October 14, 1994 Halifax Herald

School a government tool to destroy native cultures

When Indian Affairs opened the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in 1930, it was envisioned by them that it would prove to be an invaluable tool in their ongoing struggle to deliver the coup de grace to Micmac and Maliseet cultures. For instance, a cardinal offense for its students was to be caught uttering one word in either indigenous tongue.

How serious the Department of Indian Affairs took its goal of eradicating both cultures is witnessed by the information given in a well researched article about the operations of the School by Marilyn Millwood, called "Clean Behind the Ears." She writes that the Halifax-Chronicle reported the Department's goal for the school thus: "their object and desire in opening the new school was that its graduates should become self-supporting and not return to their old environment and habits."

Another sad item from the same source highlights the cruelties the children suffered: A boy, who by accident, had put too much salt on his porridge, was forced by a Nun to eat it: "Eat it" (she said.) So he finally took his spoon and took a mouthful of the stuff. It didn't stay down long. It came back up into his bowl. So she whacked him in back of the head and said, "I told you to eat it!" So he started to cry, took the spoon and tried to eat some more, and that came back up. About the third time, he fainted. Instead of picking him up off the floor...she picked him up by the neck and threw him out to the centre aisle..."

I can attest to the authenticity of the before-mentioned. Two of my older brothers and a first cousin attending the school during this period related for us, in more intimate detail, this incident and many others. The school was such a scary place in many of our minds that parents were able to use the threat of sending us there to extract good behaviour.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the racist manner in which these schools were operated is to simply relate another incident that Ms. Millwood reports - witnessed by the hand of the priest himself:

"A former pupil of the school retained a lawyer in an attempt to keep his younger siblings from being returned to the school following their summer vacation in 1936. The lawyer contacted the agent, saying the complainant had related "A very hard story of the treatment young Indian children receive there. It would appear that his own experience has been so hard that he dreads very much the idea of going back there and, naturally, feels it hard to see his younger brother and sister taken there, where they will receive similar treatment."

“The agent did not believe there were grounds for complaint, but forwarded the lawyer’s letter to the school principal who, in his written reply to the agent, seemed quite unsettled by it. "To let them get away with their lies doesn't seem the right thing to do - to keep them from spreading falsehoods, about those who try to do something for them, seems hopeless. And why white people fall for such stories is hard to explain. For myself, I never hope to catch up with him and his lies. . .I think the best thing to do is write to the Department and, since we have a full school, request a few more beds and insist upon them coming back. I am getting a bit tired of playing square with the Indian and in turn have him cut my throat.’

“He added that the lawyer didn't understand the regulations, which called for one-half day in the classroom and the other half in labour, and recalled that the former pupil who had hired him was merely ‘a big body with the mind of a ten year-old child...To play a game of baseball was work for him; he would rather sit in the sun and pester a bumble-bee or a fly, by pulling off one wing and one leg at a time. To make an Indian work is the unpardonable sin among them."

The principal called the allegations of hard treatment "ridiculous," and could not understand how a lawyer could be "duped by an Indian." The Department decided not to insist upon the return of the children, but also denied any financial aid that would allow them to pursue an education elsewhere."

The racist statements made by this priest demonstrate just what First Nation peoples were up against in trying to acquire an education and civil rights in a society which provided them the bare minimum. Throughout the Department's history, the cutting off of financial aid was used liberally by it to force compliance with its wishes.

Next, the failed attempt to centralize Nova Scotia's Micmac.

Daniel N. Paul


Home   Column Index 1994   Web Site Map