Skip to content

The Enduring Cruelty of Canada’s Residential Schools

In a new, meticulously sourced book, two authors use personal case studies to illuminate the injustices inflicted on Indigenous peoples by Canadian governments and churches.

The Enduring Cruelty of Canada’s Residential Schools
A 1946 photo of a classroom at the Indian Industrial School in Brandon, Manitoba.

Linda will never forget the shoes: black oxfords, which all the students had to wear. They were a mandatory part of the school uniform, affixed to the feet of every Indian child on the assembly line to Anglo-Saxon respectability. Their heaviness surprised Linda; they felt clunky at the end of her spindly legs. She was made to shine them until she could see her face in the leather. And, most important of all, she was not allowed to leave her dormitory without them. Civilized people wore shoes. Don’t ever forget them, the students were warned.

By the time Linda arrived, the Brandon Indian Residential School had been operating for 70 years. Its doors opened in 1895 as one of many residential schools funded by the Canadian government and run by churches. Their purpose was to sever the link between Indigenous children and their culture, in order to assimilate Indians into the Euro-Christian mainstream. The government sought to keep its costs low by partnering with churches, which were more interested in souls than salaries. Between the opening of the first such school in 1880 until the closing of the last one in 1996, more than 150,000 Indigenous children attended such institutions, including both of Maureen’s parents and all four of her grandparents.

In the beginning, many Indigenous communities welcomed government promises to provide education, believing new schools could offer a bridge to a better future. Treaty agreements with Indigenous Peoples often specified that these schools would be situated in Indigenous communities. Nevertheless, churches and the government favoured more distant locations, because they believed children could be more easily reformed if kept away from the supposedly malign influence of their parents. As Prime Minister John A. Macdonald put it, “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write.”

The case of the Brandon school was typical. In the late 1880s, Methodists petitioned the federal government to start a school and insisted on avoiding “the serious disadvantage of having such an institution in or near an Indian Reserve.” For its part, the city council of Brandon warmly welcomed the opportunity to host a federal school, notably because it would bring more government investment into the area.

Chief Jacob Berens (Nauwigizigweas, or “light moving in the centre of the sky,” in Ojibway) was the leader of a reserve in northern Manitoba and a pious Methodist himself. When he heard about the plans for a new school in Brandon, he expressed his opposition in a letter to the secretary of the Methodist Mission Society in Toronto, Reverend A. Sutherland. Though Chief Berens and his community welcomed a new school, Brandon was too far away: “Our hearts are sad for one cannot think of sending our children away such a long distance from their people & homes. No, we love our children like the white man & are pleased to have them near us.” Reverend Sutherland wrote a condescending response in which he expressed doubt that Chief Berens was the real author of the letter written in his name, and opined that Berens had in fact written “at the suggestion of others” who were hostile to the church.

Chief Berens replied that the reverend’s letter was “very ungenerous and unchristianlike,” and criticized him for presuming to know the best interests of the community “without consulting our views.” Berens also wrote a letter to the federal government to argue against putting the school in Brandon: “We cannot really think of ever sending any of our children so far away from our reserves even for the purpose of getting an education.”

In the end, Berens’s forceful protestations were ignored. Brandon it would be.

The school’s first principal, Reverend J. Semmens, doggedly travelled around Manitoba seeking prospective students. In his personal journal, he described the territory around Lake Winnipeg as his “recruiting field.” He reached many communities by canoe, portaging between “stormy lakes,” and at times he found “the mosquitoes intolerable.” But his greatest obstacle by far was skeptical parents. The reverend recorded the questions they asked him after he made his sales pitch:

“Will the Government keep this promise or break it as they have others made in like beautiful language?”

“Can the children return at their own wish or at the wish of the parents before the term at School expires?”

“Is it the purpose to enslave our children and make money out of them?”

“Is it the object of the Gov’t to destroy our language and our tribal life?”

It is unclear what, if anything, Semmens said in response, but the truth would have confirmed their worst fears.

John Semmens (1850-1921).

Reverend Semmens wrote to the Department of Indian Affairs to report the widespread reluctance he was encountering. In response, an official recommended that Semmens remind parents of “the powers vested in the Department,” which would compel attendance if parents did not “evince their willingness to have their children educated.” Under the Indian Act of 1894, parents who refused could be jailed.

For years, parents in Waywayseecappo, as those in other First Nations communities, resisted sending their children to faraway schools. A government official overseeing Waywayseecappo (one of the so-called “Indian agents” who was in charge of enforcing federal policy on reserves) reported in 1907, “I am quite safe in saying that very few parents voluntarily bring their children to school.”

One reason was surely the mortality rate. In 1902, for example, at least six students died at the Brandon residential school. The following year, nine more died, which prompted a statistically minded government official to note: “A larger percentage than the average number of deaths has occurred.”

Heavy farming equipment crushed at least one student during field labour, but mostly the killers were preventable diseases such as scarlet fever, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and typhoid, abetted by a crowded building that incubated illness. “From time to time, sickness came,” wrote Reverend John Semmens in his journal. “It was sad beyond measure when we had to bury a pupil so far away from home and friends. Distress keen and trying was felt when in hours of extreme illness the dear children longed for their dusky mothers and their humble wigwam homes.” Of course, it was the reverend who had separated the children from their families in the first place.

A recruiter of students wrote to a Methodist leader in 1907 to say that parents in Manitoba had become “dumb to entreaties” to send their children to the Brandon school. The student deaths “completely knock the attempts re: Brandon … in the head. They just sit right down on a fellow. And one must shut up because there is at least a degree of justice on their side.”

Across Canada, thousands of students died at residential schools. It is hard to say with much precision how many, because of shoddy record keeping and unmarked graves, but the number is at least 4,400 and possibly many multiples of that. They died from disease, from malnutrition, from neglect.

As the years went on, more and more students from Waywayseecappo attended residential schools in the Manitoba towns of Brandon and Birtle, largely as a result of unrelenting pressure by zealous missionaries and Indian agents. In a characteristically patronizing report, a federal inspector noted in 1914, “Education now occupies a prominent place in their minds, and it is now the desire of the band that their children shall receive an education not inferior to the average education of the white child. Slowly the light of civilization is penetrating and the marks of progress are apparent.”

The United Church took over the Brandon school from the Methodists in 1925 and oversaw a major renovation to the main building, including adding a limestone trim to the facade. In 1930, the revamped school published a promotional pamphlet saying that its students were being trained “to become happy, successful, and useful citizens when they go out to take their place in life.” According to the then principal, Reverend J. A. Doyle, “a wholesome and balanced diet is being followed.”

1920s-era photo of Brandon Industrial School students as they receive agricultural training. 

Students and their concerned parents reported otherwise. In 1935, a mother with a child at the Brandon school wrote to the Department of Indian Affairs to report that students were so hungry that they were resorting to shoplifting in town stores. She accused the principal of “training the children to be thieves” by leaving them with no choice but “to steal to fill their empty [bodies].” A student who attended the school in the 1940s later detailed the experience he and hundreds of others endured: they ate food that was “prepared in the crudest of ways” and “served in very unsanitary conditions,” including “milk that had manure in the bottom of the cans and homemade porridge that had grasshopper legs and bird droppings in it.” The students also faced “cruel disciplinary measures … such as being tied to a flag pole, sent to bed with no food, literally beaten and slapped by staff.” Under these conditions, it is not surprising that so many students tried to escape.

A reliable gauge of student abuse at the Brandon school was the steady stream of runaways. In 1942, 12 children between the ages of 10 and 15 fled the school. The problem worsened when Reverend Oliver Strapp became principal in 1944. Previously, Strapp had been principal at a residential school in Ontario, where the year before he faced complaints of “improper conduct” with female students. There was no formal investigation, and the United Church shuttled him to Brandon. An Indian agent described Strapp as “an aggressive type” and a “strict disciplinarian.”­ Jim Cote, a former student from Waywayseecappo, recalls Strapp’s fondness for corporal punishment with a leather belt: “He certainly earned his name.”

There were so many runaways during Strapp’s time that the problem came to the attention of Tommy Douglas—preacher of gospel, pioneer of medicare, and premier of Saskatchewan. On September 23rd, 1946, Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers forcefully removed Clifford Shepherd, 13, and his sister Verna from a day school on the Moose Mountain Reserve, in Saskatchewan, against the wishes of their parents. The two children were transported 200 kilometres away to the Brandon residential school. A few days later, Premier Douglas sent a telegram to the federal minister of Indian affairs:

Clifford and Verna—children of John Shepherd of Moose Mountain Reserve at Carlyle—were forcibly removed from day school last Monday by RCMP and sent to Brandon Indian School … Father and members of band have protested arbitrary action … School principal and [Inspector of Indian agencies in Saskatchewan, J.B.P.] Ostrander refuse to take action to restore children to reserve although day school affords adequate accommodation and instruction … This matter requires your immediate attention, for which I thank you. (Capitalization and punctuation added.)

On October 9th, Clifford ran away from the school when students were let outside to play. Two days later, the RCMP tracked him down in the town of Redvers, Saskatchewan, 150 kilometres southwest of the school and most of the way home. He was taken into custody and dropped off at the Brandon school at 3:30am on October 12th.

Three weeks later, Clifford escaped again. This time, he made it all the way home, travelling most of the distance by stowing himself in a boxcar of a freight train. The RCMP eventually located him on his reserve. When apprehended, Clifford was wearing a tweed cap, an air-force jacket, and a grey-and-blue shirt with matching overalls. Once again, the officers drove him back to the Brandon school.

In early December, Clifford escaped a third time, along with two other boys from the same reserve, aged nine and 11. Principal Strapp himself set off in pursuit, driving his car along the highway headed west, asking farmers about errant children. Later that day, Strapp and RCMP officers found Clifford and the other two boys walking along the Canadian Pacific rail line, 12 kilometres west of the school, where they were “successfully apprehended,” according to an RCMP report. The boys were then driven back. “Just as we entered the school,” Strapp later wrote, “Clifford made an attempt to run away again and put up quite a fight.” During the struggle, Clifford managed to land a kick to Strapp’s groin—a fact that Strapp himself did not acknowledge, though an RCMP report did. “I was compelled,” Strapp said, “to use considerable force to remove him to the dormitory.” The principal pinned Clifford to a bed and sent another student to retrieve a strap.

After inflicting corporal punishment, Strapp asked Clifford to give his word that he would not attempt another escape. Clifford refused. Strapp then decided to lock Clifford into a room alone and without clothes. In the days that followed, Clifford remained in confinement, naked, with meals delivered at regular intervals. According to an RCMP report, Clifford “threatens openly that he will leave the minute his clothes are returned to him.”

Shortly thereafter, Tommy Douglas once again wrote to the minister of Indian affairs to demand that something be done to remedy the situation. Douglas had heard that “the boy, Clifford, has again run away from the Brandon Residential School and returned home by hitch hiking and on foot. I understand that he travelled through a severe blizzard and returned home ill-clothed and in a weakened condition.”

And Douglas had heard of others running away, too. “These incidents,” he wrote, “have caused grave concerns among the Indians of the district,” who worried that “the children in the Brandon Residential School are not properly cared for, that they do not receive sufficient supervision or training, and that the food is inadequate.” Douglas urged the minister to reconsider the possibility of “returning these children to their parents” and sending them to a nearby day school.

A copy of the premier’s letter found its way to Reverend G. Dorey of the United Church, which was then responsible for administering the school. The reverend joked to a colleague that if Premier Douglas accepted allegations of Indians “at their face value … all I can say is that he will have plenty to do looking after the Indians … without being able to give much time to his duties as Premier.”

On January 6th, 1947, Douglas wrote directly to Principal Strapp to emphasize that “neither [Clifford] nor his parents desire that he continue as a student of your school.” Douglas added, “I do think that it is improper to coerce a lad of fourteen years into remaining at your school by locking him in his room and depriving him of his clothing. I am certain you will agree with me on this score.”

Clifford was allowed to return home three weeks later. When questioned by the RCMP, Strapp blamed Clifford’s escapes on encouragement from the boy’s parents and relatives. As for the federal minister of Indian affairs, he assured Douglas that the school was well run and providing a “satisfactory” diet.

Of course, this wasn’t true—not then or long after.

Excerpted, with permission, from Valley of the Birdtail: An Indian Reserve, a White Town, and the Road to Reconciliation, by Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Douglas Sanderson. Published by HarperCollins (2022).

On Instagram @quillette