-ray plates show that four out of five of all our pupils have had some lung trouble before coming to the school [emphasis added]. This shows the urgent need of this watchful service. A wholesome and balanced diet is being followed. The pupils are weighed regularly, and satisfactory gains in weight are recorded. A number of boys gained from twenty to thirty pounds each during the first three months of the school year, and taken altogether the Ninette Clinic found the pupils averaged five per cent overweight for girls and boys of their age and height. 

 

Doyle also observed that although enrolment had increased steadily to over 160, there was still a waiting list of students wishing to be admitted. He went on to boast that, in addition to its academic distinction, the school excelled in athletics: 

Our football team carried off the shield in the Second Division League. The girls excel at softball. Both girls and boys enjoy basketball and skating. Hockey is also a favorite sport. On Victoria Day Percy Berens easily won the three-mile race over all contestants. On June 3rd, the Brandon section of the Sunday School National Athletic Competition was held. Our boys entered the contest. One Tuxis group and one Trail Ranger group scored higher than any Tuxis or Trail Ranger group in Manitoba last year.

 

On the cultural front, six plays were performed at the school over the preceding year. A girls’ choir, fifty strong, sang at the Music Festival in Brandon. “Their work was highly commended by the Adjudicator, Dr Staton of England, who presented them with the shield.”

In the depths of the Depression (1936) a parent complained that the children were not being fed well. The school shot back, denying the complaint and attaching the menu illustrated on this page. 

To modern eyes this will doubtless seem a stodgy, monotonous diet, deficient in fresh fruit and vegetables. Yet we need to bear in mind that Canada was then in the depths of the Depression. At that time a lot of white children would have been happy to have been fed such a menu in preference to the lard sandwiches, relieved by the occasional prairie dog, which were all too often what they had to eat.

 

IN THE LATE 1930s the school’s extra-curricular activities included softball, football, choir, basketball, hockey, badminton, swimming, golf, and skiing. In the 1940s students were taking part in church concerts and evening gym classes. In the 1960s they were participating in a carol festival, singsongs, and a games evening. There was a Christmas concert, as well as a display of native dances. Students were further noted as participating in a Music and Speech Festival, track and field, and an Elementary Art Show.

In the middle of the Second World War (1943) a mother complained that the students were not adequately nourished and were being fed cattle salt. Upon investigation it was determined that the salt in question was iodized kitchen salt, which was reddish in colour, similar to cattle salt. The Inspector of Indian Agencies for Manitoba visited the following year and found that, “The meals served were well prepared and appeared ample.” A typical menu was as follows: Noon - potatoes, roast beef, gravy, vegetable marrow, bread pudding, bread, water. Supper - creamed potatoes, bread with butter, jam or prunes or honey with cake, bannock, cocoa. Breakfast - porridge with milk, milk to drink, bread with lard and jam. This was during the period of war rationing — a time when many Canadians suffered from malnutrition.

In contrast to all of this evidence, we have the following recent anonymous, undocumented statement published in a 2022 book: The school diet was “execrable.” They drank “milk that had manure in the bottom of the cans and homemade porridge that had grasshopper legs and bird droppings in it.” However, this has no real source or corroboration.

In Apr. 1969 we read of Brandon students participating in “community activities” such as the Music and Speech Festival, Track and Field, and the Elementary Art Show. In May, supposedly a short time after the most appalling recently reported misery and abuse, a school newsletter stated that the annual Sports Day and Buffet Supper would be held on Jun. 15 and that many students had taken part in city-wide road races. Two residence boys’ soccer teams were also participating in the Manitoba Minor Soccer League. 

A history of the Brandon School published in 2012 by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation recorded that “we are unaware of any convictions for abuse at Brandon IRS or of any convicted abusers present at Brandon IRS.” At various times there were complaints about the food — not its quality but the quantity. There were also complaints about harsh punishment. It was alleged that inadequate steps were taken to prevent bullying. On one occasion in 1950, “the little boys were much abused and knocked about by the older boys and if they complained to their teacher, it only resulted in more abuse from the older boys.”

To sum up our findings in a nutshell, the negative indictment of the Brandon School is derived from anonymous oral evidence based on recollections reaching back over half a century. On the other hand, the written and printed evidence generated during the period when the school was in operation paints a mainly positive picture of what life was like. The historian always recognizes the superiority of archival and printed evidence that originated at the time that is being studied.

 

This article appears in the Summer 2024 edition of The Dorchester Review, now published quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 68-73. Subscribe to try out the superb print edition!

 

Notes

  1. Donna L. Feir and M. Christopher Auld, ‘Indian residential schools: Height and body mass post-1930’, Canadian Journal of Economics, vol. 54 (1), Feb. 2021, pp. 129, 134, 155, 158.
  2. P.H. Bryce, Report on the Indian Schools of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, 1907; P.H. Bryce, The Story of a National Crime, Being an Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada. Ottawa: Peter Hope, 1922, p. 5.
  3. Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 2 1939 to 2000: Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Vol. 1. McGill-Queen’s University Press for the National TRC, 2015. p. 193, Table 36.1; NTRC History, vol. 1 Part 2, 1939-2000, p. 191, graph 36.3.
  4. Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 1. Origins to 1939. Vol. 1. McGill-Queen’s University Press for the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation Commission, p. 439. Total mortality in the schools at the time from all diseases was less than 27% of First Nation mortality from the Spanish Flu alone. (1,000 per 100,000 vs. 3,770 per 100,000). Ibid., pp. 436, 376, graph’ 16.1.
  5. Dominion of Canada, Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs for the year Ended Mar. 31 1935. Ottawa: King’s Printer; NCTR, Report, vol. 1, Origins to 1939, p. 448.
  6. First Nation Regional Health Survey, 2008-10. Ottawa: First Nations Health Authority, 2012, p. 204; fig. 6.10, p. 160.
  7. “Harmful Influence,” Indian Record, Jan.-Feb. 1972, p. 1.
  8. Joint Committees, 20th Parliament, 3rd Session : Special Joint Committee on Indian Act, vol. 1 no. 1-12 (1948), p. 174.
  9. Citizenship and Immigration Report of the Indian Affairs Branch, 1960, p. 19. 
  10. Citizenship and Immigration, Report of the Indian Affairs Branch, 1961. 
  11. Citizenship and Immigration, Report of Indian Affairs Branch, 1962
  12. “Indian League Urges Vocational Schools,” Indian Record, Vol. XXII, No. 9, Nov. 1959.
  13. “Chiefs Request School Be Kept,” Regina Leader Post, Nov. 19, 1971, p. 2. 
  14. Dorothy M. Currie, The Spirit Lives On (1990), p. 4.
  15. D. Feir, “The long-term effects of forcible assimilation policy: The case of Indian boarding schools,” Canadian Journal of Economics, vol. 49 (2) (2016), p. 458.
  16. D.C. Vezina, J. Dion, N. Trocmé, “Sexual Abuse in Canadian Aboriginal Communities: A Broad Review of Conflicting Evidence.” Pimatisiwin: A Journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health 7(1) (Jan. 2009), p. 35, covers the 20-year period from 1989 to 2009. 
  17. National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website, Brandon, MB, 1895-1972, Religious Entity: Methodist United Church Catholic.
  18. J. R. Miller, Review, Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Vols 1-6, in BC Studies no. 191, Autumn 2016, p. 169-175.
  19. Indian Affairs Annual Report, 1896.
  20. Ibid., p. 501
  21. Brandon Residential School - United Church - General Correspondence, LAC, RG 10, Vol. 6255, File 576-1, part 2p. 112.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Brandon Indian Residential School IAP School Narrative, NCTR website, p. 7. 
  24. Ibid., p. 6.
  25. Sniderman, Andrew Stobo, and Douglas Sanderson. Valley of the Birdtail: An Indian Reserve, A White Town and the Road to Reconciliation. Harper Collins (2022), pp. 38, 43. 
  26. Ibid., p. 6.
  27. Ibid., pp. 8-9.

Older Post Newer Post


  • William Wilhelm on

    A very articulate and comprehensive article which accurately puts Residential Schools in the proper context. Unfortunately no amount of evidence will persuade those with a deep rooted sense of self inflicted grievance and envy that their victimhood complex is underserved.
    “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man.” ~ Mark Twain


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published