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Rights + Justice

To Break Residential Schools' Dark Legacy, Understand Why

Know the roots of Canada's incarceration of native children and see why effects linger.

Kevin James Ward 18 Sep

Kevin James Ward, Mikisew Cree, lives in beautiful Coast Salish traditional territory in Vancouver. He has done corporate communications work for B.C. aboriginal organizations the past 20 years.

Many Canadians know that from the later part of the 19th century through much of the 20th, the federal government and various Christian denominations used residential schools as part of a broader effort to subjugate native peoples and colonize their lands. Less known, however, is the reason for choosing this particular institution as part of facilitating the colonial process.

Research shows that prior to their arrival in North America, comparable institutions had been used in Europe for quite some time. But a deeper look into their design and purpose reveals why they essentially became Canada's prime colonial instrument of choice.

James G. Gibb, in The Archaeology of Institutional Life, writes, "Institutions permeate our lives, and their actions -- and inaction -- ramify for generations." This compels us to understand the influence of institutions on our lives, as well as their historical impact. In so doing, we must understand first the conceptual origins of the institution in question. Understanding the Indian residential school means inquiring into its root.

In A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System -- 1879 to 1986, historian John S. Milloy says early proponents of Indian residential schools believed they would be the "most efficacious educational instrument" to assimilate Indians into civilization, as well as being a "valuable tool of social control." However, he says it is "not clear exactly what had brought the idea" to the government's attention, nor could he locate a "single root from which the Canadian residential school system can be seen to have grown."

He does however remark that by the 1840s, institutions of this kind existed in Europe and that the British Empire and the United States used them for non-native and native children alike.

Why is it important to trace back through this history? I can tell you why it's important to me. In 1992, my siblings and I held our mother's funeral in her home community of Fort Chipewyan, in northern Alberta.

On arriving, the village's kindly elders and others, along with a Catholic priest and nun, organized a service in their modest A-frame church. We learned the church was the same one our mother attended as a child, located near the former site of the residential school she spent 10 years in, from 1940 to 1950.

Prior to the service, I took in the various paintings and murals on the walls. All were familiar Christian motifs, except one. Atop all the others, above the pulpit, was a large image of a lone eye. I was dumbfounded and disturbed as I imagined my mother as a child sitting where I was, with this unnerving image and its explicit message of surveillance impressed upon her.

In the days that followed, I was compelled to examine my own understanding of God, which included the belief that the divine Himself scrutinized and scored all of my thoughts and actions. Consequently, I decided I needed to know more about this image; especially its use in a colonial context.

As the years passed, I sought out and was fortunate enough to locate the following threads of insight, which I wove into a story that clarifies for me the root, function and consequence of Canada's Indian residential school system.

More importantly, during this time I came to understand why my mother reflexively sent me to Sunday school when I was quite young, which is where the bad seed of a watchful God took hold of my mind. Subsequently through non-Bible studies, so to speak, I eventually exorcised this indefensible belief by seeing it for what it was and has always been throughout time: indoctrination.

'Strike the soul rather than the body'

In Michel Foucault's deconstructive account of the origin of the prison, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, he reveals that in late 18th-century France, the Crown's use of public executions involving dismemberment were becoming increasingly intolerable to social reformers. Not because protesters opposed executions, but rather, in step with the prevailing ideals of the Enlightenment, they stood to establish the "legal limit: the legitimate frontier of the [sovereign's] power to punish."

When executions were scheduled, they sought to keep the condemned person's body intact for reasons of humanity and respect. This was when the "birth of reform" as a broad penal movement found footing in Europe.

According to Foucault, underpinning the reformists was the added belief that, in the absence of execution, punishment should involve incarceration. They thought this would allow for corrupted thoughts and habits to be re-shaped and aligned with "normalized" social behaviours. In time, this saw the corrigible groomed to fill the lowest stations of the nascent industrial economy.

As society transformed from peasantry to industrialism, new kinds of crimes emerged that demanded censure and the wrongdoer's correction. The consequences of this shift fueled the reform movement, which began to spread throughout European society with special attention given to reshaping and disciplining the under-classes, especially the vulnerable young, based on the principle that punishment "should strike the soul rather than the body."

Furthermore, Foucault says, the "general recipe for the exercise of power over men" was to impress upon minds "as a surface of inscription for power, with semiology as its tool; the submission of bodies through the control of ideas." In short, the prison would be where the "universal pedagogy of work" would be impressed upon "those who had proved resistance to it."

Europe's earliest prison schools

According to Foucault, Mettray, a French 19th-century penal colony for boys, signified the "completion of the carceral system... the disciplinary form at its most extreme, the model in which are concentrated all the coercive technologies of behaviour. In it were to be found 'cloister, prison, school, regiment.'" Pre-dating Mettray, though, was Rasphuis of Amsterdam, which opened in 1596.

Rasphuis also incarcerated young malefactors, on whom a number of reforming techniques were used -- "a whole complex of methods 'to draw towards good' and 'to turn away from evil' held the prisoners in its grip from day to day," writes Foucault. It became the model institution for others like it. The maxim over its gate read, "Wild beasts must be tamed by men."

Even so, Foucault says what set Mettray apart was the "essential element of its programme," which ensured future cadres faced the same apprenticeships and coercions as the inmates themselves did. In other words, "they were 'subjected as pupils to the disciplines that, later, as instructors, they would themselves impose'. They were taught the art of power relations."

The prison, says Foucault, became these "new castles of the new civil order" -- "a machine to alter minds" -- that had "transformed the punitive procedure into a penitentiary technique." As importantly, he contends, it would be a phenomenon that would over time finds its way into the "entire social body."

Foucault also shines a light on Jeremy Bentham, the British philosopher, jurist and social reformer, as well as designer of a penitentiary model that epitomizes the length and desire to which power will go in order to discipline both the incarcerated and the broader social body.

Bentham's Panopticon, conceived in 1785, foresaw cells ringing a central observation tower, with prisoners exposed in open chambers to perpetual observation, without the prisoners ever actually seeing the observer in the tower. The main effect of this, says Foucault, was to "induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic function of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action… in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers."

In other words: create in the inmate a self-conscious, self-correcting, and self-regulating mind and therefore body.

Incidentally, Foucault says the Panopticon model should also be understood as a way of defining power relations in the everyday world of people. It serves to "reform prisoners... to treat patients, to instruct school children, to confine the insane, to supervise workers [and] to put beggars and idlers to work."

The Panoptical residential school

In 1879, an influential report on Indian industrial schools in the United States, the Davin Report, came to the Canadian government's attention. In it, the report's author recommended Indian children be "kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions," that is, confined to industrial boarding schools (which later became known as residential schools). This aligned with Foucault's observation that "discipline sometimes requires enclosure; the specification of a place heterogeneous to all others and closed in upon itself. It is the protected place of disciplinary monotony."

Canada established Indian residential schools as federal policy in the 1880s. By the 1920s, parents were legally compelled by threat of imprisonment to turn over their children to be incarcerated in these institutions, which by then totalled more than 100 across the country.

Similar to the initial aim of the prison, as described by Foucault, the Indian residential school's standard curriculum, as initially envisioned by the federal government, included practical training to "remove prejudice against labour." Reform also included having hair traditionally worn long radically shortened and European-styled clothing imposed. In all, says Milloy, the Indian child's every "action, thought, speech and dress" was under the press of total reform during his or her time at a residential school, which included stripping away mother tongues and replacing them with English or French.

The effect of this, he says, was to reset "the child's cultural clock from the 'savage' seasonal round of hunting and gathering to the hourly and daily precision required by an industrial order." To where, he adds, the "temporal orchestration of life heard in the sounds of water breaking through spring ice and leaves rustling in freshening fall breezes was to be replaced by ticking clocks and ringing bells -- the influence of the wigwam replaced by that of the factory… Equally essential was the influence of the Christian faith."

In Who is Breaking the First Commandment?: Oblate Teachings and Cree Responses in the Hudson Bay Lowlands, by George Fulford with Louis Bird, the latter recounts his experience in the early 1940s at the St. Anne's residential school in northern Ontario.

Bird describes how the priest used an illustrated book of the Bible to instruct the children. This method was highly successful, he says, such that he could recall the images even 60 years afterward. According to him, the pictures impressed the children "more than words." For instance, on the image of Moses with the commandments, he says, "That picture scared us to death when we were young."

He explains before the appearance of missionaries, his people sought out high places for vision quests, and because they only had small hills and the mountain in the picture was much higher and surrounded by clouds and lightening, the effect of seeing this was "powerful medicine." The priests, he says, knew their pictures would have this kind of effect. "The missionaries know how the mind of the native people work. They know this is going to work. And it did work. It's still in effect."

This pedagogical approach recalls Foucault's remark regarding the "general recipe" on controlling bodies by controlling ideas. A priest who had taught during Bird's time seemingly confirms this: "That process of teaching with images, so successful in teaching civilized children, is doubly so for our Indians. They must see to understand."

Then there was the object of the instructional method itself. The image of Moses that so impressed the young Bird also included the inscription: "God inspired fear in Moses and his people so that they would observe his laws." The aim here was clear: Instill in the Cree children the fear of a judgmental and punishing God and impose a life-long obedience to the Church.

Of course, putting the fear of God into persons, principally children, is a common Christian objective. For instance, in Parental Use of the Threat "God Will Punish": Replication and Extension, authors Hart M. Nelsen and Alice Kroliczak discuss how Christianity generally holds up God as an "all-seeing God" or an all-knowing entity where "escape from the punisher is impossible."

Here the spectre of the panoptical Indian residential school arises, operated as they were by various Christian churches and funded by the federal government. And another of Foucault's striking observations comes to mind, where he notes that at Mettray, the French 19th-century penal colony for boys, "the entire parapenal institution... culminates in the cell, on the walls of which are written in black letters: 'God sees you.'"

A dark legacy

Through this story and others, I have come to understand better the plight of native peoples generally and, in some cases, those native individuals and communities I either have known or worked for in my life.

One particularly good summary of this understanding comes unsurprisingly from Foucault, who argues prisons "cannot fail to produce delinquents. It does so by the very type of existence that it imposes on its inmates... it is supposed to apply the law, and to teach respect for it; but all its functioning operates in the form of an abuse of power. The arbitrary power of administration: The feeling of injustice that a prisoner has is one of the causes that may make his character untamable. When he sees himself exposed in this way to suffering, which the law has neither ordered nor envisaged, he becomes habitually angry against everything around him; he sees every agent of authority as an executioner; he no longer thinks that he was guilty; he accuses justice itself."

This insight allowed me to see how this type of distrust likely played out in the lives of native parents who spent too many terrible years in an Indian residential school, specifically in regards to entrusting their children to government schools, residential or otherwise.

No doubt a serious reluctance pervaded their thinking. And no doubt this reluctance, resistance even, played out in the lives of their children as one would expect: poor learning and other adverse outcomes that in time would create more troublesome consequences. This observation is borne out by far too many bleak historic and contemporary socioeconomic statistics profiling native Canadians.

Of course, in addition to this mistrust, other effects followed generations of Indian residential school survivors: racism, sexism, classism, ignorance and general discrimination lead to perpetual ill-treatment. Equally obvious, as we now know, was the existence of serious forms of internalized and lateral abuse resulting from survivors' experiences of mental, emotional, spiritual, cultural, physical and sexual abuse in those institutions.

No doubt, the presence of overwhelming and unresolved grief factors in, too. So would the absence of parenting skills which vanished in the process of denuding homes and communities of children.

Intrinsic individual resilience, or more specifically its lack -- such as various addictions -- also played a role in poor outcomes overall. Still, one cannot discount the big picture's underlying influence on survivors' choices, vices or habits or worse -- dying too soon or causing grievous harm to themselves or others.

In any case, there is another, pertinent reason for this dismal record: the newcomer's initial rejection of native people, both as cultural groups and individually, that ultimately resulted in native people's subjugation through Indian residential schools and other oppressive means, such as reserves.

More recently, though, this rejection persists in government denials of native land and cultural rights. This denial fuels the broader intergenerational impacts of colonialism, which when combined with native people's anomie indicates that no thriving future lies immediately ahead for them.

My vision of truth and reconciliation

I have hope that the dark legacy of a people imprisoned for simply being who they were can be broken and replaced by something this country can be proud of, something that today's outgoing native and non-native generation can embrace as a new and exceedingly honourable legacy worthy of their best deeds.

This would be a bequest that rests on at least two ideals: The first of which is having our country's youth taught a common truth about the Indian residential school system as well as the intergenerational impacts of these institutions and of colonialism itself.

The second is bridging the contemporary relationship between native and non-native Canadians and having this reflected in dramatically improved outcomes for today's and tomorrow's native youth, resulting in their cultural survival and prosperity, whether in their own lands or in this country's urban communities.

To me, this is what a lasting truth and reconciliation between us would look like.  [Tyee]

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