Maybe the Residential Schools Should Just Have Been Better?

Most of the attention on the subject of indigenous education in the last three decades has been on residential schools. But other aspects of this important topic have been ignored. […]

Most of the attention on the subject of indigenous education in the last three decades has been on residential schools.

But other aspects of this important topic have been ignored. Quite simply, the real tragedy of indigenous education is not that some indigenous people went to day schools or residential schools. The real tragedy is that most indigenous children received inferior educations or went to no school at all.

The Métis had it the worst.

The picture above is of ‘Rooster Town.’ That was the name given to the Métis settlement in what were then the southern outskirts of Winnipeg, Manitoba. I remember seeing Rooster Town as a boy in the 1950s.

Even at my young age I knew something was wrong. These squalid shacks did not look at all like the neat little bungalows in the suburb where I lived. It was the first time in my young life I saw what poverty looked like.

Most Rooster Town residents were squatters. They had no legal right to the land where they built their shacks. They were simply tolerated. Until the city needed the land for development, that is. Then, each family was given $75 and their shacks were bulldozed.

Yes, there were Métis who lived comfortable, middle class lives. But most were poor. And some, desperately so.

There were many of these desperately poor Métis settlements throughout the prairies, both on the outskirts of cities and in rural areas. Many of them were located on road allowances, where local towns tolerated Métis squatters — they needed the land for some other purpose. Then the Métis were told to move.

The thing is that most Métis children didn’t attend school, or attended only sporadically. One Alberta report estimated that in Alberta in the 1930s, more than 80% of Métis children were not enrolled in a school.

Métis were not eligible for either the day schools that existed on most Indian reserves, nor were they eligible for residential schools. Simply put, the federal government took responsibility only for status Indians, pursuant to Section 91(24) of The Constitution Act.

The federal government insisted that Métis, and other non-status Indians were the responsibility of the provinces. The provinces, for their part, mostly wanted to forget about the Métis. Sharp businessmen swindled them out of their scrip, and they were largely an invisible and forgotten people. 

Although some Métis did get into residential schools and day schools (often because some kindly priest or nun sneaked them in) most were kept out of the federally funded day and residential schools.

Sometimes Métis children who had been slipped into residential schools were actually expelled from the schools in midterm because an Indian Agent found out that Métis were in the school.

Because so few Métis were property owners, they also had great difficulty getting their children into public schools. To many hard nosed municipal politicians, the fact the Métis paid no taxes made their children ineligible for admission to their schools. This is explained in the riveting book, Half Breed, by Maria Campbell. 

The result was Métis children received either a very rudimentary education, or no education at all for most of the first hundred years after Confederation.

It wasn’t that much better for status Indians.

Although both day schools and residential schools were built for the education of status Indian children, few received the quality educations necessary to produce the doctors, engineers and other professionals that mainstream Canada was graduating. Even today, there are very few such indigenous professionals in Canada.

But most status Indian children didn’t even achieve basic literacy in the early years and they remained well behind the general population in educational achievement. They remain there today.

It is estimated 150,000 status Indian children attended residential schools and 200,000 attended day schools. However, even those numbers are misleading.

The 150,000 who attended residential schools stayed for an average of only 4.5 years and the 200,000 who attended day schools include those who attended very sporadically or even just on the first day of school. (A common practice on some reserves was to make sure all the children attended on the first day, so the government education grants for those children would be received. After that, it didn’t matter.)

However, even that total of 350,000 is a small percentage of the millions of indigenous people who have lived their lives in Canada since 1867. Most received either no education at all or inferior educations. 

For both status Indians and Métis this education deficit was aggravated by the fact that theirs were not “library” cultures.

Sitting and listening to a teacher in a school was alien to their cultures.

Most grew up in homes without books and with parents who were semi-literate at best. This inherent defect was exacerbated by unfortunate decisions made by indigenous leaders who put their own personal agendas ahead of needed education reforms. Chief Shawn Atleo’s ouster over his education reform package is a classic example of this shortsightedness. 

The result is indigenous educational achievement remains far behind the mainstream average. Indigenous doctors, engineers, mathematicians and scientists are depressingly few in number.

The attention today all seems to be on indigenous students who attended schools and had bad experiences. Those people have been properly compensated for the abuse they suffered and apologies have been made.

However, the real tragedy is so many indigenous children received inferior educations, or no education at all. Generations of indigenous people have remained stuck on the bottom rung of that socio-economic ladder as a result of that education deficit.

Wab Kinew was recently elected as Premier of Manitoba — the first indigenous person in Canada to be elected a provincial premier.

What got him there? One word: education.

That’s also the case with other successful indigenous leaders, such as Senator James Gladstone, Phil Fontaine and Jody Wilson-Raybould. Although it is sometimes argued standard education is “Euro-centric”, “colonialism”, or some form of genocide it is exactly that standard education that is, and always was, the key to success.

As former TRC Commissioner Murray Sinclair famously said, in relation to residential schools, “It is education that got us into this mess, and education that will get us out”.

It is ironic the last three decades have been consumed with apologizing and compensating those indigenous children who were fortunate enough to go to a school, when the real problem is that so many didn’t.

We spent the last few decades compensating people for past grievances. Now we should focus on providing good educations to everyone.


Brian Giesbrecht is a retired Manitoba Provincial Court Judge. First published here.

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