Colonising Education: Canada’s Indian Residential Schools and the Promotion of Structural Inequality

Conference Paper to be presented by David MacDonald

David MacDonald is a Full Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Guelph, Canada. He has been actively involved with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, coordinating sharing circles and academic panels, and authored the chapter on genocide for the TRC’s Final Report, due in mid-2015.

From the 1880s, the Canadian government, along with the four main Christian Churches, ran a network of Indian Residential Schools for over a century. Legislation from 1920 forced Aboriginal children to attend, and children were ostensibly kidnapped from their parents. The schools were often poorly run, received very low funding and had high mortality rates. The focus was often on training in agriculture and domestic labour to prepare children to be workers, while actual Western education (promoting literacy and numeracy) was sporadic. Sometimes described as “total institutions”, the IRS system saw staff wielding almost complete control over the lives of their young charges. High rates of verbal, physical and sexual abuse were endemic. The schools exacerbated problems of structural inequality, which had a knock-on effect afterwards, as high rates of intergeneration trauma perniciously undermined the ability of many Aboriginal communities to function either in their traditional ways or according to Western models. In the IRS system, the actual education of children was almost always a secondary goal. For the Churches, conversion and linguistic and cultural assimilation were central goals. For the government, aggressive assimilation was designed in part to clear indigenous land for settlement. In coming to terms with seven generations of schooling, the UN Genocide Convention is increasingly used, with a focus on article 2(e), which prohibits the forced transfer of children from one group to another. This presentation also problematizes the term “education” – since colonial educational practices can have a detrimental effect on indigenous peoples, especially if they are (1) radically different from pre-existing practices developed over thousands of years and (2) designed to colonize young minds and bodies and promote forms of self-loathing. The dissonance between indigenous educational and spiritual practices forms an important backdrop for understanding why these forms of education were so devastating.

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