In 1883, Canada authorized the creation of residential schools across the country to separate Indigenous children from the influence of their communities. Crudely put, the purpose of the schools was “to kill the Indian in the child.” Genocide is another word for it. The UN defines genocide to include removing children based on race in order to indoctrinate them. It is estimated that 150,000 Indigenous children went through the residential school system. The last school closed in 1996.
Inhumane and criminal treatment of children characterized residential schools for much of their history. In the early 1900s, Canada’s chief medical officer investigated the high death rates in many schools and found poor health practices were spreading tuberculosis and other diseases. His recommendations for improving conditions in the schools were ignored and the deaths continued. In 1920, new legislation made it illegal to keep status Indian child out of school. Parents who failed to send their children to school could be fined or jailed.
Most Syilx children attended either the Kamloops Indian Residential School or the St. Eugene’s Indian Residential School in Cranbrook. The Kamloops school was one of the largest in Canada. It operated from 1890 to 1978 and is now a museum. St. Eugene’s operated from 1898 to 1970 and is now a resort and casino run by the Ktunaxa First Nation.
Assimilation was the explicit objective of residential schools. Many former students compare them to prison. Upon arrival, children were stripped, showered, their hair was cut, their clothes were taken away, they were given ill-fitting uniforms, and an ID number. As late as the 1950s, many Syilx children arrived at the schools speaking little English, yet any child who spoke their native tongue was harshly punished. Brothers and sisters were forbidden to speak to one another. Staff regularly spoke in the most negative terms about the children’s families and culture. The children themselves were regularly shamed.
The schools were underfunded. The buildings were cold, draughty places. The food was generally bad and there was never enough of it, so children were often hungry. In order to keep the schools running the children were forced to work long hours. Girls did everything from laundry to sewing to kitchen duties. Boys worked in the barns and in the fields. The corporal punishment that passed as discipline was often extreme even by the standards of the day. Some staff members were known to routinely kick and punch young children. Thick straps were regularly used on bare skin. Sexual abuse was condoned by administrators who either perpetuated it themselves or looked the other way.
The education the children got in return was substandard. Until the 1950s, many of their teachers lacked any formal training.
The teaching and disciplinary methods used in the schools were similar to what became known as “brainwashing” in the 1950s. It initially undermined the students’ confidence and self-esteem, causing them to question their own beliefs. It then introduced new beliefs and patterns of behaviour, punishing those who resisted, and rewarding those who acquiesced. For many students, the experience was traumatic and unforgettable. The last residential school did not close its doors until 1986. This was not so long ago.