St. Paul's Indian Industrial School, Middlechurch, Manitoba, 1901
Students in the residential school system were faced with a multitude of abuses from teachers and administrators, including sexual and physical assault. They suffered from malnourishment and harsh discipline that would not have been tolerated in any other school system. Corporal punishment was often justified by a belief that it was the only way to save souls, civilize the savage, or punish and deter runaways – whose injuries or death sustained in their efforts to return home would become the legal responsibility of the school. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, inadequate heating, and a lack of medical care led to high rates of influenza and tuberculosis; in one school, the death rate reached 69%. Federal policies that tied funding to enrollment numbers led to sick children being enrolled in order to boost numbers, thus introducing and spreading disease. The problem of unhealthy children was further exacerbated by the conditions of the schools themselves – overcrowding and poor ventilation, water quality and sewage systems.:83–89
Until the late 1950s, when the federal government shifted to a day school integration model, residential schools were severely underfunded and often relied on the forced labour of their students to maintain their facilities, although it was presented as training for artisan skills. The work was arduous, and severely compromised the academic and social development of the students. School books and textbooks were drawn mainly from the curricula of the provincially funded public schools for non-Indigenous students, and teachers at the residential schools were often poorly trained or prepared. During this same period, Canadian government scientists performed nutritional tests on students and knowingly kept some students undernourished to serve as the control sample.
Details of the mistreatment of students were published numerous times throughout the 20th century by both government officials, reporting on the condition of schools, and by the proceedings of civil cases brought forward by survivors seeking compensation for the abuse they endured. Attention to the conditions and impacts of residential schools were also brought to light in popular culture as early as 1967 with the publication of "The Lonely Death of Chanie Wenjack" by Ian Adams in Maclean's and the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67. In the 1990s, investigations and memoirs by former students revealed that many students at residential schools were subjected to severe physical, psychological, and sexual abuse by school staff members and by older students. Among the former students to come forward was Phil Fontaine, then Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, who in October 1990 publicly discussed the abuse he and others suffered while attending Fort Alexander Indian Residential School.:129–130
Following the government's closure of most of the schools in the 1960s, the work of Indigenous activists and historians led to greater awareness by the public of the damage the schools had caused, as well as to official government and church apologies, and a legal settlement. These gains were achieved through the persistent organizing and advocacy by Indigenous communities to draw attention to the residential school system's legacy of abuse, including their participation in hearings of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.:551–554
Parents and family members regularly travelled to the schools, often camping outside to be closer to their children. The number of parents who made the trip prompted Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed to argue that industrial schools, like residential schools, be moved greater distances from reserves to make visiting more difficult.:601–604 He also objected to allowing children to return home during school breaks and holidays because he believed the trips interrupted the civilizing of school attendees. As Reed explained in 1894, the problem with day schools was that students returned home each night where they were influenced by life on the reserve, whereas "in the boarding or industrial schools the pupils are removed for a long period from the leadings of this uncivilized life and receive constant care and attention".:199
Visitation, for those able to make the journey, was strictly controlled by school officials in a manner similar to the procedures enforced in the prison system. In some cases visitors were altogether denied access to their children, while in others families were required to meet in the presence of school officials and forced to communicate in English. For parents unable to speak the language, verbal communication with their children was impossible. The obstacles families faced to visit their children were further exacerbated by the pass system. Introduced by Reed without legislative authority to do so, the system restricted and closely monitored the movement of Indigenous peoples off reserves.:601–604 Launched in 1885 as a response to the North-West Rebellion, and later replaced by permits, the system was designed to prevent Indigenous people from leaving reserves without a pass issued by a local Indian agent.
Instruction style and outcomes
Instruction provided to students was rooted in an institutional and European approach to education. It differed dramatically from child rearing in traditional knowledge systems that are generally based on 'look, listen, and learn' models. Unlike the corporal punishment and loss of privileges that characterized the residential school system, traditional approaches to education favour positive guidance toward desired behaviour through the use of game-based play, story-telling, and formal ritualized ceremonies.:15–21 While at school, many children had no contact with their families for up to 10 months at a time because of the distance between their home communities and schools, and in some cases had no contact for years. The impact of the disconnect from their families was furthered by students being discouraged or prohibited from speaking Indigenous languages, even among themselves and outside the classroom, so that English or French would be learned and their own languages forgotten. In some schools, they were subject to physical violence for speaking their own languages or for practicing non-Christian faiths.
Most schools operated with the goal of providing students with the vocational training and social skills required to obtain employment and integrate into Canadian society after graduation. In actuality, these goals were poorly and inconsistently achieved. Many graduates were unable to land a job due to poor educational training. Returning home was equally challenging due to an unfamiliarity with their culture and, in some cases, an inability to communicate with family members using their traditional language. Instead of intellectual achievement and advancement, it was often physical appearance and dress, like that of middle class, urban teenagers, or the promotion of a Christian ethic, that was used as a sign of successful assimilation. There was no indication that school attendees achieved greater financial success than those who did not go to school. As the father of a pupil who attended Battleford Industrial School, in Saskatchewan, for five years explained: "he cannot read, speak or write English, nearly all his time having been devoted to herding and caring for cattle instead of learning a trade or being otherwise educated. Such employment he can get at home.":164–172, 194–199