Tag Archives: residential schools

Locked Away

I read the heartbreaking news about all those little bodies found in a mass grave on the grounds of the residential school in Kamloops just before I read the second of two revealing articles in the Winnipeg Free Press about conditions at the Stoney Mountain Federal Penitentiary. And it made me think about how we started locking away Indigenous people over a hundred and fifty years ago and how we still do that.

The Dakota Boat by W. Frank Lynn shows Indigenous people observing the arrival of a boat carrying immigrants at the Upper Fort Garry site in Winnipegphotographed at the Winnipeg Art Gallery

We took away the land Indigenous people lived on and locked them away on reservations. Most couldn’t leave without a pass from the Indian agent in charge of their reserve. They needed a pass to visit their children in residential school, take things to sell at local markets or attend cultural celebrations on other reserves.

Reserves were often located on less favourable land where it was hard to farm or make a living. Canadian laws made it difficult for residents to hunt and fish. Today there is often not enough land on reserves for people to have adequate housing and since many reserves are isolated some don’t have basic services like clean water or good education and employment opportunities

The Scream by Kent Monkman shows children being forcibly taken to residential school. – photographed at the Winnipeg Art Gallery

We locked Indigenous children away in residential schools taking them forcibly, if necessary, from their parents when they were as young as four years old and keeping them till they were sixteen. We know now that residential schools were places where children often lacked nutritious diets, were separated from their siblings, were forbidden to speak their Indigenous languages, were subject to harsh punishment and sexual assault, exposed to contagious diseases, received inadequate medical care, did unpaid labour in unsafe work environments and had their traditional cultural practices vilified. Families today still suffer from the long term impact of residential schools the last of which shuttered its doors in 1996.

Reincarceration by Kent Monkman is a painting of the Stoney Mountain Federal Penitentiary and illustrates its impact on Indigenous Manitobans. Photographed at the Winnipeg Art Gallery

And we are still locking Indigenous people away in our prisons. Here in Manitoba, 75% of the people incarcerated in our correctional facilities are Indigenous even though they only represent 15% of our population. And as the Free Press article pointed out the conditions in which they live in the Stoney Mountain Federal Penitentiary are far from humane. In the last four years, there have been 23 inmate deaths there caused by suicide, drug overdose, gang violence and “apparent” natural causes. Half of the inmates contracted COVID-19.

The building is old without many of the modern features that would make for greater safety and there aren’t adequate medical and mental health resources for inmates. Many are housed in century-old cells that prison reformer Agnes Macphail claimed at the time they were constructed were already dangerous and unfit for human habitation.

How do we make retribution for how we have locked away Indigenous people in the past? How do we change things so the practice doesn’t continue? I think we need to ask Indigenous Canadians to tell us how we do that and then we need to listen to what they say.

Other posts………..

The Scream


The Dakota Boat


Filed under Canada, History, winnipeg art gallery

Things Are Changing

sent to residential school

Part of the heritage mural at the Upper Fort Garry Park in downtown Winnipeg that shows indigenous children being taken away from their parents to residential school.

Just over a decade ago I was teaching grade ten and eleven English at the Steinbach Regional Secondary School.  For one reading assignment I gave my students some memoirs written by residential school survivors.  For most of them this was their first introduction to this shameful part of Canadian history. Many of my students were shocked.  “Did this really happen?”  they asked me in disbelief. 

insurgence:resurgenceI led tours for more than a hundred teens during the recent seven months long Insurgence Resurgence exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.  It featured indigenous artists from across Canada.  The nature of some of the art pieces on display led me to ask the junior and senior high students if they had heard of residential schools.  Without exception they all had, and most could tell me about their devastating legacy.  The young people on my tours knew far more about indigenous history and culture then I ever would have growing up in Canada in the 1950s and 60s and far more than teens knew even a decade ago.  

I realize we have a long way to go to achieve real truth and reconciliation but things are changing.

Other posts………..

Bold and Beautiful

Another Shameful Chapter in Canadian History

So Disappointed


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Filed under Art, Canada, History, Winnipeg

Residential Schools- The Hiroshima of the Indian Nations

residential school children photo at the heard musuem“I was too young to leave home and all I did was cry and cry and cry.”

“ I was very frightened but I had no choice. The Board of Education said I couldn’t stay with my parents.”

residential school children heard musuem 3“People stared at me. I was treated like a wooden puppet.  I moaned for my mother but no one came to comfort me. I was only one of many little animals driven by a herder.”

“I can picture my family to this day just standing there crying. Even my grandfather had tears in his eyes. I was missing them so much and was so sad as I got on the train.”

residential school children heard musuem 2Those are some of the voices you hear as you walk through the gallery Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience at the Heard Museum in Phoenix.  gallery sign residential schools heard musuemThe excellent display which occupies ten rooms tells the story of the American First Nations young people who were forcibly removed from their parents and sent to residential schools beginning in 1879.  The exhibit uses photographs, artefacts, video and draws heavily on first-person oral accounts from the four generations of American young people who attended these schools. It provides a great deal of information about the American government’s attempt to assimilate First Nations children into mainstream society often with tragic consequences.

barber chair heard musuemOne of the artefacts on display is a turquoise leather barber’s chair. The sign above it says……..

teenager before and after residential school heard museum

“ The first thing they did was cut our hair. While we were bathing our breechcloths were taken and we were ordered to put on trousers. We’d lost our hair and our clothes and with the two our identity as Indians.”

As you stand in front of the barber’s chair a woman’s voice says, “I was tied fast to the chair.  I was crying a lot as I felt the cold scissors against my neck.”

Although no comprehensive list was kept it is believed the American government ran hundreds of boarding schools.  One of the voices at the museum describes this education system as “the Hiroshima” of the First Nations people of the United States because it “basically destroyed the fibre of family life.”

residential school boys at workIn the various rooms of the exhibit, we learn about the kind of existence the children had in many of the residential schools. They spent the morning in the classroom and in the afternoon doing the cleaning, gardening, sewing, laundry, cooking and other work needed to maintain the boarding schools.

military uniforms at residential schools heard museumMany were dressed in military uniforms and lived their days on a strict schedule marching from place to place.

residential school boys in uniform heard museumI learned the residential school system was the brainchild of an army officer named Richard Pratt who believed “savage infants could become civilized” in the proper environment but needed strict discipline to do so.

residential school students heard musuem displayThe Heard Museum exhibit does a good job of showing how the government went about trying to achieve three goals with their residential schools.  They wanted to give First Nations young people an academic education, convert them to Christianity and train them to be American citizens. The children were prohibited from speaking their native language and practising their own cultural and spiritual traditions.  They were administered corporal punishment if they tried to do so.  

Going Home by Judith Lowry

Going Home by Judith Lowry

The harshness of residential school life resulted in many students trying to run away. This painting by Judith Lowry in the Heard Museum tells the story of eleven-year-old Molly Lowry, the great-aunt of the artist. Molly ran away from her residential school on a freezing December night in 1916 and died from exposure before she reached her home. 

graveyard carlilse residential school photo at the heard musuem Some children died at school and were buried far from home in residential school cemeteries.

As I walked through the galleries at the Heard Museum I wondered if any Canadian museum had as comprehensive an exhibit about the residential school system in our country.

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