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 Article 9 - The Residential School and the Boarding School Systems: An Experience We Love to Forget

​By Gloria Yeboah

The Canada that we know today which forms part of North America was originally a vast land that belonged to Aboriginals formerly referred to as “Indians” (Titley, 1986). Before the arrival of the Europeans, the aboriginal people had their way of life. They lived off the land by fishing, hunting, trapping, and farming. They also had their own system of spiritual beliefs and unique culture. They had their own way of educating their children through their experiences and storytelling (Titley, 1986). Life, as the original owners of the land knew it, was never the same again as the number of European settlers increased. The start of the 17th century marked the be-ginning of the colonization of Canada.  Cultural clashes began as a result of the rapidly growing population of the European settlers, which intensified as they moved west of Canada (Titley, 1986). The Europeans believed they were superior in every way to the Aboriginals. They viewed their own culture, worldview, norms, beliefs and values as superior. They perceived that their sys-tem of education would enlighten the Aboriginals and create the opportunity of integration and absorption into the European society. However, the true goal for the creation of residential schools was to killing the Indian in the Aboriginal child (Indigenous foundation arts, 2009). The idea was to eliminate their culture, beliefs, and way of life.

Missionaries from France were the first to lay the foundations for the residential school system in 1620 in the form of boarding schools, but it did not blossom (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2012). Most Aboriginal parents were not interested and so did not send their children to these boarding schools that were organized by the Roman Catholic missionaries. The few parents who decided to send their children soon saw them coming back home.  These children ran back home at the least opportunity or excuse that they could find. Due to this, the boarding system experiment was abandoned. From the 1830s onwards, boarding schools were reintroduced by missionaries of other churches (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2012). 

Finally, in 1883, Sir John A. MacDonald, who was the prime minister and minister of In-dian affairs, authorized and sponsored the creation of residential schools to assimilate the aborig-inal child (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2012). The churches were in partner-ship with the government since they were eager to complete what was started years ago by fel-low missionaries. The day-to-day activities of the residential school was managed by the various churches who were non-Aboriginals. The mission of the churches was to preach the gospel to the Aboriginals and convert them to Christianity. Three residential schools were created in Canadian West. By the year 1927, a total of 77 residential schools were constructed with a total population of 6,641 children in residence (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2012).  After sending off their children to the residential schools, parents were not allowed see them until the so-called vacation weeks as decided upon by the management of the schools. In some cases, it took a couple of years at a time for parents to see their children again.

Life on the residential schools, according to many personal accounts, was autocratic. Per-sonal autonomy was non-existent. From personal accounts, some people stated that they had no voice and nobody to advocate for them regarding their concerns and wishes. 

At first glance at the physical structure of a typical residential school, some Aboriginal children were overwhelmed, while others were excited. Some were impressed by the architectural design of the place (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2012). A vivid example is Jane Willis, whose first impression of the grandeur of the Shingwauk School in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, was that of a place where nothing could ever go wrong (Truth and Reconciliation Com-mission of Canada,2012). However, once they entered through the doors of these schools, it was a totally different environment. Nicholas Thrasher’s story is similar to Jane’s. He was only six years old when he was sent to a Roman Catholic School in Aklavik, Northwest Territories. Nich-olas’ story helped to shed more light on the plight of residential school students. According to him, the atmosphere around his school was strict and toxic. His first inclination upon setting eyes on the grey-habited nuns and hearing their voices was to take to his heels. He also gave an ac-count of instances in which he was grabbed by his hoody, scrubbed, checked for vermin, and sent off to bed because of his attempt to dissociate himself due to fear (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2012). 

In a willful attempt to strip the children from their culture, their beautiful Aboriginal clothing were taken from them, replacing them with used clothes and school uniforms; their braided hair that bore spiritual significance to them was shaved off (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2012). There is no iota of doubts that the nuns, through their crusade were bent on stripping the Aboriginal children of their identity. The Aboriginal names of the children were not spared either. Christian names were used to replace original names. For some of these children, the only time they get to hear their Aboriginal names was when they visited their families during vacation.

Nothing can be more derogatory and undignifying than losing one’s identity. This is ex-actly how some of the residential school children felt. The humiliation was worse for some of them as not only was their given names taken from them, they were reduced to just a number. Imagine being called by an assigned identification number instead of a given name. That was the case in some of the residential schools where each student’s given name was replaced by a num-ber.

Apart from being separated from their parents, those who had siblings and attended the same residential school were not allowed to communicate with their relatives.  For those with sib-lings of the opposite sex, it was even more difficult. The emotional anguish and anger of the stu-dents accumulated due to the emotional and physical abuse which they experienced. For exam-ple, they could only speak to each other for brief moments during playtime or in the dining hall. They were hardly ever in close proximity, and so, conversations were full of shouting. That usual-ly never go unnoticed by the eagle-eyed nuns who disciplined the erring sibling(s). For some stu-dents, it was particularly hard to witness their younger siblings being penalized in the open and unable to say or do anything about it. Due to strict rules by the nuns such as, silent time in certain hours of the day and no communications with siblings, students were forced to device some form of sign language that only they understood.

Coming from a developing country which was ones colonized by the British, the plight of the Canadian residential school students reminds me of the boarding school system in my home country, Ghana. One of the ways in which the British-oriented boarding schools robbed African children of their identity was the prohibition of the speaking of African languages in the board-ing house. For instance, from primary through to senior high school, students are expected to speak English whenever they are in school. All academic subjects were taught in English with the exception of one, which is “Twi”, the language spoken by the majority of the people in Ghana. As a child, I questioned why the adopted language of the colonizers was considered the official language of my country, while the Twi language which was spoken by the majority of Ghanaians was relegated and ignored. I recall vividly how students were penalized in class for speaking the so-called vernacular, namely, Twi. Students were physically assaulted by teachers who beat them repeatedly with canes in order to force them to conform to the rules. Other forms of punishments were: making the erring student weed the school farm or mandating the student to write the sen-tence “I will never speak vernacular on the school’s premises again” a hundred or a thousand times. In essence, the aim was compel students to adopt the English language. Personally, I have always opposed the idea of using only the English language as the language of instruction in schools. I firmly believe that students should be allowed to choose their preferred language of instruction, English or Twi. After all, the goal of education is to inform. 

Similarly, the Aboriginal children in the residential schools were mandated to speak the English language instead of Cree. Anyone who spoke any of their native languages or dialects received a strict form of discipline. Some of the disciplinary measures included: using wooden or metal rulers to hit the students’ knuckles by the nuns, and making the students write a hundred times on the board, the sentence, “they will never speak Cree again” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2012, p. 24). In addition, Aboriginal children were exploited and made to work. Boys were generally used to construct some of the buildings on the schools premises. Others had to work on school farms in teams, raising farm animals. Some boys made and repaired shoes. Other boys ran tailor shops. Food from the farm was sometimes sold to generate money for the school. Girls often worked in the kitchen by either cooking or assisting in cooking the meals that were served at the school. Sourcing for funds through several means to run the schools was necessitated because even though the government liked the idea of residential schools, the cost of running them was way beyond the budget. Hence, students were used as cheap labor for day-to-day activities. Some residential schools had children working more hours and spending less time in class. The end result was that most of the children used as child-labour did not excel in their academic (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2012).

Foods served at the residential schools were often nothing to write home about. The food was also never enough to satisfy the Aboriginal children. Residential school survivors have said that hunger was a constant companion (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2012). Russell Moses, an air force veteran recalled his days in Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario between 1942 and 1947. He considered the food served at the Institute as loathsome (Moses, 1965). Their breakfast consisted of two slices of bread with either jam or honey as the dressing, and oatmeal with worms (Moses, 1965). According to Moses, sometimes they were given a cornmeal porridge which was considered to be low in nutrition, and the portions served were small. For lunch, they were given water to substitute for juice, some dry bread, and scraps of beef or vegetables which he remembered were in a state of decay (Moses, 1965).

Russel Moses’s experience again reminds me of the boarding school system in Ghana. I can recall in Senior High School that the beans which we were fed with at our boarding school had weevils in it. For lunch, we were fed the weevil-infested beans with cassava flakes, also known as garri in local parlance. There were no substantial options for vegetables; therefore, such cravings were reserved until vacation. As a result, one always looked forward to vacations, holi-days, midterms and visitation days when parents were officially allowed to bring delicious and nutritious meals. In contrast, the Aboriginal children and their parents were not given that luxury. The appalling revelation from the account of Moses and other survivors of residential school was students having to eat soggy food and leftovers meant for pigs (Moses, 1965). Some people re-sorted to stealing raw potatoes from the pantry to eat.

Manuel, a survival of residential school at Kamloops compared his experience at the school with services received when he was incarcerated for a month in the 1920s. According to Manuel’s account, prisoners were served a good portion of protein in the form of beef, pork chops, broiled chicken and sometimes steak to be eaten with potatoes (Manuel and Derrickson, 2015). This was something that they barely had and probably only dreamt about at meal times at the residential school. When it came to food at the residential school, these children were just given something to survive on and not necessarily to eat to their satisfaction.
Some survivors recall running away at the least chance they had to their aunts and uncles who lived close by to eat, and then rush back to school. Some survivors of the residential schools have stated that, on rainy days, they survived the hunger because they could smell freshly baked bannock from the homes of their relatives who lived on a reserve close to the school (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015). No one considered the dangers these children must have faced in search of food, having to climb the walls and extensions raised to serve as barrier to keep them in their schools. There was a high possibility that most of the children got sick from eating worms and maggots-infested foods, as deduced from Manuel’s revelation about his experience at a residential school (Manuel and Derrickson, 2015). 

I believe the Aboriginal children would have been well fed if they had the option of stay-ing with their parents at the reserves, and attending schools as day students. In addition, many of the emotional turmoil that characterized the entire experience would have been mitigated if par-ents had been allowed to visit and possibly bring some traditional food occasionally. Moreover, incorporating cultural, spiritual, linguistic, and Aboriginal traditions into the schools’ curriculum would have been a tremendous help to the students’ growth in every aspect of their lives, includ-ing: physical, emotional, spiritual, and academic. It can be said that the Aboriginal students and their parents were resilient in the face of such inhumane treatment. As they lived through the dark era of the residential school system, they continued to have hope. The hope that one day, they will be reunited as families, holding one another in warm embrace.

In conclusion, life in a residential school was challenging for students. It required tough-ness and resiliency. This toughness cannot be said to be totally positive for all Aboriginal chil-dren. Being separated from one’s parents or extended family, where there was so much love and warmth, into an environment of physical, emotional and spiritual neglect must have felt like a dream that the Aboriginal child could not wait to wake from. The Colonial masters could have found a better approach toward achieving their policy of assimilation. They could have worked together with the original settlers of the land to merge their two cultures. That would have result-ed in mutual respect and cooperation between both parties. As the famous saying goes, “Whatev-er does not kill one will only make one stronger.” So, whether in the case of the residential school system of Canada, or the boarding house school system in Ghana, one thing is certain; students from both systems learned to despise anything that took them away from their families, tradi-tions, culture and way of life.


Indigenous Foundation. (2009). The Residential School System. Retrieved from 
Manuel, A and Derrickson, R. M. (2015). Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-Up Call. Toronto: Between the Lines.
Manuel, G and Posluns, M. (1974). The Fourth World: An Indian Reality. New York: The Free Press.
Moses, R. (1965). Mohawk Institute 1942–47. LAC, RG10, File 1/25–20–1, Vol. 1.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2012). They came for the children: Canada, Aboriginal peoples, and residential
      schools. Winnipeg, MB: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). The Survivors Speak: A Report of the Truth and Reconciliation
      Commission of Canada. Ottawa: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
Titley, B. E. (1986). A narrow vision: Duncan Campbell Scott and the administration of Indian   Affairs in Canada. Vancouver, BC:
      University of British Columbia Press.
About the Author: Gloria Yeboah was born and raised in Ghana. She is currently enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts program Integrated in Education. Her philosophy is “make the best of every situation.” She enjoys listening to music.

Instructor’s Remark: Gloria Yeboah was my student in the Academic Research and Writing (IDS.1003) course. She only recently relocated to Canada from her home country of Ghana. In this essay, Gloria revisits the Canadian residential school system. However, she adds a twist to the usual discourse by linking the system to the boarding house school system of Ghana. This ar-ticle will make an interesting read for a comparatist. (Dr. Joseph Atoyebi)   
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