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Indigenous Women’s Resistance: From Residential Schools to Idle No More

Abbie Bakan

January 5, 2013

Idle No More emerges from a long period of resistance in indigenous communities. One of its central features is the strong role of women leaders – like the four women who initiated the campaign and Chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation in Canada, Theresa Spence. It is not coincidental that Spence is a survivor of the residential school system.
The movement has galvanized attention to the continuing oppression of indigenous peoples in Canada and internationally. But for indigenous communities, this is not a new story.
In an affidavit dated January 14, 2012, Spence addressed a case before the federal court between the Attawapiskat First Nation and the Canadian government, as represented by the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. The case is in regard to government control of reserve housing through third part management.
Spence’s words deserve quotation:
“I attended a residential school as a child. Most of the adults in our community over the age of 35 also attended residential school.…Our community and families were threatened with charges, imprisonment, and the withholding of funding if children were not surrendered to Canada to attend the schools. The rationale used by Canada…was that our families and community were incapable of caring for us and educating us adequately….Canada promised our families and community that we would be well taken care of and educated at the schools. We were not cared for….Moreover, many, perhaps most, of our members who attended residential school were physically, sexually and emotionally abused while in the care of Canada. Residential schools are one of many direct and catastrophic experiences that have taught the First Nation and its members that it is not safe to surrender our autonomy and decision-making to Canada.”
The tragedy of Canada’s residential school system is now well documented, thanks to the insistence of indigenous survivors. The extensive network of boarding schools for indigenous children involved Christian denominational churches and the federal government in a complex program of forced assimilation.
John S. Milloy’s important book, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879-1986, retells the shameful history. This study is based on Milloy’s research associated with the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
Late Victorian British settlers approached indigenous peoples with the aim of “civilizing” those who were considered “savage”. According to Deputy Superintendent Duncan Campbell Scott, in charge of the Department of Indian Affairs between 1913 and 1932, education was “the most complicated Indian problem”. As Milloy summarizes:
“In the vision of residential school education, discipline was curriculum and punishment was pedagogy. Both were agents of civilization; they were indispensable to the ‘circle of civilized conditions’ where the struggle to move children across the cultural divide would play itself out in each school situation, child by child, teacher by teacher.”
The residential schools were preceded by day schools. An example is the High River school, in High River, Alberta, 37 kilometres south of Calgary. The school was opened in 1884, directed by missionary Father Lacombe with support of the Catholic Church and the Canadian state.
This was the same year that Frederick Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State was published. The experience of egalitarian gender relations among the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) of upstate New York inspired the work of American settler Lewis Henry Morgan. He documented an alternative to the stifling oppressive sexual practices that characterized Victorian England. This was the experience that animated Marx’s notes on Morgan’s work, and provided the basis of Engels’ Origin.
It was also the experience that the residential school system was consciously designed to destroy in indigenous children. Lacombe insisted that day schools were ineffective, as children went home to what was considered the “permissive” culture of their parents.
When good weather came, almost all of the school’s 25 pupils stopped attending. Candy and toys failed to lure them back. The children suffered, according to Lacombe, from being too “proud and set in their Indian ways”.
Compulsory residence was the solution. This went along with a regime, as Lacombe advised, of “coercion to enforce order and obedience.” Harsh repression was considered a necessary counter-measure to the influence of indigenous parents.
There was also concern to ensure against “retrogression” upon graduation. Boys and girls were strictly trained according to western gender norms. The 1887 Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Lawrence Vankoughnet, advised then Prime Minister John A. Macdonald that residential schools were a “good investment” in Canada’s future. As Milloy aptly summarizes:
“It was their goal after all to produce not only civilized young men integrated into the non-Aboriginal labour force, but civilized families. In the Victorian view, women were the centre of that most important institution, and motherhood was the most formative socializing element.”
The residential schools were literally intended to break the influence of the powerful women of Canada’s First Nations and destroy the teachings of generations.
This oppressive relationship continues in the current conditions of the Canadian state. And the ongoing resistance of the powerful women of Canada’s First Nations is rising in the Idle No More movement. Like Engels in 1884, socialists today still have much to learn.

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