They Stripped Us of Our Clothes and Assigned Us a Number

Photograph Source: John Woodruff – Public Domain

Scholarship on Indigenous affairs is sophisticated, contentious and radically revisionary. And Canadians, myself included, have not yet faced up to the fundamental meaning of the Canadian government (supported by the churches)’s all-out assault on Indigenous cultures, beliefs, values, language and forms of knowing.

How can one begin to excavate the horrors of a radical resocialization project (from roughly 1876 to 1986) to transform “savages” into “civilized” citizens? In turning First Nations societies upside down, the government and the churches ended up turning themselves upside down, evident in the spiritual and moral degradation of themselves and students under their care.

As I read A Knock on the Door: the Essential History of Residential Schools from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2016), I scribbled down phrases that jumped out at me. Here are words from some Indigenous children.

“There’s a whole plane crying.”

“We all gathered in a corner, meaning that we came together, and there we cried. Our nights were like that.”

“I could see my hair falling.”

“They took off my clothes and they deloused me.”

“I was taken to a strange land.”

“How will I make people understand what I am saying?”

“They stripped us of our clothes and moccasins and they were thrown in the garbage.”

“I was assigned a number.”

“We walked with the numbers on us.”

“Every day was, you were in constant fear that, your hope was that it wasn’t you today that was going to be the target, the victim.”

“I learned how to fear, how to be so fearful as six years old. It was instilled in me.”

“Children tried to weep silently.”

“You started crying, nobody comforted you.”

“No hugs, nothing, no comfort.”

“School taught us not to trust anyone.”

“We were fed a substandard diet and given a substandard education and worked too hard.”

“The discipline was harsh and unregulated.”

“Mary John said she could speak her own language only in whispers.”

“The priests ate the apples, we ate the peelings. That is what they fed us. We never ate bread. They were stingy then, their own, their own baking.”

A knock on the door contains many shocking comments from TRC writers. Here are but a few.

“The harsh discipline and jail-like nature of life in the schools meant that many students sought to run away. To prevent this, many schools deliberately ignored government institutions in relation to fire drills and fire escapes”

“The extent of the health crisis was so severe that some people within the federal government and Protestant churches became convinced that the only solution was to close the schools and replace them with day schools.”

“As late as 1958, Indian Affairs refused to return the body of a boy who had died at a hospital in Edmonton to his northern home community in the Yukon.”

The boys at Anglican schools were “chained together for running away.”

“Many students compared residential schools to jails; some spoke of being locked up in dorms, broom closets, basements, and even crawl spaces.”

“The door had been opened early to an appalling level of physical and sexual abuse of students, and it remained open throughout the existence of the system.”

“Many students spoke of having being raped at school.”

“It was not uncommon for the parents of an entire community or region to refuse to send their children to school.”

Many Native children tried to run away from their schools. At least 33 students died due to exposure. The most poignant case was that of Duncan Sticks, photographed with other boys out cutting wood, seated on giant logs around 1902. John Milloy reported (in A National Crime: the Canadian government and the residential school system, 1879 to 1986) that at dusk on February 10, 1902 Johnny Sticks found the body of his eight-year old son, Duncan, dead from exposure.

He had fled from the Williams Lake, BC Industrial School. He lay, so his father reported, “75 yards off the road in the snow—he was quite dead, but not frozen. There were marks of blood on his nose and forehead. His face was partially eaten. Sticks took him home on a sleigh. The school had not notified him that Duncan had run off.

Duncan Sticks deserves to live in our consciousness as a symbol of so many missing Indigenous children, men and women. To this very day Native people cry out at vigils or demonstrations about those sixteen to forty women who disappeared along the Highway of Tears, a 720 km. corridor of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert, beginning in 1970. There are many others, too many. Their ghosts will continue to haunt us for a long time coming.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.