Montreal – Mistissini’s current Deputy Chief, McGill alumnus Kathleen Wootton visited McGill campus on October 14th, 2003, to participate in a lecture on Canada’s residential school system. The course lecturer, Christopher Stonebanks, invited Mrs Wootton to his Interculturalism class to talk about her residential school experience.
Canada’s tainted history of cultural genocide is well known in academic circles and should be common knowledge by now, but it isn’t. Part of the problem, according to Mr. Stonebanks, was the complete lack of material within North American education systems “that would make us the slightest bit uncomfortable about our continent’s history.” Given that, what better part of North American history to ignore than the treatment of First Nations people?
To set the tone for the class, early in the lecture Mr. Stonebanks asked his students what they thought of when they heard the word ‘Blackhawk’. Among the responses from the students were (1) Chicago’s National Hockey League franchise and (2) the US military helicopter by the same name. One student knew that Blackhawk was the name of ‘a Native-American’ – but was seemingly unaware of the Sauk leader’s legacy, and the tragic fate that befell nearly all of his people when they were displaced by military force due to American colonial expansion during the so-called “Blackhawk War” of 1832. To further emphasize his point, Mr. Stonebanks then asked the class if they’d ever heard of the Beothuk. Nobody raised a hand. These particular students were totally unaware of the complete genocide of a Native tribe that occurred in (what is now called) Newfoundland – the Beothuk became extinct in 1829.
When dealing with ‘Indians’ through the military became too great a financial burden, the task of annihilating the already decimated indigenous cultures of North America was delegated to the residential schools, most of which were controlled by various Christian denominations. The solution to the ‘Indian problem’ was to simply take young children away from their families, by force when necessary, make them speak a new language, practice new customs and participate in religious ceremonies that were often totally foreign to them.
The class watched a portion of Sleeping Children Awake, a documentary about the residential school experience, which features portions of Shirley Cheechoo’s play, A Path With No Moccasins. Then Mrs. Wootton made her presentation to the Class.
Of course, one of the first things that happened to new residential school students was the haircut. The children would then perform janitorial work around their school on a daily basis throughout the duration of their stay. Physical abuse was not uncommon. Punishment for misbehaviour took many forms – the children’s hands were strapped, or they were made to stand in the corner for great lengths of time or were just plain spanked. One of Mrs Wootton’s teachers would routinely hit children with a meter-long pointer for literally any mistake – if the children mispronounced a word, even if it was the first time they’d seen it, this teacher would hit them. Terror kept the young residential school students in line.
Mrs. Wootton recalled that she was not even permitted to speak to her own brother while they were attending the same school. Incidentally, the punishment for speaking one’s own language was a mouth full of soap. Church attendance was mandatory, twice a week. It is in this way that Native people were losing their culture and spiritual beliefs across North America and the Cree of Northern Quebec were no exception.
Mrs. Wootton then shared a visual demonstration that she had originally seen presented by Gordon Peters, Director of the Centre for Indigenous Sovereignty, at the 2003 First Nations Policing Services conference in Calgary. The demonstration quite aptly illustrated the fundamentally detrimental effect that the residential school system had on Indigenous cultures in Canada.
A traditional Cree tamarack goose decoy was placed on the floor of the Jack Cram Auditorium, to represent Cree culture. Then four students were arranged around the decoy, to represent the Cree children. Four1 more students surrounded the children, to represent the Cree mothers. Four students were arranged around the mothers, to represent the Cree grandparents. And four more students were arranged around the grandparents, to represent the Cree fathers whose role it was to protect their communities. Finally two students were selected, one to represent the federal Indian Agent and another to represent the Clergyman. The Indian Agent removed the four children from the centre of the circle, and the Clergyman removed the tamarack decoy. As in the demonstration, Cree children had been removed from the influence of their families and communities in an attempt to ‘assimilate’ them into the non-Native culture. Thus, the traditional societal roles of the parents and grandparents as educators and protectors were rendered obsolete. The result: a catastrophic disruption of Cree culture with negative social repercussions lasting to this day – the last of the residential schools closed in the mid-80’s.
The demonstration was followed by a question and answer period that lasted until the end of the class in which both Mrs. Wootton and Mr. Stonebanks answered numerous questions from the students. One student asked Mrs. Wootton what it was like to return to her community from residential school. She replied that she felt like an outsider in her own community and home – that she couldn’t relate to or get along with her own family. She recalled that elders would complain about kids who came home from residential school being lazy. Complicating matters, she quickly found that she was unable to perform many of the tasks expected of a young woman in Cree society – e.g. to prepare fish and game or stretch and tan hides and pelts. The residential schools prepared Cree children, if at all, for life in English or French Canadian society – not for life at home with their families. As it was so often put, the purpose of the residential schools was to “remove the Indian from the child”. A report published in 1847 by the Province of Canada said it this way:
“Their education must consist not merely of the training of the mind, but of weaning from the habits and feelings of their ancestors, and the acquirements of the language, arts and customs of ‘civilized’ life.”