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Mothers of a Native Hell

Meet two founders of BC's residential schools for aboriginal children.

By Crawford Kilian 8 Aug 2007 |

Crawford Kilian is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

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Residents of the Crosby Home.
  • Good Intentions Gone Awry: Emma Crosby and the Methodist Mission on the Northwest Coast
  • Jan Hare and Jean Barman
  • UBC Press (2006)

Like an unwelcome memory of youthful stupidity, the residential-schools scandal keeps coming back to haunt us. But what do we really know about how the residential schools came to be? For most of us, only that First Nations kids were stuffed into them for generations and once inside were sexually, physically and culturally abused.

Two recent books throw some light on the origins and development of the schools. Good Intentions Gone Awry, by Jan Hare and Jean Barman, gives us the letters and life of Emma Crosby, the wife of Port Simpson's first missionary, Thomas Crosby, from the 1870s to the turn of the century. The Letters of Margaret Butcher, edited by Mary-Ellen Kelm, picks up the story from 1916-1919 in the village of Kitamaat.

Apart from chronicling an almost forgotten era in B.C. history, these books introduce us to two remarkable women. Both were highly intelligent, immensely competent, and profoundly toxic to the people they were trying to save.

In discussing these women and their worlds, I am keenly aware of the sin of "presentism"-- judging our ancestors by our own values. Emma Crosby and Margaret Butcher grew up and grew old in a very different culture from ours, and were doing the best they could. But it wasn't utterly different, and the two women were clearly smart enough to have known that what they were doing -- right or wrong -- simply wasn't working.

'A proper Christian family'

Emma Douse grew up in an Ontario Methodist family and became a teacher at her alma mater, Hamilton's Wesleyan Female College. In 1874, at the age of 25, she met Thomas Crosby, who had spent some years as a missionary in B.C. Crosby was both raising money and looking for a wife who could help him show the natives how a proper Christian family should function.

Emma willingly took on an immense task, and performed it well for decades: giving the Tsimshian of Port Simpson a model of the ideal Christian wife and helpmeet. Emma had a political role as well: to inform the Methodists back home in Ontario of the mission's progress, and to keep the money coming that would support it. (She also had to help propagandize against the charismatic Anglican missionary William Duncan, who considered the Crosbys too near his own little theocracy, Metlakatla.)

So Emma's letters home to her mother were intended for a much wider readership, and naturally presented the mission's work as a series of hard-won successes against great difficulties.

For modern readers, however, it's striking to see that Emma expressed zero interest in the people the Crosbys were trying to convert. She never discusses the Tsimshians' culture or history. (One photograph, from 1876, shows Thomas Crosby in Tsimshian regalia; he looks painfully embarrassed.) She refers in passing to the dirt and disease of the natives, but doesn't even mention the catastrophic smallpox pandemic that a decade earlier had killed a third of the native population on the B.C. coast.

Problems, not people

The natives existed, for the Crosbys, as problems to be solved by conversion, and only when converted did they become worthy of discussion. Even then, acceptance was conditional. Some of their finest converts, who went on to convert others and to support the mission, never achieved real equality with them or other whites.

Almost as an afterthought, Emma began to take young girls into her home. Her purpose was to protect them from the men of the community, both native and white, and to train them to become Christian wives and mothers. By a kind of Victorian social engineering, the girls were supposed to grow up into women like Emma herself, transforming and stabilizing their people.

As years went by, the number of girls grew. They helped her run the household and to look after her children.

Eventually, however, Emma saw that her own daughters were learning the Tsimshian language and values. This predictable but threatening development led her to physically segregate the native girls in their own building, and make their education a matter separate from the Crosby household. To maintain order she established rigid rules, rigidly enforced. Eventually, as Hare and Barman say, the girls were not so much educated as incarcerated.

The Crosbys' mission achieved pyrrhic victories. Spread too thin by his constant travels along the coast, Thomas Crosby was promoted into an administrative job that removed him from Port Simpson. By then Emma must have been glad to go: she left four of her seven children in the church's graveyard.

Despite the doubtful success of her efforts, Emma Crosby's residential school rapidly became the model up and down the coast. By the time Margaret Butcher arrived in Kitamaat in 1916, the Women's Missionary Service was a major organization providing staff and support for many such schools.

'Astoundingly pig-headed'

Emma Crosby clearly felt a vocation to evangelize in Port Simpson. For Maggie Butcher, a 46-year-old nurse and midwife, the school in Kitamaat was just another job. She'd spent three years as a missionary among the Japanese in Steveston, and a job in Kitamaat turned up. So she went off to teach Haisla girls how to sew. ("Education" was always for domestic or menial labour.)

Butcher was in many ways a far more attractive person than Crosby. The letters she wrote to her sisters and friends are gossipy, full of details, and generally good-humoured. She rhapsodizes about the scenery of the Kitamaat Valley, and provides extraordinary reportage on a logging operation. She can laugh at herself, and prayer is for her just another chore in a day full of them.

These traits make her all the more maddening to modern readers, because for an intelligent and observant woman she was astoundingly pig-headed. She might like her "kids" as individuals, but she despised them as a race.

"They are a slow, indolent, dirty people," she writes, "bound very strongly by custom and superstition. Matron says the young folk who have been educated in this school and at Coqualeetza will have more chance when some half dozen of the old folks of the Village, who still hold fast to their ancient customs, are dead and one hopes that it is so. In all our bunch of 37 children there are only two who appear cunning and they are half-breeds."

It wasn't worth learning Haisla since so few spoke it, and she casually remarks, "I suppose in a few years time Kitamaat speech will be extinct for the young folks learn to speak Eng. in the schools & one of our senior girls told me they cannot understand all the Kitamaat of the old folk."

Butcher clearly considered this progress. She happily described her children "going to church to sing Christmas carols in a village where 30 yrs ago the people were savages, & the medicine man ran naked through the village in a frenzy" -- this at a time when Europeans, with far greater savagery, were slaughtering one another in the trenches.

A trained nurse and midwife, Butcher spent much time and concern on the health of her students and their families. We can't blame her for applying mustard poultices to children with tuberculosis -- this was long before antibiotics. But she was convinced that the school was a safer place for the children than their own homes, despite the children's chronic TB, plus outbreaks of whooping cough and 10 fatal days with the Spanish flu.

From sexual "protection" to sexual abuse

Emma Crosby and Margaret Butcher shared an unquestioned assumption that white Christians had the right and duty to tear native families apart, to deprive children of their own cultures, and to impose Victorian sexual values on them.

"Protecting" the girls was implicitly to protect them from their own sexuality, if necessary by strapping them, overworking them, and malnourishing them. Margaret Butcher routinely kept track of the girls' periods, and woe betide the girl suspected of being pregnant. In hindsight, we can see the foundations being laid for decades of sexual abuse.

This arrogation of control over their converts' lives seems to have blinded the missionaries to the harm they were doing, so they could shrug off the natives' death and suffering as just the price to be paid for progress.

We don't have equivalent accounts of residential schooling by the Tsimshian, Haisla, and other nations, at least until much later. But in a sense we don't need them. Emma Crosby and Margaret Butcher inadvertently wrote their own self-damning confessions.

They also raise a disturbing question: When future generations read our accounts about all the good we're doing in the world, will they regard us too as toxic and self-deluded fools?