Indigenous students were sent to boarding homes while attending public schools
CBC News: In January 1967, the minister of Indian Affairs in Ottawa got a troubling letter from the United Church’s Indian Work Sub-Committee in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.
Committee members were so concerned by the department’s handling of an expanding boarding home program for Indigenous students attending public schools, they felt compelled to write. The program, then in its second decade, had “great potential,” the committee said, but it was “in serious danger of collapsing because of weaknesses in its implementation and excessive case-loads for the counsellors.”
The committee filled two single-spaced, typewritten pages with what it saw as problems with the program. First, the letter said, the department failed to properly match students to homes, which had “unfortunate results, as we all can testify.”
Education counsellors were underqualified, culturally incompetent and already overworked. They proved incapable of adequately screening prospective parents and students, “one of the greatest problems” in the program. “We know of families who have been allowed to take students when there was already overcrowding and an unstable household,” the committee said.
Boarding home parents frequently lacked insight, appreciation or basic knowledge of the students’ cultures. There was an “inadequate medical and dental situation that students are exposed to.”
Earlier this month, lawyers for boarding home survivors and the federal Liberal government agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit. The announcement of an agreement-in-principle came nearly 56 years after the church committee sent its letter of concerns, which was filed in Federal Court in 2018.
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The letter bears the minister’s office’s stamp — showing Indian Affairs was told early, and at the highest level, of problems with the program. Officials continued getting similar reports as the program expanded across the country, the historical record shows.
Created after changes to Indian Act
The department introduced the boarding home program along with a new educational assistance policy following 1951 amendments to the Indian Act. The revised legislation repealed the law’s notoriously oppressive bans on things like hiring lawyers, filing land claims and conducting traditional ceremonies.
Indian Affairs was exploring alternatives to residential schools, ushering in an expansion of the on-reserve day school system and new partnerships with provincial public schools, historian Sean Carleton said.
He said the department took this action mostly out of frugality — a belief the new systems would be cheaper — and never lost sight of its long-standing aim: assimilation. “The project of genocidal schooling continues in different forms” after the Second World War, said Carleton, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. “The goal is really to get Indigenous children exposure to secondary education on the surface, and the subtext of that is that if they can get higher forms of education they will assimilate more easily into the capitalist workforce.”
Carleton cites a study Indian Affairs ordered into the boarding home program a year after receiving the church committee’s letter. A researcher named Bessie Snider completed the study in 1969.
In addition to ‘separation trauma’ the Indian boarder suffers from cultural shock — loss of identity, and loss of family, kinship and community support.- Bessie Snider, 1969
The department’s annual report for that year said “the purpose of the boarding home program is to provide a satisfactory living environment for students who must leave their homes in order to continue their education,” but Snider’s report suggested the program failed to reach that goal. “Indian boarding home students are in a less advantaged position than foster children in temporary care of child welfare agencies,” Snider wrote.
“In addition to ‘separation trauma’ the Indian boarder suffers from cultural shock — loss of identity, and loss of family, kinship and community support. “This may result in alienation from school, deep subconscious conflicts, and the need for a substitute support.”
Carleton said many in the public believe conditions improved immediately when Indigenous students transitioned from residential to public schools, but reports like Snider’s show this wasn’t always the case. “This was a report by the Department of Indian Affairs in the ’60s that evaluated the system, pointed out its flaws, and kind of revealed a situation that would shock a lot of Canadians.”
‘I want to hear an apology’
These reports often omitted and ignored the perspectives of the Indigenous youth themselves, said Reginald Percival, lead plaintiff in the class action. He’s read some of the reports that were done. “I thought, wow, some of this stuff is unreal. Where did they get this? It’s just not real,” Percival said.
“They were talking about how great it was for us. I thought, hmm, somebody’s making up a story here.”
Even today, boarding homes survivors’ experiences remain largely undocumented — something Percival, even before he got involved in the case, spent more than a decade trying to change.
A 67-year-old member of the Nisga’a Nation, Percival was placed in boarding homes at age 13, where he suffered extreme racism, mistreatment and alienation, a 2018 court affidavit says. Percival started writing letters to politicians on survivors’ behalf shortly after he learned they were excluded from the 2006 residential schools class-action settlement.
Along with his, affidavits sworn by four other survivors offer stories of racism, psychological abuse, malnutrition, rape, beatings, forced labour, bullying, cruelty and inhumane treatment.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller, who manages part of the bureaucracy that was once Indian Affairs, called the affidavits horrific. “As difficult as it is to hear it, it’s even more difficult at times to share,” Miller said. “We do know that there are still lots of survivors that are suffering.”
Percival said when he heard about the draft settlement “I said, you know, I want to hear an apology from Canada.” “I want them to say we’re sorry for what happened to you guys.”
Miller said an apology is among a slate of issues to be hashed out in a final settlement.
‘Major concerns’ reported in 1970s
In 1971, Indian Affairs responded to Snider’s report with new, comprehensive program guidelines.
The document showed Ottawa expected an “increase in the number of Indian students requiring accommodation in private boarding homes.” In 1969, Snider documented 2,800 Indigenous boarders in private homes countrywide. A year later, the number nearly doubled to 5,040.
Student boarding homes were found to be inadequate and overcrowded. Communication between parents, teachers, students and families was found to be poor.- Ontario task force, 1976
New reports revealed recurrent problems.
An internal 1971 Indian Affairs report raised “major concerns” with program procedures, selection of homes, Indigenous parent involvement, frequency of home changes, provision of medical services, and documentation. “There is frequently a lack of sufficient time for the counsellor to do adequate follow-up,” the report said. “More homes are required in many areas, and better adjustment and understanding of Indian students and boarding home parents are required.”
A 1976 Ontario provincial task force investigating the education needs of First Nations people was more blunt. “Student boarding homes were found to be inadequate and overcrowded,” it reads. “Communication between parents, teachers, students and families was found to be poor.”
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Some officials administering the program knew the problems from experience.
A 1976 Ottawa Citizen article showed the capital’s Algonquin College wrestling with problems facing First Nations and Inuit boarders. The college formed an advisory committee in 1975. The committee recommended hiring Indigenous advisers to help curb “a fairly high drop-out rate.” The newspaper quoted the director of education at Northern Affairs, Ralph Ritcey, who said there was “an urgent need” for Inuit counsellors to help young Inuit boarders.
One of three Northern Affairs counsellors tasked with overseeing Inuit youth in the boarding homes program, Dave Grundy, described the struggles. “I find the majority of Inuit don’t want to insult you; in fact they go out of their way not to insult you. That raises some problems,” Grundy told the paper. “For instance, if a kid can’t stand a boarding home or his landlady, he doesn’t come in and say he can’t stand them, he just says he wants to go home. He says his grandmother died six months ago and they need him at home.”
In 1978, Indian Affairs sought 60 such homes in the capital to house students between the ages 13 and 18 from northern Ontario and Quebec, the Citizen later reported. “At least 18 students will attend the ANA (Adaptation and Assimilation) program at Rideau High School, set up in the fall of 1977 by the Ottawa Board of Education and the Department of Indian Affairs to help Indian students adapt to an urban environment,” the article reports.
The continued creation of programs like this one into the late 1970s — with assimilation still the stated goal — signals a need for Canadians to reckon with public schooling’s role in the colonial project, said the historian Carleton.
“Public schooling is a crucial component of colonialism for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people,” he said. “That’s a part of this history that we’re only starting to grapple with.”
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brett Forester is a reporter with CBC Indigenous in Ottawa. He is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in southern Ontario who previously worked as a journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.