‘Scapegoating the Residential Schools – 3’


‘Scapegoating the Residential Schools’
{Part 3 of 4}:

“If you look at it historically, the priests were very well-travelled and intelligent. They realized that the natives’ food supply was diminishing, and they realized that the schools were one way the natives would learn the new tools they needed to survive — and a lot of those kids did learn.”

“My own mother attended the residential school in Lebret from 1909 to 1916 in Saskatchewan, and she loved it. The nuns taught her everything; how to sew, cook, read and write. How would she have learned, otherwise? Certainly, the European style of discipline was different than native culture, but what could you do? If you let the children leave, a lot of them would have starved. You needed discipline.”

ERBLScapegoatingTheResidentialSchools800x800-3“There was a growing desire among ‘Indian’ people to control their children’s education directly. In 1971, the federal government handed control of the ‘Blue Quills Residential School’ near St. Paul, Alta., to local bands, making it the first federal Indian school to be run by natives. The process of turning over the schools, both residential and day facilities, to local bands accelerated during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

“By 1993, there were only seven residential schools left in Canada and these were administered solely by native bands.

“By the late 1980’s, many natives, especially politicians, were pointing accusing fingers at the residential schools. Highly-publicized incidents of sexual abuse, coupled with white liberal guilt about ‘cultural assimilation’, transformed the old residential schools into symbols of “degradation” and “cultural genocide”, where the native children were systematically stripped of their culture, forced to adopt non-native ways, and undergo physical torture and sexual abuse by the school staff.

“Chief Greg Smith of the Peigan reserve told the ‘Calgary Herald’ that the legacy of the residential schools was terrible.

“It was appalling, I see the effects of those schools everywhere. For me to lose my language, being part of the residential school system hurt me later on. I’ve had to go back and learn my language because it was taken away by someone else.”
{And yet, he was taught English, which opened up the modern world to him…}


“Warner Scout attended St. Paul’s on the Blood Reserve, after his mother froze to death while drinking and his alcoholic father was unable to care for him. He also told the Herald,

“A lot of us graduated from there to jails. We knew nothing else to do except get drunk.”

“Flora Northwest of Hobbema, Alta., attended the ‘Ermineskin Residential School’ in the 1950’s. She told the ‘Edmonton Journal’ that the loneliness at the school was terrible.

“Because of what happened, I became the alcoholic that I never wanted to be,” she said. “I became a woman with no values.”

Blue Quills Residential School
Blue Quills Residential School

“Though it is true that many Indians feel this way, many others are appalled at the demonization of residential schools. Rod Lorenz, a Metis Catholic lay missionary at Lloydminster, is sceptical of the government’s apology for imposing residential schools on the native people.

“If you look at it historically, the priests were very well-travelled and intelligent. They realized that the natives’ food supply was diminishing, and they realized that the schools were one way the natives would learn the new tools they needed to survive — and a lot of those kids did learn.

“My own mother attended the residential school in Lebret from 1909 to 1916 in Saskatchewan, and she loved it. The nuns taught her everything; how to sew, cook, read and write. How would she have learned, otherwise? Certainly, the European style of discipline was different than native culture, but what could you do? If you let the children leave, a lot of them would have starved. You needed discipline.”

“Mr. Lorenz points out that, in some cases, the separation of children from their parents was difficult.

“Sure, mistakes were made but there are two sides to this story and you have to look at the positive side.”

Lac la Ronge Mission School, 1945
Lac la Ronge Mission School, 1945

“Rev. Stanley Cuthand, a Cree Indian and retired Anglican priest, grew up on Saskatchewan’s Little Pine Reserve, boarded at the La Ronge Residential School in 1944, and was chaplain of Saskatchewan’s La Ronge and Gordon Residential Schools, and of St. Paul’s School at the Blood Reserve in the 1960s.

“The schools weren’t terrible places at all,” he recalls. “They were certainly not prisons, although the principals were a little strict.”

“Rev. Mr. Cuthand recalls only one incident of sexual abuse of a student — at the Gordon Reserve — where one of the staff members was later convicted and sent to prison for several years.

“Most of the kids had no complaints about sexual abuse; if they did, they would have told me. However, they did get homesick and some tried to run away. There was also plenty of food; raisins, fish, potatoes, bread with lard, stew. In those days, everyone lived on fish.”

“As for the oft-alleged conscription of unwilling students, Rev. Mr. Cuthand recalls that THE ONLY CHILDREN WHO WERE “FORCED” TO ATTEND A RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL WERE ORPHANS OR CHILDREN FROM DESTITUTE FAMILIES.

“The idea that all children were forced into the schools is an exaggeration,” he explains. “THE IDEA OF THE SEPARATION OF STUDENTS [FROM PARENTS] CAME FROM ENGLAND. PRACTICALLY ALL THE [UPPER CLASS] ENGLISH WERE BROUGHT UP IN {strict} RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS. In Canada, the main idea at the time was to civilize and educate the children, and that couldn’t be done if the kids were at home on the trapline.”

“Mr. Cuthand also scoffs at the accusation that Indians had no influence in their children’s education.

“The Little Pine reserve wanted its own day school and in 1910, after petitioning Ottawa, we got our own day school. OUR PARENTS HAD NEVER HAD SCHOOLS BEFORE, BUT THEY WANTED US TO LEARN ENGLISH. When the school was built, there was so much cooperation between everyone that everyone on the reserve sent their kids there.”

“He explains that the reason the children were forbidden to speak their language was because they used to swear in Cree, and had nicknames for their supervisors.

“Of course, they would be punished for swearing,” he says. “The kids were not saints. But generally, language was not an issue. The La Ronge school also allowed fiddle dances every Saturday night; that was the students’ culture. By then, most of them had already forgotten the traditional Cree dances.”

“Rev. Mr. Cuthand enjoyed his time on the Blood Reserve in southwest Alberta.

“It was an exciting place to live,” he recalls. “The Bloods were rich and very traditional. The school was a fine place with some very good teachers.” 


“[Blood] Senator Gladstone sent his kids there, and many of the students from St. Paul’s went on to university.” Mr. Cuthand remembers that his school was particularly committed to recognizing the native culture. “One principal had tepees set up on the front lawn,” he remembers with a laugh.

“That principal, Archdeacon Samuel H. Middleton, with the support of the tribal leadership, was a resourceful school promoter starting in the 1920’s. “He started the honorary Kainai chieftainships,” explains Mr. Cuthand, whereby prominent people were named as honorary chiefs to support the school. It was an exclusive club: the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) and John Diefenbaker, to name only two. It also came to include three former principals and three former superintendents.

“Mr. Cuthand remembers the archdeacon, who spoke Blackfoot, changing the Sunday School curriculum to make it more relevant to native culture.

“The school was well respected by the Bloods,” Mr. Cuthand says. “We used to take students climbing up Chief Mountain because the Indians there believed it was a sacred place.”

“Though not universal, respect for native culture was fostered elsewhere: for example, at the Blue Quills Residential School near St. Paul, religion classes were often conducted in Cree and Chipewyan.”

–Patrick Donnelly, Alberta Report, 01/26/98, Vol. 25 Issue 6 {CAPS added}


canadian-holocaustfrom 2005:
“It’s true that many Canadians have come to regard residential schools with the kind of odium and disdain otherwise reserved for concentration camps. For those people — and they would include most of the aboriginal leadership — just to have been in one of these schools is qualification enough to line up for a government cheque.

“But that’s unfair, both to the smaller number of victims who bear physical and emotional scars unimaginable to most of us, and to the hundreds of well-meaning men and women who went north to work and teach in those schools, firmly convinced that they were acting in the best interests of the children involved. In fact, many graduates have positive memories of their experience in residential schools.
“It’s tempting to simply heave a sigh of relief that the federal government and the Assembly of “First Nations” have finally agreed on a settlement that will bring an end to the long, agonizing drama over the mistreatment of aboriginal children in Canada’s residential schools. In fact, at $2.2 billion, the agreement seems almost a bargain if it can, indeed, bring this shabby chapter in our history to a close.

“For the real victims — those who were sexually and physically abused — the agreement will bring some relief and compensation for their suffering. Not a lot, perhaps — $10,000 plus $3,000 for each year spent in the system — but something. And more has been set aside for victims of extreme abuse.

“There are, however, elements of this deal that reek of expediency rather than justice. Compensating men and women who were raped and beaten as children is one thing; including loss of language or culture in the list of eligible grievances is going much too far…

“The motives of the people who built the schools and ran them were certainly coloured by the prejudices and preconceptions of their day, but their objective was to prepare aboriginal children for life in a modern society. Their methods were harsh and sometimes coercive but at the time, assimilating children into white society was seen as a far better guarantee of success and happiness than leaving them to try their luck eking out a living in the wilderness.

“We have become more sophisticated over time. Modern sociologists now tell us that the best place to help anyone is where they live (a concept, oddly enough, that the earliest Catholic missionaries also believed). But even that debate continues.

“The abuse and neglect that children suffer on many of Canada’s more remote reserves {Hobbema’s not very remote…} — and the drug-and-booze-drenched hopelessness of their lives — doesn’t seem much of an improvement on the residential schools. If anything, the lot of those children is sometimes worse; at least the schools made an effort to teach their wards a trade.

“It’s certainly sad that in that process, many of those children lost their language and their cultural identity, but the government and the religious groups who ran the schools acted in good faith and in accordance with the best understanding of the time in preparing their wards for the modern world.

“Just because something’s lamentable, doesn’t make it actionable. EQUATING THE LOSS OF LANGUAGE WITH SEXUAL AND PHYSICAL ABUSE IS ABSURD.”

–‘Residential school payout goes too far’,
Montreal Gazette Editorial, November 24, 2005  {CAPS added}


Fort Alexander Residential School (Manitoba Historical Society)
Fort Alexander Residential School
(Manitoba Historical Society)

‘Warm memories’ bond nun, national chief’

“Sister Ida Spence, a tiny 85-year-old nun with arthritic fingers gnarled into near-uselessness, wants to share her most important memories with a visitor.

“She’s almost blind now, this former residential school teacher, but she still uses her two photo albums as reminders of her long and full life. She has saved prayer cards, pictures of Pope John Paul and family snapshots. There are fading images of family, priests long dead and a variety of important religious services.

“Sister Ida has also kept photos of one of her favourite students, once a little boy at Fort Alexander residential school and now a powerful ‘First Nations’ leader.

“In two pictures, an adult Phil Fontaine sits next to an aged Sister Ida and grins at the camera. The man who helped design the federal government’s $2-billion compensation package for victims of residential schools still visits the Metis woman who was once his teacher at Fort Alexander.

“There is grey in even the most seemingly black-and-white situations.

“In the relationship between Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of ‘First Nations’, and the elderly nun now living out her days on the infirmary ward of a church residence, there is a flurry of white, black and grey.

“Many of us have warm memories, of course,” Fontaine said yesterday of the Oblate sisters, his former teachers. “I enjoy seeing them.”

“Fontaine was speaking from the Calgary airport, fresh from the federal government’s announcement of a compensation package that will see former students receive $10,000 apiece, plus $3,000 for each year spent in the school system.

“He qualifies for that payment. Every former student, regardless of whether they suffered abuse,
will receive compensation.

“Fontaine paused as flight announcements rang out over the line.

“We should never, ever forget there were many, many good people there.”

“But that has been forgotten. Residential schools have been measured in absolutes, hindsight rendering them all hell holes where children suffered unspeakable horrors. There has been no room for grey in the retelling of the stories of aboriginal children who were taught by nuns and priests.

“Years ago, Fontaine disclosed he had been physically and sexually abused at the Fort Alexander school. He said yesterday that his fondness for some of his former teachers doesn’t negate the mistreatment of many vulnerable students.

“Our warm memories don’t erase what was done to children,” he said.

“The $2-billion package, which still has to be approved by the courts, is a “fair and just package,” Fontaine said.

“Our intention is to put an end to this story,” he said. “We’re very pleased with the agreement.”

“The possibility exists that not every native student’s experience at a residential school was entirely black. We’ve already assumed that every priest and nun involved in their education wasn’t pure and white.

“Could the truth, ultimately, be grey? Sister Ida, as she sat in her small room in the St. Boniface residence, said she is deeply hurt by all the stories of universal pain inflicted on her charges.

“I was in those places,” she said, eyes shut against the light. “I never saw that. Nobody acted that way with me there.”

“She stops, tells a story about how a young native girl from Eddystone became a nun, and picks up the thread again.

“These were my children and they still are,” she said. “I never had so much fun as I did with those children. For me, I loved them like they were my next of kin.”

“The truth, in black and white, is that Phil Fontaine helped negotiate a $2-billion settlement for every child who attended a residential school.

“But the truth, as grey as it might be, is that the same man still visits the nun who educated him and who remembers him fondly today.

“And that Sister Ida prays for him still.”

–‘Warm memories’ bond nun, national chief’,
Lindor Reynolds, Winnipeg Free Press, Nov.24, 2005

Ermineskin Indian Residential School – 1940’s
(Algoma ‘Hobbema Collection’)


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