Tag Archives: residential schools

Begin by listening

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is an occasion for remembrance and also for understanding

Orange Shirt Day
✎  WAYNE K. SPEAR | SEPTEMBER 30, 2022 • Current Events

FATHER HUBERT O’CONNOR was principal of the St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School the year Phyllis Webstad was born. Six years later, in 1973, Phyllis arrived at the school wearing the new orange shirt she’d been given by her grandmother.

For decades Indian residential schools greeted their wards with a stock list of indignities: the children’s hair was cut, their clothing stripped away and replaced by a drab uniform, and numbers were assigned to serve henceforth in place of their names.

Phyllis’ new orange shirt was taken, and she never saw it again. At a May 2013 gathering of former St. Joseph’s students, her story became the inspiration for Orange Shirt Day. On May 28, 2021 a bill passed unanimously in the House of Commons, and shortly thereafter in the Senate, designating September 30 the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

September, the month of this national day of remembrance, is remembered by many Indigenous people as the time of year when those who got to spend summer at home returned to the institution. September is also remembered, with a degree of loathing, as the time when male children were sent into the schools’ fields to pick carrots and potatoes and to perform the many chores of harvest time.

But back to the future Bishop O’Connor. I began with him to underscore the fact that not so long ago predators abounded in the residential schools. At St. Joseph’s alone, dorm supervisor Edward Gerald Fitzgerald and Oblate priests Glenn Doughty and Harold McIntee were serial offenders.

In 1996 O’Connor was convicted of rape indecent assault. Doughty and McIntee served brief prison sentences for indecent assault, gross indecency, and buggery. An RCMP visit inspired Edward Gerald Fitzgerald to flee to Ireland in 2002, where local media reported him living in a “plush” Dublin suburb beyond the reach of Canadian authorities.

A good deal more of the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School can be had from first-hand accounts — for example Bev Sellars’s memoir They Called Me Number One — as well as from research such as Elizabeth Furniss’s Victims of Benevolence: The Dark Legacy of the Williams Lake Indian Residential School and Margaret Whitehead’s 1981 study The Cariboo Mission: a history of the Oblates.

History, as the Final Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples says, “is not an attractive picture, and we do not wish to dwell on it.” But, as RCAP also acknowledges:

it is sometimes necessary to look back in order to move forward. The co-operative relationships that generally characterized the first contact between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people must be restored, and we believe that understanding just how, when and why things started to go wrong will help achieve this goal.

In other words, truth before reconciliation. We look back for one and forward to the other. The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is an occasion for remembrance and also for understanding.

On this year’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, many Indigenous people will be thinking of the children who suffered loneliness and deprivation, and who in some cases never got to return home. It is a sombre day of reflection but also a day to acknowledge that Indigenous people survived a system designed to erase their languages and cultures.

Today there’s an abundance of articles, books and video concerning every facet of the Indian residential schools, much of it in the voices of those who were there. In my experience they are more than willing to tell their stories. The simple act of listening is where both truth and reconciliation begin.⌾

Time to Pay For The Missing Children and Unmarked Burials Mandate


Children Died and Disappeared Because the Government Was Cheap

✎  WAYNE K. SPEAR | June 2, 2021 • Current Events

THE Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announcement of a newly-confirmed burial ground is an instance of shock but not necessarily of surprise. For decades the existence of unmarked graves on and near former residential school properties had been known among the former students, and many of them told me so when I first began researching and writing about the residential school system in the 1990s. Only the scale and precise location of these sites were, and still are, a matter of uncertainty.

The need for an investigation was evident even before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was established, on June 1, 2008. Volume Four of the TRC’s final report, “Missing Children and Unmarked Burials,” rehearses the background of the 2007 Missing Children and Unmarked Burials Mandate, a directive of Jim Prentice, at the time Minister responsible for Indian Affairs and the Office of Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada. Prentice instructed a working group to produce recommendations for research into the disappeared children of the residential schools, only for his successor to reject the recommendations when they came back with a request for funding in excess of $1.5 million.

As the TRC puts it, “the federal government’s denial of this request has placed significant limits on the Commission’s ability to fully implement the working group’s proposals, despite our sincere belief in their importance.” The substance of these proposals was four research projects into topics including student enrolment and illness numbers, disease and death rates, disappearances of children, and the location of cemeteries and gravesites in which students are believed to be buried. None of these studies was within the scope of the TRC’s existing budget, hence the request for additional funds to support an expanded mandate. A scaled-down version of this research was conducted and published as volume four of the TRC final report, and today this volume constitutes the first and perhaps only systematic effort to document these subjects, albeit within constraints partly related to resources but also to a lack of historical documentation.

Where might we be today had the Minister allocated funding to support his Missing Children and Unmarked Burials Mandate? No one can say as certain. But we can note an irony occurring across the history of Indian Affairs, the short-term cost-saving measure that in the long-run costs more dearly. Parsimony was the guiding principle of the residential school system on the day it was created, by an Order in Council of October 22, 1892 which established the government-church partnership as well as the per-capita funding formula. (The 1892 formula was a cut of funding levels Indian Affairs had been paying for industrial and boarding schools up until that date.) From then forward parsimony would keep coin in the accounts of the Crown at the expense of undernourished children and overcrowded buildings, the spread of disease, and other ugliness that is today the subject of class action lawsuits, multi-billion-dollar settlements, and several commission reports.

Over the years I’ve met and interviewed hundreds of survivors (as former Indian residential school students came to be called) in and from communities coast to coast to coast. Their stories have been recorded in books, plays, newspaper articles, and commission reports. But many children did not survive, and others who did survive were forever lost to their parents and families and communities. Some were institutionalized, others placed into adoption, and yet others drifted into towns and cities, never to restore the bonds that residential schools were designed to sever. The two hundred and fifteen children we have read about represent two hundred and fifteen families and many more siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. The scope of this pain is as large as Canada itself. We can never know the experiences of their short lives in their own words. All Canada, and the churches who ran the schools, can do now is support the work of communities like Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc. ⌾

Read this article at the National Post.

Gord Downie will not make things better

Canadians forgot about Chanie Wenjack before. They can forget about him again.

✎  Wayne K. Spear | November 16, 2017 • Current Events

IN 1904 CANADA’S DEPARTMENT of Indian Affairs recruited the Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Immigration to study the health conditions throughout the western territories of the Indian residential school system. P.H. Bryce’s report, submitted on June 19, 1907 to Frank Pedley, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, did not please his superiors. Not only were Bryce’s meticulous observations unpleasant, they were submitted on the false assumption that the federal government was in fact interested in improving the health and welfare of the children in its care. At the time Bryce was witnessing the substandard living conditions of the residential schools (where hunger, fires, overcrowding, and death rates of 20 percent and higher were common) the future head of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, was a treaty commisioner and the author of a 1905 collection of poetry, New World Lyrics and Ballads. Scott would eventually push the troublesome Bryce out of his job, admitting that

It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian Problem.

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You’ve probably heard of P.H. Bryce, and you’ve also likely seen the Scott quotation. The effort of Duncan Campbell Scott to silence Bryce was a failed one, as such efforts often are. In 1922 Bryce’s medical report was turned into a book, under the fulsome title The Story of a National Crime: Being an Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada, the Wards of the Nation, Our Allies in the Revolutionary War, Our Brothers-in-Arms in the Great War.” Bryce’s book gave rise to newspaper headlines and to articles in well-circulated Canadian publications like Saturday Night Magazine and presumably also to momentary outrage and scandal. As early as the 1920s the general Canadian public could and did know that (for example) preventable deaths of children had occured in the residential schools at rates between 30 and 60 percent, and that “ a trail of disease and death has gone on almost unchecked by any serious efforts on the part of the Department of Indian Affairs.” Bryce not only had pointed figures, he had pointed fingers, specifcally assigning blame over the failure to improve matters to “the active opposition of Mr. D.C. Scott.”

Today Bryce is considered a rare example of a principled and outspoken critic of the Indian residential school system. He lost his career advocating on behalf of Indigenous children, and having found himself dismissed from the federal government, he took his crusade to the public. As far as I can tell, Bryce’s efforts changed nothing. The Indian residential schools would remain for another 47 years beyond the publication of The Story of a National Crime, and the conditions of the schools would slowly improve, because in the post-war years everything was improving. But the improvements didn’t prevent further, unnecessary deaths.

Chanie Wenjack was a public school student, boarded at the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School. You have almost certainly heard of him, and of his story, from Gord Downie. You know that he ran away from the residential school in October 1966 (just as many, many children ran way) and that he died of hunger and exposure longing to see the faces and to feel the embrace of his distant family. What you might not know is that Chanie’s story also had a P.H. Bryce figure, in the form of Ian Adams, a journalist whose February 1967 Maclean’s article, “The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack,” also received national attention. The article was turned into a chapter of Adams’ 1970 book, The Poverty Wall is Guilt of Greed, Racism, and the Misery of 6,000,000 Canadians. In the meanwhile, considerations raised by the death of Chanie Wenjack were the subject of additional media attention, including a front-page, June 21, 1969 Toronto Star report by Glen Allen. Over and over again, the “plight” of Indigenous people has been brought to the front pages, and to the attention of Canadians, to little if any effect.

In Thunder Bay there was an inquest recently into the deaths of seven Indigenous youth who had come south to attend high school. These young students, like Chanie Wenjack, were boarded many miles from home. In 1966 the jurors of a coroner’s inquest into the death of Chanie Wenjack questioned the wisdom of the education system. The jurors (none of whom was Indigenous) were able to see that the “Indian education system causes tremendous emotional & adjustment problems for these children.” They were baffled by the residential school system—specfically by the evident lack of the moral and practical wisdom of removing children from familes to have them educated far from home. The inquest recommendations directed that “a study be made of the present Indian Affairs’ education system and philosophy. Is it right?”—but none of the recommendations went anywhere. As Tanya Talaga has shown, in her book Seven Fallen Feathers, a straight line can be drawn from the residential schools to the death of Chanie Wenjack to the Thunder Bay deaths. Is the Indian Affairs education system and philosophy right? Do the deaths of Indigenous children justify a change in the policy of this Department? As the years go on, it seems more and more likely that Duncan Campbell Scott spoke for Canada and Canadians.

It isn’t true that nothing changes. But the deaths of Indigenous children, attending schools hundreds of miles from family and home, because there are no schools nearby, continue.


And the rediscovery of this reality, over and over, through articles and books and songs, continues also. A generation ago the title of Bryce’s 1922 book appeared on John Milloy’s 1999 A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986. A country that had forgotten all about Indian residential schools in the 77 years since Bryce, and in the 32 years since Chanie Wenjack, was once again scandalised to discover its poorly-hidden history. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples released its final report in 1996 (John Milloy, author of A National Crime, wrote the RCAP chapter on Indian residential schools) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its final report in December 2015. In the quarter century between 1990 and 2015, dozens and perhaps even hundreds of memoirs were written by the survivors of abuses in Canada’s Indian Residential School System. Yet somehow a good number of Canadians were shocked and surprised to learn about a piece of their history from a singer in a rock band.

An iBook, Now in its 2nd Edition! “Residential Schools: With the Words and Images of Survivors”

In 2016, Residential Schools: With the Words and Images of Survivors won the Golden Oak Award. Now in its 2nd Edition, this comprehensive history of Canada’s Indian Residential School System is also available on iTunes  as a deluxe Apple iBook. The electronic version features audio and video enhancements, as well as other additional material. The full colour, hardcover version can be ordered from the publisher here.


Here is what readers are saying:

“A respectful and informative book about the residential school system written by Aboriginal author Larry Loyie. It includes first hand accounts of many different survivors of the school system as well as photos and documents. This is a heartbreaking, but very important read as it includes the long term effects the school system has had on these families.”

“This is an excellent introduction to the history of the Indian Residential School System in Canada. I truely hope it finds it’s way into every school and church library. The authors compile personal stories, many photographs, and history in a well sequenced telling of the tragic history of relations between First Nations peoples and colonial Canada.”

“Researched and written over the span of almost two decades, the authors document the history of residential schools with first-person interviews (including that of author Larry Loyie) and photographs. It is written in a very accessible way for readers from teens to adults, and should serve as an important introduction to this blight on Canada’s history.”

“Absolutely wonderful overview of Canada’s residential schools, with firsthand accounts and pictures from survivors. Especially loved the “myths” section at the back of the book 🙂 Bravo to the survivors and authors brave enough to share their story.”

“Very comprehensive summary of Residential Schools and their legacy. Great visuals and witness accounts.”


Residential Schools: reviewers recommend my latest book

Goodminds, IEP

Above, l. to r., authors Wayne K. Spear, Constance Brissenden, and Larry Loyie, and Jeff Burnham, President, GoodMinds & Indigenous Education Press

Lovely reviews are arriving daily of my latest book, Residential Schools, co-authored with Larry Loyie and editor Constance Brissenden.

Here’s an excerpt from the Canadian Children’s Book Centre Winter 2015 edition of Book News (page 38). The author of this review is Karri Yano, a Toronto writer and editor.

The material presented is a balance of historical facts and personal experiences. While thorough in its overview—timeline, politics behind the events (racist attitudes in society and politics)—it is not explicit in the details of the neglect and abuse, but specific facts and personal testimonies reveal the deplorable conditions the children who were taken away and living far from any family support had to endure while also demonstrating the incredible resilience of the survivors and what they did to cope.

The book is suitable / appropriate for student 12 and up as a resource for one period of Canadian history that reveals the struggles of Aboriginal people to self-identify and their fight for equal rights and survival as a culture in Canada.

Residential Schools: with the Words and Images of Survivors—a National History | Released in 2014
“Residential Schools: with the Words and Images of Survivors—a National History”

The book has been featured recently in the Edmonton Journal and Brantford Expositor. Paula Kirman, writing for iheartedmonton.org, says “Residential Schools is an excellent introduction to this tragic subject, and will certainly have a place in classrooms around the province.”

You can order the book by phone from my Brantford, Ontario publisher, Goodminds, 1 (877) 862-8483 or email helpme@goodminds.com.


Inside the Glamorous Life of an Author

2014-11-14 12.38.12

TODAY I MET my book about residential schools — called … um … Residential Schools — for the first time. For that reason alone it was a good day, and I wasn’t even sure if I’d be up for it, since I spent a good part of yesterday in bed with a fever, dreaming about the apocalypse. Or at least I think it was the apocalypse. It could have just been about the publishing industry. Haha! Ever funny that one.

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The Sixties Scoop

Sixties Scoop

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS reported this week that Manitoba Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson will host a two-day roundtable with twenty people who were part of something now known as the “Sixties Scoop.” For some of you this will be a new and unfamiliar phrase, and you’ll wonder why adopted aboriginal children are calling for an apology from the federal government of Canada. This essay will attempt to inform you on these and other points.

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