The promise of a good education for Aboriginal children
As railway lines and settlers began the slow-but-steady incursion westward, they displaced and destroyed the vast buffalo herds that sustained many tribal groups. This signaled an end to traditional lifestyles, and Western Aboriginal leaders realized that the survival of their people would, in part, depend on the acquisition of new skills. Specialized education and training now became a critical issue in treaty negotiations. Large tracts of ancestral lands were subsequently ceded to the Dominion government in exchange for the promise of a good education for Aboriginal children, among other stipulations.
As treaties were signed, Aboriginal people found themselves forced to move to reserve lands. Momentum began to build for an education program that would fulfill treaty obligations, and at the same time, work to civilize, Christianize, and assimilate Aboriginal children into the Canadian mainstream. Politicians and educators continued to debate how this could best be accomplished.
Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald wondered if the American policy of “aggressive civilization” might prove helpful and, in 1879, he sent Nicholas Flood Davin to meet with officials from the U.S. Department of Indian Affairs, and Native American leaders from Oklahoma. Davin submitted his findings in the Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-breeds, also known as the Davin Report, which included a number of recommendations on how the American policy on Aboriginal education could be emulated in Canada. Davin had also been persuaded by the American government’s argument that “the day-school did not work, because the influence of the wigwam was stronger than the influence of the school,” even though day schools had been operating in Canada since the 1840s.
By the time the Davin Report was released, the idea of separating children from their parents as an effective education – and assimilation – strategy had already taken root. The visually persuasive example of what could be achieved through a “boarding school” model like the Carlisle Industrial Boarding School in Pennsylvania generated fervour to implement a boarding school system in Canada.
By the year 1880, eleven schools were operating in the Dominion of Canada.
“I am confident that the Industrial School now about to be established will be a principal feature in the civilization of the Indian mind. The utility of Industrial Schools has long been acknowledged by our neighbours across the line [in the United States], who have had much to do with the Indian.
In that country, as in this, it is found difficult to make day schools on reserves a success, because the influence of home associations is stronger than that of the schools, and so long as such a state of things exists I fear that the inherited aversion to labour can never be successfully met. By the children being separated from their parents and properly and regularly instructed not only in the rudiments of the English language, but also in trades and agriculture, so that what is taught may not be readily forgotten, I can but assure myself that a great end will be attained for the permanent and lasting benefit of the Indian.”
Dominion of Canada. Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs for the year ended 31st December 1883. p. 104.
“I feel certain that this school will be a great success, and that it will be a chief means of civilizing the Indian; but to obtain this result, accommodation must be made to take in more pupils, as now we can only take in but one out of each reserve. A school for Indian girls would be of great importance, and I may say, would be absolutely necessary to effect the civilization of the next generation of Indians[;] if the women were educated it would almost be a guarantee that their children would be educated also and brought up Christians, with no danger of their following the awful existence that many of them ignorantly live now. It will be nearly futile to educate the boys and leave the girls uneducated.”
Dominion of Canada. Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs for the Year Ended 31st December, 1885. p. 138. J. Hugonnard, Principal Qu'Appelle Industrial School.
Lessons, however, did not just revolve around farming and housekeeping. In fact, some proved to be quite political. As part of their education at the Regina Industrial School, for example, Aboriginal students were taken to see the execution of Louis Riel. That day, children learned that the people who voiced support for Aboriginal rights put themselves in grave danger. The children would have to find acceptable heroes and role models from white culture.
“The girls are being taught housework, sewing, knitting, and some of them are especially clever at fancy work. The Rev. Father would like a building put up expressly for girls, and also that he be permitted to take in a few white boys. The introduction of the latter has been allowed by the Department; and the erection of a building for girls, is under consideration. I noticed that when the Indian boys were playing, they generally spoke in the Cree language; and, no doubt, the introduction of some white boys, say one to every ten, would help greatly to make them speak in English, and thus become familiar with the language. With reference to the school for girls, I think this a necessity. The success with the few girls already under instruction is a guarantee of the success of the undertaking; and it is plain that to educate boys only, they would soon go back to old habits, if the girls are not taught to co-operate in house work. I do not think it possible that the girls I saw at the school, with their neat dresses, and tidy way of doing house work, could ever go back to the old habits of the Indian. These will be the future mothers; and it is most important to have them properly trained and educated.”
Dominion of Canada. Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs for the year ended 31st December, 1886. P. 146. Alex McGibbon, Inspector of Indian Agencies and Reserves.
“This branch of the Indian service has ever been recognized as one of the most, if not perhaps the most, important feature of the extensive system which is operating towards the civilization of our native races, having its beginning in small things—the first step being the establishment of reserve day-schools of limited scope and influence, the first forward step was the founding of boarding-schools both on and off the reserves. The beneficent effect of these becoming at once apparent, an impetus was thus given to the movement in the direction of industrial training, which was at once entered upon the establishment of our earlier industrial institutions ... until today the Dominion has had at its command a system which provides for its Indian wards a practical course of industrial training, fitting for useful citizenship the youth of a people who one generation past were practically unrestrained savages.”
Dominion of Canada. Annual Report for the Department f Indian Affairs for the year ended 31st December 1896. p. 291. A.E. Forget, Indian Commissioner.
In the second photograph, Moore looks slightly older. He now wears a military style uniform, and has short hair. To the right of him is a potted plant, and to his left we can see his cap resting on an ornate railing. Once again, he looks directly into the camera, although this time he appears much more confident.
A side-by-side comparison of the two photographs reveals a similar pose: in each portrait, Moore’s left arm and hand forms the same shape. However, in the first photo, one hand touches his braid, while the other hand touches the pistol; in the second, Moore leans against a railing, which allows him to place his right arm on his hip while his left hand hangs relaxed, and empty. The two photographs offer two different readings of the Aboriginal body: the first represents an uncivilized and potentially dangerous Indian. The second represents a civilized, unarmed, and therefore unthreatening Indian. In fact, “Scott admitted frankly that the provision of education to Indian Communities was indispensable, for without it and “with neglect” they “would produce an undesirable and often dangerous element in society.”
(Dominion of Canada Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs for the year ended March 31 1910. p. 273)
Official opinions about Aboriginal education, the Davin Report, and the Carlisle boarding school model, all helped to convince many Canadians about the kind of Industrial School System they were willing to support. In this environment, the Regina Industrial School first made its appearance, and Thomas Moore was promoted as its model student.
In the first of the two photographs, Moore wears tribal style clothing: cloth leggings, a shirt decorated with metal tacks, a long necklace, a breechcloth with a beaded floral design, and moccasins. His long hair is wrapped in fur and hangs down over his chest, and he holds a pistol in his right hand. Moore looks directly into the camera with a blank expression on his face, and the diffused lighting in the background provides no hint of time or place.
Despite an aggressive campaign to increase the number of students, the government was determined to keep the operating costs of the schools at a minimum. The lack of sufficient funds resulted in poorly constructed buildings, insufficient food and clothing for the students, and inadequate programming.
The Regina Industrial School was supposed to create an environment where Indian children would be “civilized,” and where they would learn the language and the skills necessary to enter the Canadian workforce as tradespeople. Did it succeed? That depended on who you asked. Some people celebrated the school as “one of the most successful in the Canadian west.” Others, however, felt that maybe it was a little too successful.* Debates soon raged in the House of Commons, as the opposition criticized government spending on industrial schools. The Minister of the Department of Indian Affairs attempted to defend the government’s position, arguing that “It has never been the policy of the Department for the design of industrial schools to turn Indian pupils out to compete with whites.” However, continued political pressure eventually brought about a change to the schools’ original design: Industrial schools would now focus exclusively on agriculture. Aboriginal boys would become “handy all round farmers,” and Aboriginal girls would learn the skills to become “excellent housekeepers.” (Memo, Indian Affairs, 1904).