School, a government tool to destroy native cultures

School, a government tool to destroy native cultures
When Indian Affairs opened the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in 1930, it was envisioned
by them that it would prove to be an invaluable tool in their ongoing struggle to deliver the coup de
grace to Micmac and Maliseet cultures. For instance, a cardinal offense for its students was to be
caught uttering one word in either indigenous tongue.
How serious the Department of Indian Affairs took its goal of eradicating both cultures is witnessed
by the information given in a well researched article about the operations of the School by Marilyn
Millwood, called "Clean Behind the Ears." She writes that the Halifax-Chronicle reported the
Department's goal for the school thus: "their object and desire in opening the new school was that its
graduates should become self-supporting and not return to their old environment and habits."
Another sad item from the same source highlights the cruelties the children suffered: A boy, who by
accident, had put too much salt on his porridge, was forced by a Nun to eat it: "Eat it" (she said.) So
he finally took his spoon and took a mouthful of the stuff. It didn't stay down long. It came back up
into his bowl. So she whacked him in back of the head and said, "I told you to eat it!" So he started to
cry, took the spoon and tried to eat some more, and that came back up. About the third time, he
fainted. Instead of picking him up off the floor...she picked him up by the neck and threw him out to
the centre aisle..."
I can attest to the authenticity of the before-mentioned. Two of my older brothers and a first cousin
attending the school during this period related for us, in more intimate detail, this incident and many
others. The school was such a scary place in many of our minds that parents were able to use the
threat of sending us there to extract good behaviour.
Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the racist manner in which these schools were operated is to
simply relate another incident that Ms. Millwood reports - witnessed by the hand of the priest himself:
"A former pupil of the school retained a lawyer in an attempt to keep his younger siblings from being
returned to the school following their summer vacation in 1936. The lawyer contacted the agent,
saying the complainant had related "A very hard story of the treatment young Indian children receive
there. It would appear that his own experience has been so hard that he dreads very much the idea
of going back there and, naturally, feels it hard to see his younger brother and sister taken there,
where they will receive similar treatment."
“The agent did not believe there were grounds for complaint, but forwarded the lawyer’s letter to the
school principal who, in his written reply to the agent, seemed quite unsettled by it. "To let them get
away with their lies doesn't seem the right thing to do - to keep them from spreading falsehoods,
about those who try to do something for them, seems hopeless. And why white people fall for such
stories is hard to explain. For myself, I never hope to catch up with him and his lies. . .I think the best
thing to do is write to the Department and, since we have a full school, request a few more beds and
insist upon them coming back. I am getting a bit tired of playing square with the Indian and in turn
have him cut my throat.’
“He added that the lawyer didn't understand the regulations, which called for one-half day in the
classroom and the other half in labour, and recalled that the former pupil who had hired him was
merely ‘a big body with the mind of a ten year-old child...To play a game of baseball was work for
him; he would rather sit in the sun and pester a bumble-bee or a fly, by pulling off one wing and one
leg at a time. To make an Indian work is the unpardonable sin among them."
The principal called the allegations of hard treatment "ridiculous," and could not understand how a
lawyer could be "duped by an Indian." The Department decided not to insist upon the return of the
children, but also denied any financial aid that would allow them to pursue an education elsewhere."
The racist statements made by this priest demonstrate just what First Nation peoples were up
against in trying to acquire an education and civil rights in a society which provided them the bare
minimum. Throughout the Department's history, the cutting off of financial aid was used liberally by it
to force compliance with its wishes1.
Excerpt from We Were Not Savages:
"In 1936 a fifteen-year-old girl from the nearby Shubenacadie Reserve refused to return to the
school and gave the following statement to the agent and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police:
"I have been going to Indian school for the past five years.... Before my holidays this year I was
employed in kitchen for eleven weeks.... In the eleven weeks ... I spent a total of two weeks in
school. The Sister has beaten me many times over the head and pulled my hair and struck me on
the back of neck with a ruler and at times grabbed ahold of me and beat me on the back with her
I have also been ordered to stand on the outside of the windows with a rope around my waist to
clean windows on the fourth floor with a little girl holding the rope. When I told the Sister I was afraid
to go out the window she scolded me and made me clean the window and threatened to beat me if I
did not do it. This is being done to other children.
After we get a beating we are asked what we got the beating for and if we tell them we do not know
we get another beating. The Sisters always tell us not to tell our parents about getting a beating."
Although available on paper, education, a vital tool to provide First Nations citizens with the ability to
appreciate and modernize their ancient cultures, was all but denied until recent times. This unwritten
requirement of White society: "You may have an education, but only if you agree to assimilate and
accept the eventual extinction of your culture." Plus, the racism encountered by students attending
White schools made an education practically unattainable.
In spite of these impediments, through the efforts of private organizations and churches, by 1867
some First Nations Peoples were able to read and write. However, after Confederation, even in the
knowledge that the vast majority of Natives were illiterate, the government made no real effort to
provide education until the passage of the Indian Act in 1876. Then, it was made unattractive by the
provision that automatically enfranchised a Band member who graduated from university.
Assimilation was the motivating factor behind these laws.
To hurry assimilation along, during the first six decades of twentieth century, First Nations tongues
came under attack across the country. In Nova Scotia, Mi'kmaq children were forbidden to speak
their language at schools and discouraged to do so in many other public places. Administrators at
the Shubenacadie residential school informed Mi'kmaq and Maliseet children upon enrolment that it
was a cardinal offense to speak their own languages. If caught, retribution was swift.
Paul, Daniel. “School, a government tool to destroy native cultures.” Halifax Herald 14, Oct. 1994
The same rule was followed and strictly enforced by bureaucrats administering schools and other
public institutions in First Nations communities across Canada. But nowhere was it pursued with the
same dogged determination as on mainland Nova Scotia. This was not unusual, because from the
time the British took over in 1713, the Mi'kmaq of peninsular Nova Scotia had always been singled
out for special hatred.
Despite the determined effort made by White society to eradicate the Mi'kmaq language, it is still
alive and healthy today throughout most of Cape Breton, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island;
and surprisingly, almost half of the Mi'kmaq on mainland Nova Scotia can still converse in their
mother tongue-another example of the Mi'kmaq's dauntless spirit.
In 1892, trying to come up with a way to educate Maliseet and Mi'kmaq children, the Department
toyed with the idea of building a residential school farm in Nova Scotia. However, probably because
education was not much of a priority in the Department's estimation, the decision to actually build
such a school in Canada's Maritime Provinces was not made until 1927. It was opened off-Reserve
in the village of Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, in 1930.
The teaching staff were recruited according to the section of the Indian Act that mandated that
teachers be of the same faith as the children they were teaching. As most of the Mi'kmaq and
Maliseet were Catholic, the teachers were Roman Catholic nuns and the principal a priest. The
curriculum was the same as that prescribed by the Nova Scotia Department of Education for the
provincial school system except for the courses in religion and in how to be ashamed of being an
Indian. Children were taught about all the advantages of White life and all the evils of First Nations'
isolation, language and culture.
Besides delivering second-rate education, these institutions were also used by Indian Affairs for
many other purposes, enforcement, punishment and terrorism, to name a few. Because of their
"wards of the Crown" status, no possibility for legal redress was available to Registered Indians
victimized at these facilities. So, when reading the following material, please bear in mind that the
fights waged by parents and other relatives in trying to access and protect their children incarcerated
in the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School were taken on without access to the laws that
protected White Canadians from being victimized by the heavy hand of the state. Thus, many
suffered greatly.
I'll start this short overview of the Shubenacadie residential school by relating the less than fond
experiences of distinguished former resident Elsie Basque, née Charles. Elsie was born in 1916, to
Margaret Labrador and Joe Charles, at Hectanooga, Digby County, Nova Scotia. She has many
fond memories of her early years, but they were not without tears and tragedy. By the end of her
third year, Joe was hospitalized with tuberculosis and her mother had left the family permanently.
But things got better. In 1922 Joe's TB stabilized and life at home in Hectanooga returned to a
peaceful existence.
Elsie remembers "papa" as being her most important childhood influence. His advise that "To be
somebody, one needs a good education" is still fondly recalled. In tune with his belief, Joe enroled
her in the old one-room school in Hectanooga where she completed grade 7. Then her life was
drastically changed by the information contained in an article her father had read in a 1929 edition of
the Halifax Chronicle which touted the new horizons being opened up for the Mi'kmaq by the
opening of the residential school. Believing the school was a golden opportunity to secure his
daughter's education, Joe enroled her.
This is Elsie's assessment of the two years she spent there:
"I've always regarded these years as time wasted.... I was in the 8th grade when I arrived at the
school in February 1930 and in the 8th grade when I left in 1932. What had I learned in those 28
months? How to darn a sock, sew a straight seam on the sewing machine, and how to scrub clothes
on a washboard. Educationally, how to parse and analyze a sentence.
Volumes have been written about the school. Its total disastrous effect upon the Mi'kmaq/Maliseet
Nations will never be known. Generations later, the scars remain. It was not an education institution
as we define education. Older children, boys and girls were taken out of the classroom to do choresmilk cows, clean the barn, plant and harvest, etc. The girls were ordered to launder clothes, make
uniforms, scrub the floors and so on."
After this disappointment, Elsie, who is fluent in French, returned to Clare and enroled at Meteghan's
Sacred Heart Academy, where she graduated with a high school diploma in 1936. She then entered
classes at the Provincial Normal College in Truro and was awarded a teacher's certificate in 1937.
Thus she became the first licensed Mi'kmaq teacher in Nova Scotia. Notably, she was well treated at
the college by peers and administration. The students elected her class president and she describes
her time there as a "fun year."
The year was capped by a rare honour. The principal of the college, Dr. Davis, permitted very
exceptional students to use his name as a reference. In 1937 only three were permitted to do so,
and Elsie was one of them! With teaching license in hand, she applied by mail in mid-1937 to the
Inverness County School Inspector for a teaching job at Mabou Ridge. This is how she describes her
first face-to-face meeting with the inspector-it was also her first experience with overt racism:
"On our short drive to his home in Port Hastings, he advised that it would be best for me to turn
around and go home. He was certain that the good people of Mabou Ridge would never accept a
Micmac to teach their children. After much discussion it was agreed that I could at least try. The next
day, teaching duties were undertaken without opposition from the community, the year passed
without incident." [In the mid-1980s Elsie returned to Mabou Ridge and was given a warm welcome.]
If Elsie had applied in person she would not have got the job. Incidents such as this prove that
officialdom was at the forefront of racial discrimination in Nova Scotia.
In view of the racism afoot in this province at the time, I had often wondered where Elsie had got the
courage to attend a White institution and become a teacher. Then she gave me an explanation that
reflected Maritime history. Raised among the Acadian people, Elsie had not experienced the selfconfidence-destroying racial discrimination in youth that was suffered by most of Nova Scotia's
"I grew up in the area of Nova Scotia known as Clare ... an area where one is accepted for who and
what one is, not on ethnic background. The bonds of friendship and understanding that began with
Chief Membertou, Champlain, De Monts, Poutrincourt, have never faltered. Their legacy lives on."
In 1992, Marilyn Millward wrote an article about the residential school entitled "Clean Behind the
Ears?" These are some shocking excerpts from it:
"Many of the students who attended the old Shubenacadie Indian Residential School carry with them
the scars of that experience. But they were not the only ones to suffer. A look at surviving records
reveals the anguish many parents endured, and shows the determination to speak and be heard that
was their reaction to the way the educational and governmental bureaucracy dealt with them and
their children.
The Indian Residential School at Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, operated between February 1930 and
June 1967. It was intended to accommodate Micmac (and Maliseet) children who were deemed to
be "underprivileged," defined by the Federal Department of Indian Affairs as orphaned, neglected, or
living too distant to permit attendance at any day school. While children who were orphaned or
remote from schools could be easily identified, it was more difficult to interpret the term "neglected."
This was a matter to be determined by the local Indian Agent.
Here, the Department intended to "consolidate Indian educational work in the Maritimes" and
planned to "mould the lives of the young Aborigines and aid them in their search towards the goal of
complete Canadian Citizenship." Duncan C. Scott, then Deputy Superintendent General of the
Department of Indian Affairs, told the Halifax-Chronicle that their object and desire in establishing the
new school was that its graduates should become self-supporting and "not return to their old
environment and habits."
Millward states that parental permission was necessary for admission. Although she later qualifies
this statement, it isn't true. She may not have been aware that, because we were "wards of the
Crown," the law as it then stood gave control of such things to Indian Affairs. The parental
permission portions of the forms for admission to the school were simply window dressing. The
Indian Agents did not legally need our permission to do anything they wanted to do with us, and they
used these powers at will.
Ms. Millward substantiates this fact when describing how a Mi'kmaq parent tried to keep a child
"A mother wanted to keep her children home after their vacation, and believed that only a note to her
agent to that effect was necessary. When she learned "it wasn't her decision to make," she had a
justice of the peace write to the Department on her behalf. His help consisted of a note saying that
this mother "says she 'loves' her children"-the word "loves" was belittled and negated by quotation
marks. The agent wrote that she wanted them home only to take care of the house and their
younger siblings, and so her request was apparently unsuccessful."
The Department's control over the lives of children and parents was all-encompassing. Ms. Millward
reports of vacations:
"Perhaps because of the difficulty in having some of the children returned to the school after summer
vacations, holidays at home were not allowed for any children during Christmas. Although specific
reasons for this policy are not clear from the existing records, they are implied in a 1938 letter from
the Department to an agent in the Annapolis Valley: "For many reasons which will no doubt suggest
themselves to you, the Department does not allow holidays at Christmas, and I might say further that
no valid reason has yet been given to us why holidays should be allowed at that period of the year.
There is no question that the children attending the Shubenacadie Residential School receive every
possible care and attention, and in addition at Christmas time there are always special festivities
which the children enjoy.
In 1939, the parents at the Cambridge Reserve in Nova Scotia were determined to have their
children home for Christmas, but the agent refused their request and advised them of the
Department's rules. Reporting on the matter to the Department, he wrote: "These people went so far
as to have a man go to the school for their children, [but] they did not get the children. The Principal
would not let them take them."
When one of these parents then sent her request to the Department herself, the agent reported:
"She thought by writing she would be able to get her children home for Christmas. These people
think that they can have their own way and would like to do so and when they find out they cannot
they get mad."2
Paul, Daniel. We Were Not The Savages (3rd Edition) First Nations History: Collision between European and Native
American Civilizations. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2006