June 06, 2008 Features & Images » Feature Story

The Dreamcatcher Commission 

Canada’s attempt to make amends with its stolen children

click to enlarge Residential School Survivor Majorie Natrall at her house in Squamish
  • Residential School Survivor Majorie Natrall at her house in Squamish

Page 3 of 8

In a way, the commission will act like a dreamcatcher, taking in the sad memories of those who experienced the system personally.

From reserves to residential schools

The system in question is one that, according to the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, aimed to lift aboriginal children from a condition of “savagery” and into one of “civilization” as envisioned by the government of the time.

In 1857, the Canadian government adopted a policy of assimilation through passage of the Gradual Civilization Act. The act aimed to remove legal distinctions between aboriginals and non-aboriginals in order that aboriginals could be absorbed into colonial society.

With an eye to this policy, Duncan Campbell Scott, a senior bureaucrat in the Department of Indian Affairs, said education was “by far the most important of the many subdivisions of the most complicated Indian problem.”

The government and churches endorsed a report from 1879 that called for the establishment of “off-reserve schools” that could teach arts, crafts and industrial skills that students could later employ as contributors to the country’s economy.

The Royal Commission said that both government and churches were fulfilling what they saw as a “Christian obligation to (their) Indian bretheren” that could only be achieved by educating children. By 1931, students would be taught and cared for in government-funded schools by members of four different churches – the Roman Catholic, the United Church, the Church of England and the Presbyterian.

Throughout their existence, the schools were gravely underfunded, according to the commission report:

“In the building, funding and management of those purported ‘circles of civilized conditions,’ it failed to make of those schools homes where children would always be well-clothed and fed, safely housed and kindly treated,” it reads.

The initial curriculum at residential schools deemed that students would spend a half-day studying the same material as other schools in a given province, while the rest of the day involved training in practical skills. For boys that meant learning skills in trades such as agriculture, carpentry and blacksmithing, while for girls it meant jobs such as sewing, knitting and cooking.

Students were taught to speak only in English in an effort to “stamp out” aboriginal languages. The philosophy behind this practice was that destroying their native languages could go a long way to assimilating them. The report goes on to say this was sometimes done through positive reinforcement, but more often through punishment.

Readers also liked…

  • Death in the Alpine

    Social media is changing our relationship to risk, with deadly consequences
    • Jun 10, 2018
  • Getting Lost On A Bike

    Mountain biking? Nay. Touring? Not quite. Hiking? Heck no! Welcome to the world of bikepacking
    • Aug 12, 2018

Latest in Feature Story

  • Deadly decisions

    Critics say the BC Conservation officer Service is overly reliant on lethal force—it maintains they are only seeing a 'snapshot' of what they do
    • Oct 11, 2019
  • Whatcha Smokin'?

    Canadians face lifetime bans to U.S. over past cannabis use, CBD oils and social media posts
    • Oct 4, 2019
  • Paradise found

    Searching for the families that quietly waited out doomsday deep in the Cayoosh Range mountains
    • Sep 28, 2019
  • More »

More by Jesse Ferreras

© 1994-2019 Pique Publishing Inc., Glacier Community Media

- Website powered by Foundation