Chapter 1: Assimilation
Reclaiming History: The Residential School System in Canada
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Since their first arrival in the "new world" of North America, a number of religious entities began the project of converting Aboriginal Peoples to Christianity. This undertaking grew in structure and purpose, especially between 1831 and 1969, when the governing officials of early Canada joined with Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, United, and Presbyterian churches to create and operate the residential school system. This partnership came to an end when the federal government took over sole management of the schools, and then began transferring the control of First Nations education to Indian bands. The last federally-run residential school, Gordon Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, closed in 1996.
One common objective defined this period: the aggressive assimilation of Aboriginal peoples.
Aboriginal education had long been a priority for both Aboriginal and British (and later Canadian) leaders and governments. However, the political and economic changes brought about by events in the nineteenth century soon made it a critical one. Astutely realizing the long-term impact of these changes on their traditional lives and cultures, a number of Aboriginal leaders engaged in negotiations with religious orders and government officials to create an equitable education system for all.
First Nations leaders in Upper Canada like Ojibwa Leaders Peter Jones and John Sunday, for example, worked with Methodist missionaries and churches to enable Aboriginal people to succeed in a changing world: together, they raised funds to build schools and to hire Euro-Canadian teachers who would provide formal education, as well as training in farming and skilled trades for Aboriginal children. Both sides were to profit from this partnership: First Nations communities would have access to an education that they believed would give their children a chance to participate in mainstream society on equal terms. And the schools would give the missionaries a means to teach Christian doctrine.
Jones and Sunday were not alone. Anishnaabe Leader Chief Shingwauk, also advocated for education of Aboriginal children, but an education that combined both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal teachings. In collaboration with the government and the Anglican Church, Shingwauk implemented "teaching wigwams." With the help of his sons, who were hereditary chiefs, these schools continued to operate after his death in 1854, and into the early twentieth century.