How to Look at Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Archive

Photo: Rupert’s Land Indian Industrial School / later St. Paul’s Indian Residential School, 1901. Library and Archives Canada PA-182251.

WITH VERY few exceptions, the men and women who created and sustained Canada’s Indian Residential School System believed that the policy of “aggressive assimilation”* was benevolent and forward-looking. The absorption of the Indian into Canadian society, necessary to possess land and resources and to build a nation-state, was the desired outcome of policies and the final solution of the Indian Problem envisioned by Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott. The policy of assimilation neither began nor ended with the Indian Residential School System. The program of assimilation continues to this day, for the simple reason that nation-building, from sea to shining sea, continues.

Archival photographs of residential schools and students capture the policy of assimilation in action. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the taking of one’s photograph was a rare and special occasion. The administrators of the schools put considerable effort into crafting the best possible image of their institutions on film. In many archival photographs, the students pose in laboured formations, well-manicured and dressed in formal clothing they would have worn only on such occasions. The photos were informed by multiple desires and purposes, chief among them the desire to impress the distant Ottawa bureaucrats and the missionary societies whose continued financial contributions the administrators greatly desired. Another way of putting the matter is to observe that the historical record preserves the propaganda of the Government and churches. We see reflected in the photographs and documents the self-image of these institutions. Most of the individuals who worked in the hostels, schools, orphanges and boarding houses were kind and well-meaning. Many sacrificed to undertake this work. They were proud of their accomplishments, and it is the accomplishments which the photographs capture.

The Indian Residential School System provokes the question, Is forcible assimilation a good policy? Was it morally right in the past, and is it morally right now? It is one thing for a member of a culture to choose assimilation into another culture. It is quite another matter when a dominant culture systematically forces assimilation upon another group. This process goes by many names, for examples colonization, imperialism, and cultural gencocide. In Canada, residential schools were one instrument of advancing assimilation of indigenous peoples. Others have been the Pass and Permit System, the mass adoption of indigenous children into non-indigenous homes (a policy known today as the “Sixties Scoop”), and the displacement of traditional leaders in favour of a “Chief and Band Council” system of colonial governance. These and other policies have been features of the Indian Act, which remains to this day the legislative instrument governing the lives of Aboriginal people in Canada. The Indian Act not only determines the rights of Indians but defines who and who is not an Indian in Canada. In short, the very Act from which the Indian Residential School System derived its force and legitimacy remains in place. Specific policies have come and gone, but the underlying goal of assimilation, and the overriding Indian Act, continue.

* This phrase occurs in Nicholas Flood Davin, “Report on Industrial Schools For Indians and Half-Breeds” (March 14, 1879).

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