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Schooling as genocide. Residential schools for First Nations in Canada 1900-1980

Christina Segerholm and Ingrid Nilsson
Department of Education, University of Umea, Sweden

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Hamburg, 17-20 September 2003

"...genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article 2, Dec 1948


This paper is about the schools for aboriginal children in Canada in the 20th century. We describe the residential schools, created by the government in cooperation with Roman and Protestant churches. Particularly, we make a case study of Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia (1893-1977).

This paper is an outline for a sub-project to an existing comparative project at Umeå University, Sweden, which is also about earlier schooling for the Sami children (northern Sweden) and aboriginal children in Australia. It is based on testimonies, secondary sources, official documents, archives and files. It contains comparative analysis of schooling for aboriginal children in Sweden, Canada and Australia.

Preliminary results suggest that there were substantial differences between the national policies of the three countries towards the aboriginal population. Also schooling and pedagogy took different shapes. In Canada, violence, abuse and oppression formed the educational practice under the guidance of the religious bodies. Children were collected by force from their parents and suffered in the residential schools. The Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia is a prominent example of the intruder's policy for subordination of the population. Overall, the research indicates that schooling can play a major role in suppression and even genocide. Still today, former students must get medical help to recover from the damages caused by colonial school policy.


Today, in general, education is seen as something good, both for the individual and for society in general. Moreover, it is often seen as one of the few possible ways for a suppressed or poor individual to get access to a better position in society. During the history, it has however occurred that parts of populations have been refractory about subordination to the states' demand for compulsory schooling. This is often the case for aboriginal populations, and among them First Nations in Canada. In this paper we will briefly describe aboriginal education in residential schools in Canada between 1900 and 1980, and we will make a case of Kamloops Indian Residential School. We will pose the essential educational research questions for a project, which we plan.


Depending on the need for land, the way of colonizing Canada took different shapes. First, the French colonisers were mainly hunters with the ambition to integrate in the aboriginal population. The intruding British population was however interested in getting access to the land, and to subordinate the aboriginal population. In the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: Looking Forward, Looking Back (1996) education has a central part, as it was essential for the success of the general policy of colonisation. In the report it is recognized that the purpose of education was to extinguish the culture and language of the aboriginal population.

The two central Canadian studies focusing indigenous education are Miller (1996) and Milloy (1999). They describe how the two earlier existing schools, industrial schools and boarding schools, were united into residential schools by the government in 1864. The governing of the schools had the form of joint venture between state and church (Roman, Anglican, Methodist or United Church) where the state was responsible for the financing.

This school-type existed until 1996. The schools were spread throughout Canada except in Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Most of them could be found in the English speaking parts of present day's Canada (Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada [IRSRC], 2003; Milloy, 1996). It is estimated that approximately 90 600 people attended the 130 residential schools that existed over time (IRSRC, 2003). Churches ran these schools and the most frequent organizer of residential schools was the Roman Catholic Church (Milloy, 1996).

Many researchers (Haig-Brown 1988; Chrisjohn & Young with Maraun, 1997) have documented and described the life in the schools - a life filled with abuse, coercion and powerlessness. The children were not allowed to use traditional clothes and hairstyles, they were denied access to their language and religion, and they were separated from their families with force. Sexual assaults were countless. Still today, legal processes are taking place, concerning the damages that the schooling has caused the individuals who suffered from it (The Assembly of first Nations, 2002). A federal agency is in charge of supporting the victims, and interest groups are formed among the survivors (IRSRC, 2003).


The purpose of the proposed project is to describe and analyse the educational ideas and practice as a part of the policy for suppressing indigenous people. In connection to a macro-level project (already existing) with mainly historical, policy-study and ethnic perspectives, we want to focus pedagogy and educational practice.

Preliminary results suggest that both the Sámi school in Sweden and the residential school in Canada had the ultimate scope of imposing the state's national policy, but the concrete expressions of that policy were substantially different. If the Canadian policy can be described as resulting in genocide (UN, 1948), the Swedish policy is more characterised by the benevolent ignorance and condescension (Henrysson, 1986; Kvist, 1992).


Our material will be archives, files, testimonies, as well as primary material collected by us in e g interviews. By describing one Canadian residential school as one case, and one school for Sami children in northern Sweden as another case, we get empirical data for a comparative analysis. The basis for a case study must in our opinion be that the chosen school is significant in relation to the general study object (Yin 1994). The particular features are prominent and a part of the whole (Stake 1995).

Our theoretical considerations are based in frame-factor analysis and evaluation analyses emanating from them (Franke-Wikberg and Lundgren, 1980; Schwandt, 2003). The purpose is to discern the prerequisites for the pedagogy, the process, and the result. In certain parts of our study, we have the intention to use narrative theories. Narrative methods and story-telling histories have a special position "as a form of aboriginal critical pedagogy" (Marker, 2003).

Kamloops Indian Residential School

Kamloops Indian Residential School, KIRS, was situated in British Columbia, at the edge of the later Kamloops Indian Reserve. The part of the Roman Catholic Church which was in charge of KIRS was the Oblates, and the children enrolled were from the Secwepemc population. From the beginning, the attendance was voluntary, but after 1920 the children were collected by force (Secwepemc Cultural Education Society, 2000, p 8).

The school buildings at Kamloops were, as many other residential schools, constructed like a military garrison with large sleeping halls and refectories. It had to be self-supporting to a large extent since the state grants did not cover much.

Until 1940, the school day was just two hours. The morning started with worship and lessons in religion, reading, British history and other subjects. After lunch, the hard work on the fields took over, as the goal was to foster farmers. Gardening, knitting and cleaning were not just fostering, but also an economic necessity. Some years, KIRS made a profit. Labour training was gendered - agriculture for boys and household training for girls. In general, the sexes were kept apart whatever was the occupation. All spaces that the children occupied at different times of the day were also gender divided.

Different measures were used to discipline the pupils. The strap, humiliation, spanking with hands, head shaving and a diet of bread and water, filling the mouth with soap or motor oil, and not at least, not letting the children be in contact with their families (Haig-Brown, 1998, pp 82). All the sexual assaults that have been reported damaged many of the children for the rest of their lives.


In our attempt to launch this project, there are a number of difficulties that we will encounter. Some of them we can foresee, others will turn up along the way. Below, we bring forward the ones we have detected so far.

The first, and perhaps most encompassing difficulty has to do with our inexperience in handling education as purposeful oppression. Not only do we struggle personally to comprehend the time bound values attached to this kind of education policy and practice. We also lack experience in using educationally grounded theories of pedagogy for oppression.

Because of our limited experience of educational oppression, we will, as a second difficulty, face interesting dilemmas in how to deal with our material. What concepts, descriptive categories, etc. will do justice to the information and also lift our work to a scientific level above description? This is of course not a difficulty unique for our study. Nevertheless, it is one that we have to solve.

The third difficulty entails ethical dilemmas. In the proposed project, we will follow the general rules for ethical research in Sweden, e g as expressed by the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet, not dated). But we must also reflect upon particular ethical issues. One of those emanates from the fact that we are not a part of the populations we describe. Moreover, those populations have been oppressed and are still suffering from the struggles with the invaders. Still, as researchers we believe that it is possible to understand, investigate and describe others' experience. But our perspective is that of an outsider. We will try to turn this into an advantage (Bridges, 2002 p 75). The fresh eyes of strangers can complete the insiders' narrative pictures.

In this project, we are outsiders in another respect as well: We are also outsiders in relation to Canada's formal political majority, as expressed in policy documents and other official documents and statements. As such, we have little notion of how respect towards our information and to our living informants is to be expressed. This is an arena highly infected politically, juridical and emotionally. In spite of the reconciliation commissions in Canada, the conflicts around schooling for indigenous children are still existing and deeply rooted. Therefore, we need to be cautious so that we do not cause harm to individuals, groups or other parties in the ongoing conflict. Therefore, and as researchers from a foreign country, we enter into a scene, where we can not regulate our own work in the way we are used to. We will be forced to accept some terms and adjust to them. We will also depend on local colleagues for ethical discussions.

Since we are outsiders, we face a fourth dilemma, that of access. Our experience is that this problem is more pronounced when the researchers are foreigners. It is always difficult to find out where to get hold of written information in a country foreign to the researcher. Where can we find the written materials, local documents we need? Will we be allowed to use them? For more recent information, we plan to conduct interviews with former students and teachers in residential schools. How do we get in touch with them, and will they talk to us? These questions are connected to the ethical issues raised above and how well we can handle them, But questions of access also depend on formal regulations of public access, filing systems, and on informal contacts.

The fifth and final difficulty we like to raise in this paper, concerns the language issue. Again, this question relates to the other difficulties that we have discussed. Our first language is Swedish. Our conceptions of the world and of the area under study emanate from our over-all understanding of how the world around us is organised and is to be understood. Even though we think we manage English fairly well, we realise that there is a risk in conducting a study of a sensitive matter in a foreign language. Misunderstandings will likely occur due to our lack of a well-developed understanding of the fine-tuned values that are inherent in many words and concepts.

Our paper closes with these open-ended thoughts about our worries and challenges. We hope to be able to carry out this project in a way that is fruitful for all parties involved. Our belief is that we need to face and understand the negative and harmful sides of education. We are then better equipped to detect when we are on the wrong track.


Assembly of First Nations (2002). Human Rights Report to Non-Governmental Organizations. Redress for Cultural Genocide: Canadian Residential Schools, November 21, 2002. Ottawa: Assembly of First Nations.

Bridges, David (2002). The Ethics of Outsider Reseach. I: McNamee, Mike & David Bridges (Eds.), The Ethics of Research. Oxford: Blackwell Pbl, pp 71-88.

Chrisjohn, Roland & Sherri Young with Micahel Maraun (1997). The Circle Game. Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residential School Experience in Canada. Penticton, BC: Theytus Books Ltd.

Franke-Wikberg, Sigbrit & Ulf P. Lundgren (1980). Att utvärdera utbildning. Del 1 [To evaluate education. Part 1]. Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand.

Haig-Brown, Celia (1998). Resistance and Renewal. Surviving the Indian Residential School. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.

Henrysson, Sten (1986). Den svenska sameskolans historia. [The history of the Swedish Sami school.] Arbetsapporter från Pedagogiska institutionen Nr 31. Umeå: Umeå universitet, Pedagogiska institutionen.

Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada., February 10, 2003 and September 21, 2003.

Kvist, Roger (1992). Nordamerikansk indianpolitik och svensk samepolitik: en översikt och jämförelse 1750-1920. [North American policy for indians and Swedish policy for Sami: an overview and comparison 1750-1920.] Rapport Nr. 21. Umeå: Umeå universitet, Center för arktisk kulturforskning.

Marker, Michael (2003)., 2003-04-08.

Miller, J. R. (1996). Shingwauk's Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Milloy, John (1999). A National Crime. The Canadian Government and the Residential School System 1879 to 1986. Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press.

Schwandt, Thomas A. (2003). Linking evaluation and education: enlightenment and engagement: In Peder Haug & Thomas A. Schwandt (Eds.), Evaluating educational reform: Scandinavian perspectives. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing, 169-188.

Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: Looking Forward, Looking Back. (1996). Ottawa: Canada Communication Group.

Secwepemc Cultural Education Society (2000). Behind Closed Doors. Stories from the Kamploops Indian residential School. Kamloops, BC: Secwepemc Cultural Education Society.

Stake, Robert E. (1995). The Art of Case Study Research. Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: SAGE Publications.

UN. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Dec, 1948., 2003-04-06.

Vetenskapsrådet (not dated.). Forskningsetiska principer inom humanistisk-samhällsvetenskaplig forskning. [Ethical research principels for research within humaities - social science.] http://, 2003-04-06.

Yin, Robert K. (1994). Case study research. Design and methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 08 October 2003