A Visit to Ottawa

September 20, 2010

Indian Residential School students holding up letters spelling "goodbye" at the Fort Simpson School in the Northwest Territories, 1922. Credit: J.F. Moran / Library and Archives Canada / PA-102575

I’ve posted in the past about visiting various archives, and it never ceases to amaze me the stacks and stacks of information held within their walls. You can start your search in one place, looking for one thread of information and the trail takes you somewhere completely different. My trip to the National Archives in Ottawa was no different. Mostly, I was looking for particular photos from particular residential schools, and I saw many photographs that were striking (including the one above, which can also be found online through the archive’s website).

I also found a whole stack of letters sent from the schools to the administrators regarding the upkeep of the schools, payment to staff, ledgers of staff and students. These documents track some of the mundane and everyday aspects involved in running the schools, revealing the ways in which policies affecting the schools took shape. For example, many of the letters I sifted through (generally from the 1940s and 1950s) discussed the need for manual training for the students. The focus was not on reading, writing or math, but on the training of a low-income work force. The documents included the lists of chores (including the repairing of furniture and fixing broken windows) undertaken by the young students and included letters expressing concern and dismay at the poor conditions in which the students resided. For example:

Letter extract from Dr. P.E. Moore, Director of Indian Health Services, on his visit to Chemawawin Indian Day School – Letter dated 15, September 1947:

“When I see these buildings I am not at all proud of our Department. We should set an example and we are certainly not doing it here. However, any comments I shall make are purely from a health angle. There has been a lot of rain recently and I discovered that the ration house leaks in places, the plaster has fallen away from between the logs which must allow both rain and snow to penetrate. At one corner the logs are so rotted that the dogs had dug a hole large enough for them to enter and steal some of the bacon. The man has repaired this opening temporarily with tin and stones. One would have to have a powerful imagination to see anything sanitary about this place.”

6 Responses to “A Visit to Ottawa”

  1. Many shameful things have happened to aboriginal people at residential schools but almost nobody comments on what disabled folks such as I suffered at institutions like Jericho Hill School for the Deaf and Blind in Vancouver, B.C. I was exiled 500 miles from my home for months at a time, beginning when I was 7. Though the place was better than native residential institutions, we lacked the most basic human need: being at home with our families. Thanks to enlightened educators who believed blind children should be integrated into the public school system, blind and visually impared kids no longer need to be shipped off as I was. I wish more people would take note of what we suffered.

  2. Mitchell Says:

    Ledgers!? I’d imagine in the right hands… that they could serve as platform for phenomenally interesting analyses.

    Any idea for whom these ledgers were tracked? Who administered them? And, for whose attention?

  3. Thank you for the comments.
    Bruce, thank you for raising this issue. You are absolutely right. More attention should be brought to the abuse that disabled children have suffered. Often it is those children who are least able to protect themselves who suffer the most. If you know of any resources available that will shed light on this, please feel free to post about them.

    Mitchell, yes – the ledgers could provide an excellent starting point for some great research. As far as I know, some authors who have written about the residential schools have used these types of sources. It seems they were kept by the government departments that were involved in administering the schools.

  4. I’ve watched a documentary in Google Video about such atrocities happening in residential schools. It’s really disgusting but Bruce’s case is also very interesting. Who would have thought that in 2010 such conditions exists and is prevailing in a country like Canada?

  5. I wrote about the time I spent in Jericho Hill School in a memoir called Deliverance from Jericho (Six Years in a Blind School) and in doing research for the book, I discovered quite a few books written by alumni of such institutions. One was called Beyond Jericho by Isabel Beveridge. That school was really pathetic in the nineteen-thirties but even in my time, we were treated more like problems to be dealt with than children. I post excerpts from my book at http://www.Bruceatchison.blogspot.com and http://www.bruceatchison.wordpress.com so people can find out what we went through before integration.

  6. Thanks for posting more information, Bruce.
    All the best,

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