Indian Residential Schools: why and how they came to be

By Doug Whitlow

In the years following the so-called “discovery of America” by Christopher Columbus in 1492; one thing became very clear to the various invading European governments. The native people who lived throughout the America’s owned the land and all the natural resources such as animals, fish, timber, gold, silver and everything else located therein.

The English, French, Dutch, Spanish and others decided that the only way to have a clear and unimpeded access to those resources was to assimilate and, or annihilate the Native people of the America’s. So began the process whereby the English and other Europeans slowly but surely began to rid themselves of their Indian Problem.

Almost every week, a story will appear in one of Canada’s newspapers with a narrative on the “Indian Residential Schools” and the impact these schools had on the lives of Indian children somewhere in Canada. While these stories are different, the stories are also the same and the horrors and extremely harsh living conditions for the children were almost identical in nature. The reason being for all of these similarities is due to the fact that the Indian Residential Schools were designed by the British Government, with help from the Anglican and Catholic Churches, to take the Indian out of the Child by depriving the Indian Child of his or her language, history, culture and traditions.

Today, all of the rhetoric being retold in these stories about the Residential Schools has to do with what the survivors of those Genocidal Institutions are going through at the present time. No one is saying anything about why the schools were built, who built the schools and where did the “know how” originate to begin the Indian Residential School Project.

In the 2004 and 2005 Academic Year at the University of British Columbia (UBC), the author of this article undertook a study of the effects of the residential schools on survivors who settled their claims out of court. The author of the study, just like the Survivors who were a part of the exercise, was forced by the Human Subjects Board at UBC to sign a waiver stating that he, Doug Whitlow, would not disclose the findings of the project with anyone outside of the UBC Staff and the First Nations Studies Program at UBC. Each of the survivors that the author interviewed via telephone was also forced to sign a waiver stating that none of them would ever tell anyone about what occurred in the privacy of the Hearing Room.

What can be said about what occurred in the Hearing Room was that each of the survivors stories was identical in relation to the Hearing Room experience and just as disturbing as listening to their residential school experiences. The short version goes like this: the Survivor entered the Hearing Room alone without a lawyer. The survivor was seated facing a panel consisting of an adjudicator and seven lawyers who in turn asked the survivor the same question(s) in just a slightly different way trying to catch the survivor in a lie. The aim of the panel was to grant the survivor as little as or nothing at all in the way of monetary compensation. One survivor was granted only bus fare to and from his home in Northern B.C., while another received zero dollars because he had graduated from college and was self employed. The panel chairman stated in the official record of the proceedings that it was obvious to him that the residential school experience had not affected the survivor in any way, shape or form. The rest of the stories which the author recorded were much the same and just as disturbing to hear.

The out of court settlement project, which the author undertook, was just a part of a larger course load which included an upper level English literature course. It was in this English lit’ course where the author discovered the “French Connection” to the genocidal project known as the Indian Residential School Program. While reading through one section of the English lit’ course the author came across a story which had been written by a well known English jurist of the day about a prison in France in the 1800’s known as Metray. Metray was a debtors prison where, if a man could not pay his debts, the French government locked the man up and his entire family. Once inside the prison, the man was separated from his wife and children and the wife was separated from her children. The French government had found that the easiest way to control the children was to separate them from their parents and place the children in a section of the prison which had big black signs everywhere which read “God Sees You”. The French also found that the best way to maintain discipline among the children was to whip them for any infraction of the rules, no matter how slight, and deprive the children of food or lock the children in solitary confinement for almost any reason.

This was an “aha” moment for the author, as it was right there in black and white: the Metray experience was the basis on which the British and the Canadian governments designed and implemented the Canadian Indian Residential School Project. Once the two governments found the model for the schools, it was easy to bring in the Anglican and Catholic Churches to administer the schools and begin erasing the history, culture and traditions from the minds of the innocent Indian children who were incarcerated just because they were Indians.

In the 1800’s it would have been easy to enlist the Catholic Church to be a part of the project as it had been the Catholic Pope, in 1532, who had written the Papal Bull which stated that the human like beings living in the New World were not Human Beings and therefore the European invaders to North America were allowed to take the land and any resources they wanted. The findings of the Pope formed the basis for the Terra Nullius or Empty Land Doctrine by which the Europeans laid claim to the North and South, American Continents.

The Indian Residential School Project was one part of the overall Canadian Indian Assimilation Project by which the English and Canadian governments hoped to Rid themselves of the Indian problem once and for all. From what the author has learned through his studies; the Canadian Indian Assimilation Project has never been repealed by England or Canada.

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